Sure Start Children’s Centres
Opposition Day — [15th Allotted Day]
12:47 pm

Photo of Andy Burnham

Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

I beg to move,

That this House
believes that improving the life chances of children and young people from all backgrounds should be central to Government policy;
recognises that the Sure Start network of 3,600 Children’s Centres, introduced by the previous administration, is crucial in delivering high quality early education and early intervention for children, as well as support, advice and specialist services for parents and carers;
notes that the funding to local authorities for the Early Intervention Grant in 2011-12 represents a real terms cut of 22.4 per cent. nationally, compared to the 2010-11 allocations before in-year cuts to area based grants;
recognises that, in the context of this cut to early intervention funding, the large, front-loaded cuts to other local authority funding streams, and the removal of the ring-fence around Sure Start funding, Sure Start Children’s Centres will inevitably be put at risk;
notes that before the General Election the Prime Minister promised to protect and strengthen Sure Start;
and therefore calls on the Government to protect the Sure Start network of Children’s Centres by thinking again about their deep cuts to Sure Start funding, to monitor the evidence and, if local authorities are choosing to disinvest in Sure Start centres, to commit to reinstating the ring-fence for Sure Start funding to ensure that vital and valued services are not lost.

How tempting it might be to continue the discussion that just took place. The record of the Department in answering parliamentary questions and letters is pretty lamentable: 90% of named day PQs are not answered on time. That gives a glimpse of the chaos that reigns in the Secretary of State’s Department. But I note your ruling, Mr Speaker, that the matter is closed for now, so we will turn to Sure Start.

It is not always the case that policies debated and voted on in the House become universally accepted as a good thing in the country at large, but occasionally, between us, we get it right. Every now and again an idea comes along that is right for its time, addresses a real need, makes life better for many people and slowly becomes part of our national fabric. It acquires a broad appeal across the Benches of the House and its longevity becomes secured. Sure Start, it seems, is in that rare category of policies.

Last year, a survey by the Institute for Government considered the most successful policies of the past 30 years. Sure Start was judged to be the fifth most successful, beaten only by the national minimum wage, devolution, privatisation and the Northern Ireland peace process. Such a commendation for a flagship policy of the last Labour Government gives rise to a deep sense of pride among Labour Members today, but we are realists too. We know that other Labour achievements, such as the national health service, the Open university and the national minimum wage, will endure only if we convince all parts of the House that they are right.

It did not go unnoticed just over a year ago when the then Leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister, gave this pre-election manifesto statement to the National Childbirth Trust:

“We are strongly committed to Sure Start Children’s Centres and will strengthen this service”—

a clear promise to parents when the Prime Minister sought their votes. We have called this debate today to hold him and his Government to account for it.

This is not our first recent opportunity to discuss Sure Start. Seven weeks ago, the House had an excellent debate about the subject, but back then councils were still setting budgets and making choices. Today, we are in a much better position to make sense of the emerging picture on the ground, and we can judge the oft-repeated claim from the Secretary of State and his Ministers that they have given councils enough funding to keep all Sure Start centres open and, in the words of the Secretary of State at the most recent Education questions in an answer to my hon. Friend Luciana Berger, that they have given them

“sufficient to guarantee every child a high-quality place.”—[Hansard, 21 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 697.]

Today, we can test the claim made by Ministers from the Dispatch Box that councils have enough money to do both. Does the claim hold water?

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Robert Halfon (Harlow, Conservative)

Is the right hon. Gentleman not pleased to know that in Harlow all the Sure Start centres remain open and are as strong as ever? Given that councils throughout the country have £10 billion in reserves, should they not use some of that money to strengthen their Sure Start centres?

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

I certainly say, “Good old Harlow”. The hon. Gentleman sits on a very fine inheritance from Labour in that constituency, and I trust that he will look after it well. Indeed, he follows a very distinguished former Member.

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Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey, Conservative)

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman does not consider Kent to be a bastion of Labour support, but all the children’s centres in the county are being kept open.

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

We will judge a week on Thursday whether Kent can return much Labour support, and we look forward to that judgment, but again I pay tribute to those local authorities that in difficult circumstances are doing their best to keep the Sure Start infrastructure intact. They deserve credit for that, because they are making some difficult decisions, and later I will go through some local authorities and list those examples that the House will be interested to hear.

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Karen Buck (Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions); Westminster North, Labour)

Westminster council is also seeking not to lock the doors of its 12 children’s centres, but it is achieving that by implementing an 18% cut in funding through reduced outreach services and reduced services for child development, and by ensuring that smaller centres no longer provide any help for families seeking employment. How does that fit with the Government’s objective of getting mothers back into employment?

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I look over her local authority’s border into Hammersmith and Fulham, where even more worrying steps are being taken, steps that my hon. Friend Mr Slaughter has skilfully exposed. I will come to those issues later, because there is a real issue about whether, in keeping open a centre,

the service to parents in local authorities throughout the country is being destroyed. That is the key issue for the House to consider.

Let me, however, give the Government credit where credit is due—most unlike me, but here we go: they have certainly talked a good game on early intervention. To show just how committed they were to the issue, they commissioned not one but two distinguished Opposition Members to advise them on it, and the Field review—I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend Mr Field in his place—and the Allen report found common ground.

First, each report sets out a persuasive case for investing public resources heavily in the early years of a child’s life. They argue that doing so will help us to tackle the root causes of poverty and to build true social mobility in Britain. Only that will challenge a society where, in the words of my right hon. Friend,

“at the age of three but certainly by five, the die of life is set for most children.”—[Hansard, 2 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 320.]

We all must seek to work together to challenge such a world.

Secondly, their recommendations are based on the assumption that the existing 3,600 Sure Start children’s centres throughout the country, one to serve every community, should be the essential infrastructure—indeed, the delivery system—if the vision of high quality early intervention is to become a reality. That is the key question that we need to consider today.

The departmental Select Committee in the previous Parliament found that Sure Start had begun to make an appreciable difference to children’s lives. It stated:

“Parents in Sure Start areas relative to those in non-Sure Start areas reported using more child and family-related services…and their children were socially more competent. These results seem to show that programmes are becoming more effective over time, particularly in their work with the most disadvantaged, and that children are feeling the benefit of longer exposure to the programmes.”

That is a ringing endorsement.

In essence, Sure Start built into the early years universal comprehensive education. Its strength is that it brings together parents, of all backgrounds, who may not have known each other before. Instead of providing only state support, Sure Start, by bringing those people together, helped them to create self-sustaining support networks in the community, through one parent working with another, and in that way it gave all young parents the extra support that they need. That is a fundamental strength of Sure Start, and it must not be lost.

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Andrew Gwynne (Shadow Minister (Transport); Denton and Reddish, Labour)

My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that Labour-controlled Tameside council has committed to keeping open all its children’s centres, despite a tough financial settlement, but did not the Conservative spokesperson on children and families let the cat out of the bag on the front page of the Tameside Advertiser this week, when she said that Sure Start should not be a universal provision serving every community?

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

That absolutely does let the cat out of the bag, and I am about to go through some examples of Conservative spokespeople in local government who do not seem to have read the Prime Minister’s words before the election last year.

I congratulate Tameside council, however, because it has dealt with a disproportionately larger cut to its early intervention grant than other authorities in Greater Manchester—Trafford, to name but one, which Government Front Benchers routinely mention. In Tameside, for every young person aged under 20 years old there has been a £70 per child cut in the early intervention grant.

The council is working in those circumstances to keep the network of Sure Start centres open, and that is why I congratulate Tameside, and I hope my hon. Friend will take my congratulations back to his friends. Owing to all the benefits that I have described, it is not surprising that the Field review concludes:

Local Authorities should aim to make Children’s Centres a hub of the local community”.

