My Lords, since 2013, 214 children’s centres have closed, and from 2010, 705 additional sites have opened. Any closures come from local authorities merging centres to allow services to be delivered more efficiently. What matters most is not the number of buildings but how families benefit from services, and a record number of more than 1 million parents are doing so. The department does not collect information on the number of anticipated closures but expects local authorities to ensure that they meet the needs of local families. This week we will announce a consultation on how we can maximise the impact of children’s centres to ensure that they continue to help the families most in need.
I thank the Minister for that response and welcome the consultation, but I am sure that he would agree that it is not just the number of parents and children attending that matters but the depth and breadth of the quality of children’s centres, which is falling, as are the numbers being opened. Is he aware of a recent report by the National Children’s Bureau and the Child Poverty Action Group on children’s centres, which said that the early intervention grant to local authorities has dropped by 55% since 2010? Can he assure me that the Government are still keen to support parents and children?
I am aware of the report that the noble Baroness refers to. The overall pot for early intervention has grown to £2.5 billion, and we give councils the freedom to use their funds in the way that will best meet the needs of their community. I was delighted to see that the report referred to by the noble Baroness recommends that local authorities should share effective approaches, because it is about innovation. We have seen quite a lot of that around the country. Staffordshire, for instance, has introduced family hubs; Hertfordshire has introduced Family Matters meetings; in Islington they have a First 21 Months programme, which improves communication between children’s centres, GPs, midwives and health visitors; and in Newcastle they have introduced community family hubs.
The Minister will be aware of the evaluation of children’s centres being carried out by his own department and Oxford University. That report has shown that the most valued services after play and learning are those related to health—health visitors, midwives and clinics. Is it possible for him to talk to his colleague Minister about how he can ensure that these much-needed services are provided in the most disadvantaged areas so that it will not be as much of a lottery as to whether they are there or not?
My noble friend Lord Prior has already given an excellent answer in which he mentioned the 10% increase in midwives and the 4,000 increase in health visitors. Of course, from September of this year public health commissioning for children under five will go to local authorities; I am sure that that will help the matter.
My Lords, the Minister rightly stressed the role of children’s centres in dealing with the special needs of families and children. Will the same principle of targeting inform the Government’s plans for rolling out the extra 15 free hours of childcare?
My Lords, every farmer in the House will know the phrase, “Do not eat the seed-corn”. If you do, you will survive this year, but next year you will starve, because nothing new has been planted. That is just what the Government are doing by cutting funding to children’s centres: they are eating the seed-corn. For short-term financial gain they are storing up problems for the future. The closure of children’s centres is a malign act and, frankly, very stupid. Therefore—patience, patience; the noble Lord’s time will come—can the Minister say whether the Government will accept that investing in our children’s future by funding children’s centres should be a national policy objective, not left to the whims and vagaries of local councils, many of which have huge financial budgetary problems?
I accept the importance of the matter, and I was delighted to see the ECCE survey, which showed that 98% of parents were “happy” or “very happy” with the services provided by their children’s centre. I know that the Labour Party likes to hark back to a golden age of Sure Start, but in 2009 the National Audit Office reported that children’s centres then were failing to reduce inequality and many were unviable, and Ofsted reported at the same time that half were not reaching out to vulnerable families. It is essential that we reach out to vulnerable families and that the facilities are tailored in the most flexible way to reach the families who need them.
Of course I empathise with the practical challenges that such families face. Housing authorities and children’s services work together locally to ensure that the needs of children in homeless families are met. This should include the role that local children’s centres can play in supporting such families. The Housing Act places a duty on authorities to co-operate with social services in situations where children may be made homeless intentionally or may be threatened with being made homeless intentionally.
My Lords, what arrangements have the Government made for regular reporting back by local authorities about the provision of children’s centres? At the moment there seem to be no national arrangements made by government for reporting back on what is provided.