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Sure Start

Volume 792: debated on Thursday 12 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many Sure Start centres have closed in the last two years; and what plans they have to maintain the benefits of Sure Start in improving the life chances of young people.

My Lords, based on information supplied by local authorities, 142 children’s centres closed between 1 July 2016 and 30 June 2018. However, we will be spending a record £6 billion a year on childcare support by 2019-20. Since 2013, nearly 750,000 disadvantaged two year-olds have benefited from free early-years education. We have recently announced new actions to tackle the word gap. Our aim is to improve outcomes in early years, and children’s centres play their part in this vital area.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that over 1,000 centres have closed since 2009? The Government have stated their commitment to social mobility, but social mobility begins in the early years. Is he aware that centres such as Sure Start centres have been evaluated very positively in relation to family stability and child development, which all contribute to future social mobility? Is he also aware that the level of inspections of those centres has gone down dramatically? Hundreds of these centres have not been inspected over five years. That is appalling. Are the Government really committed to early years education, given what is happening to it?

My Lords, there are a couple of questions there. First, I confirm that the Government are very committed to early years education, and we have made a great commitment to it over the last seven or eight years. We know that centres with more evidence-based programmes are better at improving outcomes, and multiagency working gives beneficial results for children and families. That has informed our £10 million investment in What Works fund and our £8.5 million peer support programme. It is up to local authorities to decide which options to use.

On inspections, it was accepted several years ago that the process was not fit for purpose. To reassure the noble Baroness, however, services delivered through children’s services centres are covered by other regulatory frameworks, and local authorities must ensure that services provided in the centres have the approved safeguards. Where there are specific safeguarding concerns, HMCI still has the power to inspect any children’s centre, and the Secretary of State has the power to direct HMCI to inspect any centre.

My Lords, to quote the Minister, we want to improve the outcome in early years. Taking the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, made, how on earth can you improve the outcome in early years, in children’s centres, if you have scrapped inspections—1,000 have not been inspected for five years, and Ofsted have not had any inspections for three years—and abandoned the consultation you promised in 2015 in favour of a peer review? How can you improve outcomes when this is your response?

My Lords, these are important questions, and I respect the noble Lord for his knowledge on this subject. We have adopted a different approach to early years. We have an ecosystem of support for early years; we have the children’s centres, the Sure Start centres, family hubs and the two year-old and three and four year-old offers. We are seeing progress in those areas. For example, in the two year-old offer, 72% of disadvantaged children are now benefiting from up to 15 hours of free early education, and there are nearly 23,000 providers offering funded places for two year-olds, an increase of almost 8,500 providers since 2014.

My Lords, I am sure noble Lords agree that the Sure Start centres have provided a great opportunity for assessment and for remedial and preventive work with families going through periods of considerable stress. Without those centres, the downward spiral into crisis will not be reversed. Does the Minister agree that there is probably an association between the closure of these centres and the large increase in children coming into public care?

My Lords, no, I cannot accept that correlation. As I mentioned, we have created an ecosystem of support for young children. I mentioned the two year-old offer a moment ago, but we also have a three year-old and four year-old offer of 15 hours’ free childcare a week, which is worth £2,500 in childcare costs to parents. In September 2017, we doubled free childcare for working parents. On the effectiveness of Sure Start centres, while I accept that they have made a valuable contribution, the Audit Commission carried out an in-depth assessment in 2010—I use that relatively old date because it was what I might call “unadulterated” to the specification of the last Government. That report stated:

“Between 1998/99 and 2010/11 we estimate that £10.9 billion (including £7.2 billion for Sure Start, which had dedicated funding for health improvements in the early phase of roll-out) will have been invested in programmes aimed in whole, or in part, at improving the health of the under-fives, but this has not produced widespread improvements in health outcomes. Some health indicators have indeed worsened—for example, obesity and dental health—and the health inequalities gap between rich and poor has barely changed”.

If we look at the impact we are making—

My Lords, the Minister mentioned family hubs. Several councils have preserved their children’s centres by turning them into family hubs where families of older children aged from nought to 19 can also receive support, thereby integrating and improving help for more families. Beyond the early years social mobility peer review fund, which is focused on improving early language outcomes, what support are the Government providing to local authorities to encourage the development of family hubs?

My Lords, we should all acknowledge the great work that my noble friend Lord Farmer is doing on families and on raising awareness across government. We have announced the Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential fund, which will help local authorities develop strategies to improve outcomes in early years, including through the effective use of children’s centres. Family hubs are part of that. We will be looking to ensure that these innovations are recognised and shared, and we want to spread these successful approaches. We know that a number of local authorities are already moving towards this model of support for children and families, but it is up to them to decide how to organise and commission services.

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister understands that there is a real crisis in early intervention. Early intervention is the only way that we will deal with those very severe problems that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, talked about and the whole way in which young people are getting into gangs and not being enabled to live the life that we think they ought to live. Early intervention was beginning to work by using evidence-based programmes, such as Sure Start, and evidence-based parenting programmes. This Government have abandoned much of it, I think for ideological reasons as it was started under the previous Labour Government. It is shameful.

I can only respectfully disagree with the noble Baroness. We have made a huge commitment to this phase of children’s education. Since 2013, nearly 750,000 of the country’s most disadvantaged two year-olds have benefited from our 15 hours’ free education, backed by more than £2 billion of public investment.

Following up on the previous question, is the Minister aware that yesterday, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children published a report showing that many local authorities are unable to afford the early intervention programmes that have just been mentioned and are so effective? The result is that a lot of children in some parts of the country are not getting the services that they would with the same level of need in another part of the country. Many children and families in that situation are going into a downward spiral and getting to the point where they need much more invasive intervention—even taking the child into care. It is cheaper and more effective to intervene early, so will the Minister have a look at the 12 recommendations of that report? They have the evidence, and the Government ought to act on it.

I thank the noble Baroness for bringing the report to my attention; I will certainly look at it. It is worth saying that although there has been a reduction in Sure Start centres, the proportion of centres serving the 30% most disadvantaged areas has remained constant, so the focus on disadvantaged areas has remained.