My right hon. Friend describes them as a “targeted universal service”.

Two authoritative reports delivered to the Government advocate the importance of children’s centres, but now we get to the heart of the matter. We will soon discover whether the Government really wanted to hear the views of my esteemed friends on that crucial subject, or whether they were brought in for presentational reasons—as a piece of theatre to send a desirable political message.

To be fair to the Prime Minister, I remember well how about a year ago, during the election campaign, some Labour Members doubted the sincerity of his commitments to Sure Start. I looked back to what he said, however, because I remembered it from the television debates, and on 5 May 2010, on the very eve of the general election, readers of The Independent sent in questions to the then Leader of the Opposition. A questioner asked:

“As a parent who relies heavily on Sure Start centres for the educational and social needs of my child, I would like to know whether these centres will continue to receive funding.”

The Prime Minister replied:

“Yes, we back Sure Start. It’s a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this. He’s the Prime Minister of this country but he’s been scaring people about something that really matters.”

That is what the Prime Minister said last May. In some ways, his anger was reassuring because it looked as if the Government-to-be were genuinely committed. I wonder how the Prime Minister feels today, given that it has turned out that those things that, as he said, “really matter” are under serious threat.

Evidence is emerging of widespread disinvestment by local authorities in Sure Start children’s centres. That seriously challenges the deliverability of the vision set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead.

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Henry Smith (Crawley, Conservative)

I am happy to join the cavalcade of other Conservative authorities that have already been mentioned; in West Sussex, no Sure Start centres are closing. Indeed, there is a greater desire to improve the services for early years. Surely that is at odds with what the right hon. Gentleman is saying.

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

It is a mixed picture. We will get to the bottom of the true picture on the ground as we get into the debate today. If Conservative local authorities are not just keeping the centres open, but protecting the

services within them, I will of course recognise that that is what we want and what the Government said they would do. If that is the case, then good. But other Conservative-controlled authorities are not doing that. My question back to the hon. Gentleman is: what are he and his Front-Bench colleagues saying to Conservative authorities that are disinvesting from Sure Start and siphoning the money out? I look forward to an equally fulsome answer on that question.

If the Government accept the vision in the review that they commissioned my right hon. Friend to produce, I put it to the House that it must urgently consider what is happening on the ground and ask the Government to change course to preserve the network of children’s centres and services. As I will show today, children’s centres are closing right here, right now. Highly trained staff are being made redundant. Some children’s centres are keeping the lights on, but no more. That is the reality on the ground that the Prime Minister must urgently confront.

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Bill Esterson (Sefton Central, Labour)

I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to what is going on in Sefton. The council faces 30% cuts in its budget and it has had to review all 19 of its Sure Start centres. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has made that decision, which emphasises my right hon. Friend’s point about the cuts being made by Conservative-run or led authorities. Families in Sefton are clear that they need the entire network. It is essential for people from all the different parts of the community that the network should be maintained. People from different parts of the community need different elements of the service.

Photo of Andy Burnham

Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

My hon. Friend points out that coalition councils are not acting to protect Sure Start. He has come to an important point. The Government will have to decide. When the Prime Minister made promises last May, was he promising to keep Sure Start as a universal service? If he was, he really has to act. If, however, he had decided to let it become a targeted service—available in some communities and not in others, available to some parents and not others—he needs to be honest about that. He needs to say that and it needs to be clear that that is the Government’s policy.

The Government built a clear expectation among parents that they were preserving Sure Start as a universal comprehensive service that would give all children the best start in life. Indeed, at the last Education questions, the Secretary of State said that he would guarantee all children a high-quality place. The Government will have to live up to that promise.

If today the Prime Minister believes as strongly in Sure Start as he appeared to on the eve of polling day, he must act to save it. He must stop the disinvestment in Sure Start by councils and reinstate the Sure Start ring-fence in the next financial year, as our motion suggests, to protect a service that is still very much in the early years itself.

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Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham, Conservative)

Will the shadow Secretary of State also congratulate Medway, an authority that is retaining its 19 Sure Start centres? It is going beyond that and showing the Government’s commitment to helping and supporting the young ones in their early years. I have a letter from

the Department for Education dated 13 March 2011. It says that the Government are giving an additional £275,000 to Medway to increase provision to two-year-olds, three-year-olds and four-year-olds. That shows the commitment from local councils and the Government.

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

I am not in a position to judge the decisions of Medway council. What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that the cuts introduced by the coalition since the last election have led to a £40-per-child cut in the early-intervention grant in Medway. If the council is making the best of a bad lot, I say good luck to it; I hope that the hon. Gentleman will encourage other councils to do the same.

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once. I will now make some progress.

There is a dissonance between commitments given from the Dispatch Box by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State and the actions of councils on the ground, which are dealing with the reality—the hand of cards—that the Government have given them. How did we get to this position? First, let me examine the issue of national funding to support Sure Start. In his statement to the House on the spending review, the Chancellor said that he had found

“more resources for our schools and for the early years education of our children.”—[Hansard, 20 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 964.]

On that day, we said that that was a highly questionable statement. But ever since, the Secretary of State and his Ministers have stuck loyally to the line that the Government have given councils enough money to maintain children’s centres and services—that is, until the debate led by my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson a couple of weeks ago on estimates day. I do not know what possessed him, but the Secretary of State intervened on a point being made by my hon. Friend and for the first time broke the discipline that Government Front Benchers had been observing so carefully. He said:

“The hon. Lady was kind enough to mention earlier that by her own calculation ring-fencing Sure Start within the current early intervention grant envelope would mean that other services would have to go. How will she protect those other services? Will she raise taxes, cut spending elsewhere or, as she said earlier, simply cross her fingers and hope for the best?”—[Hansard, 2 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 359.]

That is a revealing statement, for implicit in the Secretary of State’s words is the admission that the Government have not given councils enough money in the early intervention grant for everything that they need to pay for to sustain both Sure Start and other crucial services, such as short breaks for disabled children, teenage pregnancy services and the children’s social care work force.

The Secretary of State could not have been clearer—we cannot have both: ring-fence Sure Start, and face cuts to some of those essential services for children. At least we saw a degree of honesty from the Secretary of State, but his problem is that his statement directly contradicted the Prime Minister’s a few weeks earlier; that is not a good career move for a man in his fragile position.

In February, at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister claimed the polar opposite of what the Secretary of State said. He said:

“On Sure Start, the budget is going from £2.212 million to £2.297 million. That budget is going up. That is what is happening.”—[Hansard, 9 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 293.]

To be fair to the Secretary of State—and I do not often say this—on this occasion he has a much better grip on the detail than his boss. The £2.212 million referred to by the Prime Minister is the early intervention grant for 2011-12. The Prime Minister conveniently took 2011-12 to be his baseline year—and yes, between 2011-12 and 2012-13 the contribution goes up in cash terms. However, not for the first time at the Dispatch Box, he was playing fast and loose with the figures. The only way to show what has happened to Sure Start and early intervention since the change of Government is to compare 2011-12 with the financial year that has just ended—that is, 2010-11. A departmental ministerial statement dated 13 December 2010 said that in 2011-12 the amount to be allocated through the early intervention grant

“is 10.9% lower than the aggregated 2010-11 funding through the predecessor grants.”—[Hansard, 13 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 67WS.]

The Prime Minister said that the budget was going up; the Department explicitly says that the budget is going down. That is not acceptable. In fact, it is worse than that because the Department’s calculation leaves out in-year early cuts after the general election to the area-based grant that many local authorities, particularly in more deprived areas, used to receive.

New research from the Library gives us the full picture. Its figures show that the equivalent EIG at the start of 2010-11 was £2.794 million, meaning that this year’s £2.212 million represents a real-terms cut of 22.4%.

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Duncan Hames (Chippenham, Liberal Democrat)

The implication of what the right hon. Gentleman is saying is that under a continued Labour Government the cash settlement for all these services would have remained the same, yet in the Labour manifesto there was no promise to ring-fence the Sure Start grant, the Department for Education or the Department for Communities and Local Government. Given that the previous Chancellor intended to make savings across Departments, where does the right hon. Gentleman believe that this money would have come from?

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

Sure Start was ring-fenced—that was the policy of our Government. The Labour manifesto talks of strengthening early intervention. I am holding the Prime Minister to account for what he said when he was seeking the votes of people in this country. He said, in terms, that he would strengthen Sure Start, so I am saying that we should look at the evidence on the ground. Is Sure Start strengthening or weakening? When I read the hon. Gentleman some of the evidence, I hope that he will make an honest judgment on whether the service is getting better or is under threat.

The research from the Library tells us that in England the average cut in the EIG between 2010-11 and 2011-12 is £50 for every child in this country. Altogether that is absolute proof that the PM, who is undoubtedly a good talker—a PR man—is dangerously cavalier with the facts at the Dispatch Box, as Oxford university recently found to its cost. He said at the election that he would

protect Sure Start, but in fact he has cut it, in real terms, by about a quarter. This takes us to the crux of the matter. The Government have not had the guts to be honest about the cuts that they are making to Sure Start. Instead, they have cut the budget, removed the ring fence, and offloaded the problem and the responsibility on to local authorities up and down the country, some of which face invidious choices in cutting essential services for children—child safeguarding and other important services. That is a terrible position for local authorities to be in, be they Conservative, Liberal, Labour or in coalition. Some other councils are cutting way beyond what would have been the ring fence. They are cutting into funds that were given by the Government for the purposes of Sure Start, siphoning them off and spending them elsewhere.

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Ben Gummer (Ipswich, Conservative)

The right hon. Gentleman talked about cavalier language. At the last election, Harriet Harman, the Member for—

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John Bercow (Speaker)

Order. May I remind Members that they should not name other Members? The reference should be to the constituency represented; I think that the hon. Gentleman was about to get on to that.

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Ben Gummer (Ipswich, Conservative)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for correcting me.

At the time, the lady of whom I spoke came to Ipswich and told my constituents that children’s centres would be cut in Ipswich. Since the election, every single centre has stayed open and two more have been added. The right hon. Gentleman is a decent man. Will he apologise on her behalf for having misled people, because I have tried to get her to apologise and she has refused to answer my letters?

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

I will happily look at what is happening on the ground in Ipswich. However, there is an important difference that I point out to the hon. Gentleman. It is possible to keep a children’s centre’s lights on and keep a receptionist and a cleaner, but what is going on inside? Is he satisfied that an appropriate level of service is being provided to support the parents of Ipswich? That is the judgment that he has to make. It is not just a case of whether he can come to the House and say that Ipswich is keeping the lights on—it needs to do more than that. Indeed, his own Government have funded it to do more than that. Suffolk, which is the local authority concerned, has had a huge cut of £40 per child in its area. He has to ask his Front Benchers whether that is acceptable for his constituents.

Let me go around the towns and point out what is happening on the ground. Derby, home to a Tory-Liberal coalition, seems like a good place to start. Surely there, if anywhere, people would implement coalition policy to the letter, would they not? Well, perhaps not, because we find that in Derby six children’s centres are threatened with closure. In a BBC news report on 10 March, Kelly Jennings, daughter of the Tory leader of the council, Harvey Jennings, said:

“I voted for the Conservatives because I thought there was going to be more help for the NHS. Now they are cutting that off and locally they are cutting off the Sure Start centres which single parents like myself rely on.”

We have been very pleased to welcome Kelly into the Labour party because she sees that in these tough times only Labour will be the voice of people and stand up for

the services on which people depend.

[

Interruption.

]

Conservative Members laugh, so let us look at some Tory authorities. We have heard wonderful praise for many local authorities today; let us look at a few others. Are they working hard, like other authorities, to implement the Prime Minister’s clear pre-election pledges?

In Hammersmith and Fulham, we saw the first use of an interesting tactic that my hon. Friend Ms Buck mentioned earlier. Many of its 16 children’s centres were under threat of closure. My hon. Friend went to the council meeting to see it discuss the issue. Then we heard the news that six would become hubs and 10 would remain as spokes. Only when we dig a little deeper do we find that nine of those so-called spokes will receive £25,000 a year. What is that enough to pay for—a receptionist, a caretaker, a bottle of bleach? Is there much more that it would pay for? I do not know, but it could not be very much. At the last Education questions, my hon. Friend Diana Johnson recalled the hospital without patients in “Yes Minister”. This coalition may be remembered for a more modern equivalent —a children’s centre without any children in it. That could be the Secretary of State’s legacy. I do not know about hubs and spokes, but there are certainly plenty of mirrors and smoke when it comes to presenting the facts about Sure Start.

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Diana Johnson (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Kingston upon Hull North, Labour)

I hope that my right hon. Friend might have an opportunity to look at what else is happening in Hull, controlled by the Liberal Democrats, which has seen a 32% cut in the children’s budget across the board and a 50% cut in the money going to children’s centres. Of the 20 children’s centres that we had under the Labour Government, 13 have effectively been mothballed by the Liberal Democrats and will have very few services.

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

I am glad that my hon. Friend raises that important point. As she says, the budget for Sure Start in Hull has been cut by 50% from £9 million to £4.5 million. During a previous Opposition day debate on the education maintenance allowance, the Secretary of State stood at the Dispatch Box and advocated that people should vote Liberal Democrat, particularly in Hull, pointing to some excellent provision that was available. I wonder whether we will hear that again or whether he will revise that advice to the electorate in advance of next Thursday. A 50% cut—can that be what the Prime Minister had in mind when he said he would strengthen Sure Start? This is the decimation of services on the ground.

Let us talk about some more Tory authorities before we get on to the Liberal Democrats. Tory-controlled Barnet is removing funding from eight of its 21 children’s centres, making £6.4 million of savings. Tory-controlled Bromley is closing 13 of its 16 centres. How can there be a service for the whole borough when just three centres are left? Are Ministers really saying that every parent in Bromley can access those centres and their services? I doubt that very much.

In Hampshire, 28 of the 81 children centres are set for closure. However, we should not worry because help is at hand. Chris Huhne has signed a petition against the changes. Thank God for that!

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Caroline Dinenage (Gosport, Conservative)

I would like to correct the right hon. Gentleman on his facts, unfortunately. Hampshire county council has pledged to protect all front-line Sure Start services and only back-office costs will be cut.

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

Well, there was a plan to close 28 children’s centres. I was led to believe that the council was considering the plan and consulting on it. I do not know when it had a change of heart. Perhaps it was because of the force of the representations of the right hon. Member for Eastleigh. We will have to find out. I am tempted to ask the Liberal Democrats to relay back to their colleague that rather than sign the petition, it might have been better for him to speak up in Cabinet to oppose the Secretary of State for Education and his cuts to the early intervention grant. Would that not have been a quicker way of resolving the matter, whether or not the local authority has had a last-minute change of heart with the local elections looming?

I do not know what to make of the behaviour of the right hon. Member for Eastleigh. Am I alone in finding his behaviour increasingly strange and Cable-esque? For the past 11 months, he has sat with his Lib Dem colleagues in Cabinet as the Tories have put various questions before them. They were asked, “How about trebling tuition fees and creating a market in higher education?” They said, “Why of course, be our guest, go and do it.” The Secretary of State for Education asked, “How about scrapping EMA?” “Please do,” said the right hon. Member for Eastleigh, “and why not decimate the careers service while you’re at it?” They were asked, “Shall we cut Sure Start?” “Please do,” said the right hon. Member for Eastleigh, “it will give me a good campaign at local level. Please get on and do it.” However, when the Tories ask, “Won’t AV mean we spend a little more on counting machines and the cost of elections?” all of a sudden, there is talk of resignation, legal challenges and Lord knows what. I struggle to understand that response from the right hon. Member for Eastleigh.

Does that synthetic rage not expose once and for all the absolute moral bankruptcy of today’s Liberal Democrats? When the interests of millions of young people were at stake in Cabinet discussions, they sat on their hands, but when their self-interest is challenged because they might not win a vote on a change to the voting system, it is time to bring down the coalition. That tells people everything they need to know about the Liberal Democrats: their politics are flaky, unprincipled and cynical, and their disloyal Ministers are preparing for life beyond the coalition.

There have been increasingly desperate statements from the Deputy Prime Minister. What has he said about Sure Start? At the Lib Dem spring conference he said:

“I cannot tell you how proud I am that not a single Liberal Democrat-led council is closing a single Sure Start children’s centre.”

Liberal Democrat Members have gone quiet. Are any of them prepared to back up that statement today? Stand up now. Does anyone hold to that statement?

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

You do. So the Liberal Democrats all think that that is a correct representation and stand by it.

Let us consider Kingston upon Hull, where there is a 50% cut in the Sure Start budget. [ Interruption. ] Dan Rogerson says that that is not true. Perhaps somebody has more up-to-date information and will beg to differ. Kingston upon Thames is another interesting and revealing example. Channel 4 FactCheck picked up the suggestion from the Deputy Prime Minister that the Lib Dems were not closing any centres and Cathy Newman went to Kingston upon Thames to look at whether any centres were being closed. Indeed, one was being closed in Hook. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for North Cornwall says that it is not a Sure Start centre. Well, when Cathy Newman went there, she found a plaque on the door that read, “children’s centre”. How can it not be a children’s centre, I ask the hon. Gentleman? I am struggling with this defence.

I acknowledge that Labour councils, too, are taking difficult decisions. We have heard coalition Ministers target Liverpool and Manchester. Liverpool is losing £90 per young person and Manchester £80. Both are working to keep service reductions to a minimum. Hampshire, by contrast, is losing just £30 per child and plans to close 28 centres. How does that work?

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Stephen Twigg (Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs); Liverpool, West Derby, Labour)

I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend said about Liverpool. Will he join me in congratulating Labour-led Liverpool city council, which has not closed any children’s centres and is desperately trying to keep them all open? I hope to intervene on the Secretary of State to ask for his support for that.

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

I do congratulate Labour-led Liverpool city council and its leader, Joe Anderson. Sure Start is clearly close to his heart, as he said when he set the budget. I am delighted that it is working to keep all its centres open.

Perhaps our calling this debate has led some people at local level to have a change of heart. Perhaps it has led to some U-turns at local level, of the kind we have become familiar with from the Government. Caroline Dinenage mentioned Hampshire. [ Laughter. ] The Under-Secretary of State for Education, Tim Loughton laughs, but only yesterday, Hampshire decided that its centres would remain open, but that the budget would be cut from £17 million to £11 million. [ Interruption. ] I do not read the Hampshire local press every day. Does the Under-Secretary? The council had a plan to close—

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John Bercow (Speaker)

Order. I will say two things. First, it is not necessary for the Under-Secretary to behave like a child to demonstrate his empathy for children. That is not a requirement of the job. Secondly, although I am very much enjoying the right hon. Gentleman’s geographical tour of the United Kingdom and always relish his exchanges with the Secretary of State, I am conscious that Back-Bench Members also wish to contribute. I am sure that those on the Front Benches will take account of that and apply a certain self-denying ordinance.

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

I agree, Mr Speaker, and will bring my remarks to a close.

Liverpool is doing well, despite facing difficult budget cuts of £90 per child. Hampshire is losing just £30 per child and is in a mess at local level, as is clear. These are the real politically motivated cuts. Hampshire is cutting its budget from £17 million to £11 million—a council in a more affluent area siphoning funds out of Sure Start and away from children who are facing the biggest challenges.

The evidence is racking up. Sure Start is being starved and is shrinking. Coalition policy is turning a much-loved, universal service into a patchy postcode lottery, which breaks the Prime Minister’s promise to parents. The ministerial team are making a mess of this successful policy in precisely same way as they mangled EMA and school sport partnerships. The Government say that they accept the Field and Allen recommendations, but the rhetoric does not match the reality. Early intervention services are under intense pressure as councils wrestle with impossible choices. Later this week, Labour will publish a survey of 70 directors of children’s services, which reveals a worrying picture of the quality and coverage of child safeguarding services in the current climate. It is becoming increasingly clear that Sure Start will not survive if the removal of the ring fence continues.

The motion makes the reasonable request for the Government to consider the emerging evidence and change course. We were right about school sport and we were right about EMA. If the Government care about the promises they have made, it is time for another U-turn and the reinstatement of the ring fence. I hope that they will listen, but somehow I doubt that they will. The decisions to shrink Sure Start fit entirely with the direction of Government education policy: at every stage of the education journey, they are making life harder for those who face the biggest challenges. They are breaking the promises that they made. We have heard what is happening to pre-school education, despite the fact that the programme for international student assessment has shown that all the best school systems in the world are based on the most extensive pre-school provision.

On four-to-16 education, the Chancellor stood at the Dispatch Box on the day of the spending review and promised more resources for schools, and said that the pupil premium would be “truly additional”. Heads know how hollow those words were, as they have to use a static or falling budget to buy back central support services previously provided for free by the local authority. Most schools are facing 80% cuts in their buildings budgets, as the Secretary of State showers extra money on his free schools.

On 16-to-19 education, the Prime Minister made a personal promise to young people at a further education college to keep the education maintenance allowance, but the Government scrapped it. Even the OECD has recently called on the Government to reinstate it. The effect of scrapping it will be that education and the route to a better life will now be closed off to many young people.

On higher education, holier-than-thou promises from the Government that £9,000 fees would be the exception rather than the norm have proved utterly false, as we will debate later today. Universities such as Cambridge

are left to say what the Government will not—that state school pupils will start to drop off and find it harder to gain access.

What is the combined effect of all those misguided education policies? I can almost hear the sound of falling aspiration in my constituency and in former industrial areas where so much was done to lift expectation, and I can tell the Secretary of State that it terrifies me. The Government are breaking their promises to parents and young people, and the effect will be to reinforce disadvantage at every stage of the education journey. Families with a little extra money will probably be able to insulate themselves from the worst of the changes, but the combined effect on the children who have least will be that the odds are stacked even further against them by an old elite, slamming the door in their face and kicking away the ladder.

What about when young people try to move from education into today’s more competitive workplace? The Deputy Prime Minister made a feeble promise to open up work experience and internships, and days later the Prime Minister laughed in his face and reassured his old network that it would be business as usual.

The coalition’s true colours are slowly being revealed, and what we see is the same old ruthless Tories. Promises were made to soften their image—“We will look after the NHS.” “EMA will stay.” “Sure Start will be strengthened”—but they have all been cynically abandoned after less than a year in office. The Government are acting as though they got a mandate last May. They did not, but we have a Liberal Democrat party that is letting them behave as though they did. Last May, the Liberal Democrats sacrificed everything and sold the shop for a referendum on the voting system, a change that they want in their own electoral interests. Now we see how viciously they are prepared to fight to secure that self-interest, while we remember how meekly they sold down the river millions of young people whose votes put them in Parliament.

Children and young people deserve a lot better than this. Labour will stand up for young people and give them all a fair start in life, and we will be their voice in tough times. I commend the motion to the House.

1:33 pm
Photo of Michael Gove

Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

In this post-Easter season, there is cause for all of us to celebrate, because a number of gloomy predictions have been confounded. At the beginning of the football season, some of us might have imagined that the dominant team on Merseyside would be Everton, but in fact, thanks to Kenny Dalglish’s inspired leadership, the reds are five points ahead of the blues. The gloomy obituaries that were being written for that great team have had to be put back.

Photo of Michael Gove

Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

QPR, as it happens, but I admire Liverpool, and particularly Kenny Dalglish. [Interruptio n.] We are top of the league, you know.

Another gloomy prediction was made by Labour Members, but it has not come to pass—that of a double-dip recession. That was the mantra at the top of

the Labour party, from Ed Balls, the Leader of the Opposition and the Labour election co-ordinator, whatever his name is. The news today, however, is that our economy is growing once more—another gloomy prediction confounded.

We also heard a series of gloomy predictions from Labour Members about what would happen to the network of Sure Start children’s centres in this country. We were told by Mr Slaughter that we would see a reduction in the number of children’s centres in Hammersmith and Fulham, but actually, as Andy Burnham almost acknowledged, not only are all the existing Sure Start children’s centres being protected but a new one is being built. There is an increase in the number of Sure Start children’s centres in Hammersmith and Fulham.

The right hon. Member for Leigh told us halfway through his speech that Hampshire was going to close all its children’s centres. Sadly, that slur—[Interruption.] It was a slur. That slur on Hampshire county council was very effectively rebutted by my hon. Friend Caroline Dinenage. The council is ensuring that every single children’s centre will remain open. The right hon. Gentleman did not have the grace to acknowledge either that it was a Conservative local authority that was keeping them open or that he had got it wrong. I admire his passion, but he must get his facts right before he comes to the Dispatch Box and attempts to tarnish the good name of an effective local authority that is doing a great job for children and young people.

In a spirit of generosity, I have to say that a great many Labour local authorities are doing a good job and ensuring that Sure Start children’s centres remain open. There are also Liberal Democrat local authorities doing a good job. One of the most disappointing things about the right hon. Gentleman’s speech was his attack on the Liberal Democrats, which I felt was mean-minded and beneath him. I understand that as an election co-ordinator, with just a week to go before he shores up the Labour vote that is collapsing in Scotland and evanescent elsewhere, he has to pick what he thinks is an easy target, but he has picked the wrong target.

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, with whom I do not always agree, was right when he said that Liberal Democrat authorities were keeping all their Sure Start children’s centres open. We can look at what is happening in Kingston upon Hull, where all the centres are remaining open and services are being delivered from all of them. The same is true in Kingston upon Thames. The Liberal Democrat councillors in those authorities represent a party that I would not vote for, but they are doing the job a darned sight better than the Labour councillors who used to run Hull when it was the worst local authority in the country according to the Audit Commission. It is now the most improved.

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

Talking of room for improvement, I give way to the shadow Secretary of State.

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

Before we leave this matter, let us get to the bottom of the point about Hampshire. There was clearly a change of heart yesterday—[Interruption.]

Will the Under-Secretary of State, Tim Loughton, hear me out? If there was a change of heart, the news had not reached me, and I welcome it. However, we must ask, a change of heart to what? The Sure Start budget there is going from £17 million to £11 million, a 35% cut. Is the Secretary of State applauding Hampshire for making a cut on that scale? He has just applauded the local authority and invited me to do the same. Is he saying that such a cut to Sure Start is acceptable and that the local authority should be applauded for cutting the service by more than a third?

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

The right hon. Gentleman has not misled the House—he never misleads the House—but I am afraid that he has got himself in what we call in Scotland “a bit of a fankle”. He asserted that Hampshire was going to cut children’s centres, and then he was caught short by the facts. I know that he has more respect for the House than to want to put himself in a position of having inaccurate facts in front of him, so all he needs to do, as graciously as is his natural custom, is acknowledge that Hampshire is keeping its children’ centres open and congratulate it on that.

One reason why Hampshire, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kingston upon Hull, Kingston upon Thames and many other Conservative and Liberal Democrat councils, as well as Labour ones, can keep their Sure Start children’s centres open is that there is enough money. I can make that assertion because of the evidence that has been put forward by two of the people who have the best understanding of the early years. Anne Longfield OBE, chief executive of 4Children, has said that the Government are

“continuing to provide adequate funding to keep centres open and councils should resist the temptation to use this money to plug gaps elsewhere.”

Anand Shukla, the acting chief executive of the Daycare Trust, has said:

“The Government has allocated sufficient funding for the existing network of Sure Start Children’s Centres to be maintained”.

The money is there—independent witnesses say so—and well-run local authorities all over the country, represented by councillors of different parties, are maintaining that network. Therefore, every single plank of the right hon. Gentleman’s argument has collapsed beneath him, and I have been on my feet for only six minutes.

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Karen Buck (Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions); Westminster North, Labour)

What does the Education Secretary say to parents in my constituency, which has the seventh highest child poverty in the country, in the light of Westminster city council’s briefing? The briefing states:

“As you may have heard in the media, central government funding for Sure Start Children’s Centres nationally has been reduced, which means in Westminster we have to save 17% from our Children’s centre budget”,

meaning a saving of £715,000, including roughly £250,000 off early learning and child support, and £400,000 off outreach and family support. Children’s centres will be bricks and mortar without the staff even to ensure that services can be run safely.

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

The hon. Lady is a highly energetic constituency MP—indeed, I was represented by her for a brief period, and I know how passionately she takes up such causes. However, Westminster, like many other

local authorities, is succeeding not just in keeping the Sure Start children’s centre network open, but in providing an enhanced service for children and young people. The question that she and every Opposition Member must address is this: if they believe, as I do, that Sure Start is a valuable service, and that it is a good thing that the Government have set up an early intervention grant, and that we are devoting resources and intellectual energy to the early years, will they support the coalition in the steps that it is taking, or do they have an alternative plan? Do they believe that money should come from other areas of Government expenditure to spend more on any of those services? If they believe that we should spend more than we are spending, can they explain which services they would cut or which taxes they would increase? I am very happy to give way to any right hon. or hon. Member who can enlighten me on Labour’s economic policy, including the hon. Member for Hammersmith.

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Andy Slaughter (Shadow Minister (Justice); Hammersmith, Labour)

Let us deal with the figures. If the Secretary of State has come along simply to give incorrect figures, he does not help the debate at all. Hammersmith and Fulham was spending £3.983 million last year; this year it will spend £2.206 million. Most of the nine Sure Start centres will have their budgets cut. Some will receive £19,000 to be satellites—the £19,000 is for the upkeep of the premises, but services will be delivered on-site by another children’s centre. The Secretary of State must stand by his words if he says that that means he is keeping the centres open. However, his stance in this debate and making such assertions does him no credit. He should at least live with the consequences of his actions.

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

The consequence of the Government’s actions is that we have ensured, as both Anne Longfield and Anand Shukla have pointed out, that there is enough money to maintain that network. In addition, under Conservative leadership, Hammersmith and Fulham has been singularly successful in reducing the council tax burden on its ratepayers, and in diversifying the sources of funding it receives to support education and care for children and young people. It is a superb local authority. Instead of continually talking down the service that is provided by public servants in Hammersmith and Fulham, it would be nice to hear from the hon. Gentleman some sunny, uplifting words, rather than grim predictions of disaster, which as we have just heard, turn out never to be true.

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Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire, Conservative)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Northamptonshire county council on deciding to go ahead with its plans for 50 children’s centres in the county, and on its support for my proposals to introduce a Northamptonshire parent-infant project in children’s centres, which will provide a parent-infant psychotherapy service for the families most in need who are struggling to bond with their new-born babies?

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

I am delighted to congratulate Northamptonshire, where not a single children’s centre is closing. It is also the home of the innovative Pen Green children’s centre. More money is coming from central Government to help that council to develop news ways of providing support for children in their earliest years.

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Valerie Vaz (Walsall South, Labour)

I have some sunny words for the Secretary of State. Sure Start Palfrey in my constituency was one of the first in the country to get an “outstanding” rating from Ofsted, which it gained because it did a lot of outreach work, including through a fathers’ club—84 fathers came to one session. However, there are rumours, which the Secretary of State might like to quash, that the staff will be replaced by health visitors, which moves the centre into a medical model rather than an educational model. Will he confirm that those specialist workers will not be replaced by health visitors?

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

The hon. Lady makes an important point. To be fair to Labour Members, I want to emphasise that Sure Start has been a success in the past, and we hope it will be an even greater success in the future. However, one matter on which it has not been as successful in every part of the country as it should have been is in outreach, particularly to the most disadvantaged. The Government believe that health visitors, as trusted faces of the state, can be one of the most effective ways in which we can increase outreach. We also believe that local authorities that have innovative solutions that succeed in ensuring that children in hard-to-reach communities receive those services should be supported. The coalition Government believe in supporting local authorities that are innovative in their use of resources, which is why we removed the ring fence, created the early intervention grant, and allowed a greater degree of innovation to flourish at local level.

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Diana Johnson (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Kingston upon Hull North, Labour)

The 50% cut is set out clearly in Hull city council’s budget to children’s centres—it is a fact. The centres cannot provide the service that they provided before that 50% cut. They have abandoned the local authority’s early years service team, and no one is doing early years service planning in that authority. The cut means that services are not the same as they were under the previous Government. Surely the Secretary of State must recognise that.

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

First, we are entering the financial year in which cuts would have been made if we had stuck to the plan of the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Darling. However, I have heard not a single word from the hon. Lady or anyone else about where those cuts would have been made. Secondly, she and others—I understand that she is electioneering, which is fair enough—said that children’s centres would close, but in fact they have remained open.

Thirdly—I did not want to repeat this but the hon. Lady compels me to do so—the Audit Commission said that Hull was one of worst local authorities in the country when Labour ran it, and it is now the most improved local authority. I know that those three points are uncomfortable for her to deal with as she tramps the streets of the east riding attempting to drum up Labour votes, but they are undeniably true. That is why she is shaking her head—in anger at Labour’s record.

I specifically wanted to address some of the questions on the importance of outreach raised by Valerie Vaz. The broader question is this: what do we want to achieve in the early years? A consistent theme in constructive questions from Opposition Back-Bench Members has been that

the bricks and mortar are being preserved—that concession, for which I am grateful, is in stark contrast to the scaremongering that we have heard from Opposition Front Benchers—but what is happening in Sure Start children’s centres? Are we improving the quality of service that is provided to children and young people? That is a tough challenge.

One thing that we are doing—the right hon. Member for Leigh did not refer to this—is increasing resources to ensure that early education and child care are provided not just for three and four-year-olds, which the previous Government introduced. We have already extended the number of hours of free early education and child care from 12.5 to 15 hours for all three and four-year-olds—we implemented that and increased expenditure to do it—but we are also increasing the number of hours for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. The plan under the previous Government was for 30,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds to receive 15 free hours, but we are ensuring that 130,000 do so. That is an investment of up to an additional £300 million in the early years at a time when we have to make uncomfortable budget reductions elsewhere because of the desperate economic mess that we inherited. That is a sign of our determination to do best by the early years. It would only be fitting for the right hon. Gentleman to acknowledge that.

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Henry Smith (Crawley, Conservative)

The state of the country’s finances that was bequeathed to us by Labour was appalling. Is it not remarkable that the amount of interest that we are paying on Labour’s deficit is 39 times the Sure Start budget?

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct that the interest we are paying on our debt is 39 times the Sure Start budget under the previous Government. If we really cared about our children’s future, would we have saddled them with a debt at that level? Clearly not. I am afraid, however, that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the last Labour Cabinet were happy to spend, spend, spend without any thought to whether future generations would be saddled with an enormous debt. It is to the great credit of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister that they were prepared to ensure that a coalition Government took the responsible steps necessary to deal with the dire economic mess, and it is to the discredit, I am afraid, of the current shadow Cabinet that not a single constructive suggestion has come forward for how to deal with the deficit. In just a few days’ time, when people think about how to cast their vote, I hope that they will reflect on which parties are acting responsibly in dealing with the national crisis, and which parties prefer posturing, irresponsibility and the emptiness of eternal opposition.

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

I would like to exempt one person from that stricture, however, and it is Mr Field, to whom I am happy to give way.

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Frank Field (Birkenhead, Labour)

The whole House welcomes the re-announcement by the Secretary of State that the number of poor two-year-olds who will receive nursery education will rise from 30,000 to 130,000. To ensure that it occurs, will the Government ring-fence the money?

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

I believe that money additional to the early intervention grant has been budgeted for to cover the years 2012-13 to 2013-14, and we are currently discussing with the sector how to ensure that the money is spent most effectively. Rather than having a top-down approach to delivering support for children in the early years, we need to work in partnership, not just with local government, where there are many brilliant leaders, but with those in the voluntary and charitable sector who have a huge amount to add.

I mentioned Anand Shukla and Anne Longfield, but I am also very grateful to people such as Bernadette Duffy, who runs the Thomas Coram children’s centre, which has helped the coalition Government to move forward in developing a framework to ensure that children in the foundation years receive the support that they really need. For example, all of them have worked with us on the response to the report by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and the interim report produced by Mr Allen. In both reports a compelling case was made—this argument was also made eloquently in the first half of the speech by the right hon. Member for Leigh—that investment and the right interventions in the earliest years can have a dramatic effect in closing the opportunity gap that has grown up in this country.

All of us will have been struck by some of the figures released by the coalition Government and analysed by the Financial Times this week that show that social mobility in this country is still not moving in the right direction. In particular, we see evidence in some of our most deprived areas of children who have not reached an acceptable level of child development by the age of five. In those deprived areas, children who are falling behind continue to do so. I want to ensure that as much as possible we have a cross-party approach to dealing with that problem. Again I have to say that steps were taken by the Deputy Prime Minister, in the launch of his social mobility strategy, to outline exactly what we need to do to tackle these problems. All of his suggestions, particularly the emphasis on intervention at every stage in the life cycle and the prioritisation of early years, would seem to commend themselves to people of good will in every party.

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

I want to make it clear that I welcome some of the steps that the right hon. Gentleman is taking, particularly on two-year-olds, which builds on something that we were talking about. However, I want to ask him a serious question. I am listening carefully to what he is saying, and he is itemising some of the individual things that the Government are dong, but I want to know about the big picture so that I can understand his position on Sure Start. He talked about how Sure Start will develop in the future. A simple question: does he envisage Sure Start as a targeted service or a universal service?

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

I envisage Sure Start as a universal service. [Interruption.] Second question? It is an interview. I almost feel like I am on “The Andrew Marr Show”—I will come to him in a moment. I believe that Sure Start is a universal service, but it is also important to recognise that there are children in greater need on whom we should target greater resources. The original Sure Start programme started out targeting areas with the greatest

need, and subsequently, as it moved to phase 3, it became universal. Even within that, it is an example of what one might call “progressive universalism”. Yes, the service is there for all, and yes we recognise that disadvantages exist, even in some of our apparently wealthier communities. That is why the service should be universal. Nevertheless, we know that there are areas of real deprivation, such as the constituency that the right hon. Gentleman represents, and we need to ensure that our resources and energy are targeted in that area.

Several hon. Members:

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

A number of hon. Members want to intervene. I am happy to give way to Ian Swales.

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Ian Swales (Redcar, Liberal Democrat)

Does the Secretary of State share my regret that last year the National Audit Office found that Sure Start centres had completely failed to address inequality in our disadvantaged communities?

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman, who represents brilliantly a constituency with real deprivation, is absolutely right. Yes, Sure Start has the potential to make a significant difference, and yes on the ground it was already making a real difference, but we need to build on that by ensuring that we have the targeted interventions that help those children in the most difficult circumstances.

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Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole, Liberal Democrat)

I note that the shadow Secretary of State spent 45 minutes on quantitative issues, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s emphasis on quality. Does he agree that we should be showcasing the really good interventions and effective use of money across the country? I regret that we have cuts, but surely we must be celebrating and giving confidence to the sector.

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

That is the best intervention yet. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I and my departmental colleagues are anxious to point out that there are many committed professionals in the early years sector with a greater level of expertise in developing evidence-based interventions, all of which can help children in difficult circumstances. I have been impressed by how people have worked constructively across the sector, and I have been particularly impressed by the fact that, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North pointed out in his report on early intervention, we now have a better body of evidence that allows us to identify what works. We should celebrate the fact that some of that innovation has been operating at a local level in children’s centres run by exemplary local authorities.

Several hon. Members:

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

I would like to make progress, because I am conscious that Members would like to speak after me. However, I took in vain the name of the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West, so I am happy to give way to his former Parliamentary Private Secretary.

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Ann Coffey (Stockport, Labour)

I understand that there are proposals for developing a payment-by-results scheme for children’s centres. I think those proposals have great merit: they will ensure the proper examination of which interventions work, and will lead to better outcomes for children. What is the Secretary of State’s thinking on this, and has any progress been made on developing such a scheme?

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Michael Gove (The Secretary of State for Education; Surrey Heath, Conservative)

That is a very fair question. The answer is yes. We are examining this matter with the sector to establish which successful interventions we can encourage and incentivise to be spread more widely. Building on the point made by Annette Brooke, I would add that some children’s centres are hugely successful at outreach. Valerie Vaz referred to how a children’s centre in her constituency has succeeded in tackling some hard-to-reach families. We know that some families resent and resist what they see as state intervention and coercion in their families’ lives, but actually they desperately need that support, so we must incentivise those children’s centres that are good at outreach.

There is something else that is critically important. There is sometimes an understandable confusion between the provision of child care to ensure a higher level of female participation in the work force, which is a good thing in itself, and child development. Those are allied but separate issues. I would like to see a renewed emphasis on child development. The original Sure Start proposals, which the Treasury developed, had a real focus on child development, and through the work that Dame Claire Tickell has led, we have sought to look at the existing early years foundation stage and build on what is good about it. The focus of the foundation years should be on ensuring that children arrive at school school-ready and effectively socialised. That will sometimes require interventions to support parenting and to raise the quality of staff. However, we can identify and support good practice, and indeed support many of the voluntary organisations, such as 4Children, that are already doing a fantastic job.

I want to stress that the changes we are talking about depend on having in place the staff capable of leading our children’s centres in the right direction. We have provided funding specifically to ensure that the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services can ensure that there is a trained cadre of at least 400 highly qualified individuals with a new depth of training in running children’s centres, and that we move broadly in the direction hinted at by hon. Members towards a vision of children’s centres leaders as people who enjoy the same prestige and esteem as head teachers. We should see what is happening in children’s centres as part of the seamless process of education that should start at the earliest possible age and, in my view, continue for as long as possible, in order to prepare people for the world of work and progression.

At a time when we have to make economies, I recognise that it is difficult to concentrate on some of these areas of debate, but we have made a good start in the last 12 months. The constructive approach taken by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and the hon. Member for Nottingham North, along with those in the sector, is something on which we can all build. It is often tempting to knock local government, but I have been hugely

impressed by the way in which the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, with its outgoing president Marion Davis and the incoming president Matt Dunkley, has engaged with the coalition Government to operate constructively.

I know that many hon. Members will want to use their speeches to make points in advance of the local elections—that is fair enough; it is that time of year—but I hope that in the remainder of this debate, their speeches will continue in the tone so admirably set by the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole. We all recognise the great work done by professionals in early years. I hope that we will all give some thought in the hours that we have left to how we can build on those successes and ensure that children, who are our first care and concern, can have the best possible start in life.

2:01 pm
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Andy Slaughter (Shadow Minister (Justice); Hammersmith, Labour)

It does not help the House if the Secretary of State comes here to defend the indefensible or to use what is essentially wrong information to do so. I will therefore correct some of the figures and facts that he got wrong—and, for the record, I will be doing so for the third or fourth time. I should also say that I do not have any local elections in my constituency. Indeed, it is somewhat insulting to say that Members who have supported their networks of children’s centres and been proud of them—that probably goes for Members from all parties in this place—have come to this debate simply to score cheap political points. That is not the case. I do not know whether my words will influence the outcome of the alternative vote referendum—if they lead to a yes vote for AV, then all well and good—but I assure the Secretary of State that that is not my intention today.

Hammersmith and Fulham council began on 10 January this year with a report, passed in full, that said:

“At present H&F has a network of 15 children’s centres…We are looking at options to restructure this provision in line with the likely levels of efficiency and grant reductions expected…However, it is not likely under this scenario that LBHF could continue to directly fund more than 6 Children’s centre teams.”

The cut in grant is about 13%, whereas, as I said in my intervention, the cut in the budget is about 45%. It is therefore no good Hammersmith and Fulham hiding behind the cut in grant. It is right to say, however, that as soon as that announcement was made public—albeit shortly after Christmas—there was, shall we say, a lively reaction in the constituency and the borough. A lot has happened in the three months since, partly because the local authority realised that it might be in breach of its statutory duties, which were quite properly introduced by the previous Government.

Those duties are such that either, first, the council would have had to return the nine centres that it was closing—those whose grants it was cutting entirely—to the Department for Education, or would have been liable to do so; secondly, it had not performed its statutory duty to consult before making the decision; or, thirdly, it was no longer clearly providing a network of children’s centres. The local authority’s response was based on trying to bring itself within the law, not on recognising it had made a mistake about levels of provision. Every one of the minor and incremental changes that it made was more to do with PR than with the service or keeping all the centres open. The general amount

given to the nine centres that were, in fact, closing was £19,000. The council said that after consideration and consultation—it was a substantial consultation, with many thousands responding in fairly clear terms—it would increase the budget. In some cases, the budget was increased by £1,000 a year, so a budget that was £19,000 became £20,000, where previously it had been £250,000. Clearly the Secretary of State has been briefed in same propagandist way—“Yes, we’re going to open a new centre.” However, the new centre is one of the libraries that the authority is closing, and it will also receive a grant of £19,000, so we will have another empty building.

The third thing that happened was a substantial protest from my constituents. There were many demonstrations, including one attended by my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson, the shadow Children’s Minister. We reciprocated by bringing a party of Hammersmith and Fulham parents to the mother’s day protest outside No. 10 Downing street and presenting 2,000 signatures from parents in my constituency against the Sure Start closures. When the inevitable decision was finally made on 18 April to go ahead with the closure programme, 150 parents with buggies again turned up to protest.

I pay tribute to Ruthie Walsh and those involved in Hammersmith and Fulham Parents Unite for organising those protests, not because they are politically motivated, but because they care about their children and they absolutely value the service. Many say it is a lifeline, helping them through relationship break-ups, or loss of job or income, or even helping them to get back into work, providing not just child minding or play services but high quality support, particularly for children with developmental difficulties or special educational needs. That is what Sure Start provides and what, however we dress it up, we are losing when we close nine centres in Hammersmith and Fulham. After all the protests, all the jiggery-pokery and all the propaganda, the net effect is that the budget is indeed being cut by 45%, from almost £4 million to just over £2 million, that the number of Sure Start centres in Hammersmith will now be six, rather than 15, and that the number of children served by those centres will go down by two thirds, to no more than 2,000. That is the reality, with the spin removed, about the services that will be provided.

It is no coincidence that the pattern of Sure Start cuts fits the pattern of cuts in other children’s services. Four of the borough’s seven youth clubs have been closed in my constituency, along with after-school services, of which we are very proud, play services and a complete network of dedicated services. That has all been shut down, and because of Government cuts, the playbuilders scheme and the Building Schools for the Future programme have also been cut. The impact of local government cuts, as well as those directed through local government from central Government, unavoidably bears down overwhelmingly on children and people on low incomes in my constituency.

One of the most shameful things—this might be unique to Hammersmith and Fulham—is that rather than say, “This is regrettable, but it’s to do with finance and matters of that kind,” the local authority has tried to rubbish Sure Start as a programme. In its most recent report on the cuts, the council said that

“no Sure Start Local programme effects emerged in the case of ‘school readiness’ defined in terms of children’s early language, numeracy and social skills needed to succeed in schools.”

So there we have it: the reason for the almost 50% cuts in children’s centre budgets and the two thirds cuts in provision for children is that they do not work. Is that the Government’s attitude? Despite the protestations, do they actually think that we are talking about a wasteful service that should not be provided, or that pre-school services should be provided only to those who can afford to pay for them? To give the council credit, that is clearly the view of Hammersmith and Fulham, but it is not the view of my constituents, irrespective of income or background.

I do not want to take up too much time, but I want briefly to mention some of the Sure Start centres in my constituency that cater for and care for thousands of children every year in Hammersmith and Fulham. Cathnor Park family centre was the first to open in 1998, and the council now describes it as a “super spoke”—it is much better than a satellite: it is a super spoke. The centre receives £50,000 in funding, as opposed to the £473,000 it received last year. The same goes for Broadway family centre, which also received £473,000 last year, but which will receive £19,000 this year. The funding for Wendell Park, my local Sure Start centre, has been cut from £250,000 to £25,000, and that of the Bayonne family centre has been cut from £250,000 to £19,000. The Normand Croft centre’s funding has been cut by the same amount.

Those centres are popular, well used and well loved by everyone who uses them. They have established themselves and they believed that they would continue because they were told by politicians of all parties that they were providing a wonderful service to the parents and children of the borough. However, they will all be gone. We do not know about closures in children’s services yet, but we know about the closures of youth centres and play centres. Not only are the services being closed, but the buildings are being sold off. The assets are being disposed of, so, if there is another Labour Government, or another Government who are more enlightened than this one, or a local authority able to provide the services, it will not be possible to recreate them. They will be gone for good. That will be the legacy of this Government, and it is the legacy of the Conservatives in local government in London.

These decisions are ideologically driven. If they were driven by the need to save money, we would be seeing what the Minister of State promised us when she responded to debates on the subject—namely, cuts at a level that would allow the networks to survive. I have said this before to the Secretary of State: he should intervene on those local authorities that are choosing to close their children’s centre networks or not to provide such networks. They could be in breach of their statutory duty, and there will certainly be a legal challenge in Hammersmith and Fulham. There has not been proper consultation, and we have heard nothing but spin and disinformation, which, to his discredit, the Secretary of State has repeated today. The Government purport to believe in children’s centres and early years development, yet local authorities are cutting services to the bone and closing them down, to the extent that nothing remains except the shell of the building. The Government should intervene to stop them.

2:11 pm
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Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall, Liberal Democrat)

This Opposition day debate has been billed as one that would land a big blow on the Government on a crucial issue. The shadow Secretary of State gave us a number of examples in his lengthy trip around the country, but they were perhaps not the killer blow that he was hoping to land. He prefaced his remarks by saying that there was a great deal of recognition on both sides of the House of the good that Sure Start has done. I share that view, having seen what Sure Start has achieved in my constituency and elsewhere. Notwithstanding the issues raised in the National Audit Office’s report, to which we might return later in the debate, the programme has great strengths. All things can be worked on and improved, but the programme’s fundamental objectives of reaching and supporting people who need help, and encouraging people to work together to support each other, have been achieved in many children’s centres. Of course we welcome and support that.

Speaking as a rural MP, I believe that delivering such services in places such as North Cornwall is different from delivering them in urban areas. There has always been a hub and spoke approach in rural areas, because of the many village Sure Start children’s centres that we have. I see that as a strength, in that some services travel around all of them. I would caution the shadow Secretary of State against saying that there must be a fully staffed suite of people just hanging around in case someone walks in through the door. Instead, we should be looking at the best way of using resources.

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

I agree; that is a reasonable and fair point. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the examples that I gave. I think that he is the Back-Bench education spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, and I would like him to give us a straight answer today. We have heard from my hon. Friend Diana Johnson that Lib Dem-controlled Hull city council is cutting the Sure Start budget by 50%. Does the hon. Gentleman support that move?

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Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall, Liberal Democrat)

We are in a period in which people are getting used to a coalition Government, and I am certainly not a Front Bencher here. I am speaking as a Back Bencher, and I am sure that you would be the first to jump on me if I claimed to be a Front Bencher, Mr Deputy Speaker. I and a number of other Liberal Democrats have a Back-Bench group in which we discuss many of these issues with other people inside and outside the party. We are also able to talk to the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend Sarah Teather, who, as a Minister in the coalition Government, is at the heart of taking these decisions and leading policy forward, along with her other colleagues. My view on what is happening in Hull is that it now has a council that has taken over what was the worst council in the country under Labour and turned it around. It is in challenging financial times—I want to return to that subject later—but it has managed to ensure that all its children’s centres will remain open.

As I said earlier, the hub and spoke model, which is already operating in other parts of the country, can be successfully undertaken. The shadow Secretary of State also referred to a postcode lottery. That is one way of

saying that locally elected councillors should be able to take decisions that affect their local areas and, having talked to the local community, use the money available in ways that the community believes will be most effective. That is my view of how local democracy should work. Instead of talking about a postcode lottery, we could talk about the young people in my constituency who had £300 less than the national average for their education under the Labour Government. Cornwall is recognised by the European Union as one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of the country. Those are the issues that we should be looking at, rather than at the way in which different councils take decisions about the money at their disposal.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to early years provision. As we have heard, they have involved Opposition Members in the debate, and I am delighted to see Mr Field in his place today. The Liberal Democrats have always placed a strong emphasis on early intervention, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Annette Brooke, who is no longer in her place, for the work that she has done over the years, inside and outside the party, and for chairing the all-party parliamentary group on Sure Start children’s centres. She makes a significant contribution to the debate.

The shadow Secretary of State attempted to say that the only thing that the Liberal Democrats were worried about was next week’s referendum. It is absolutely clear, however, that the coalition Government will continue, whatever the result of the referendum. I would point to the commitment to investing in child care and early years education for two-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds as something that my party has been arguing for. I also believe that the pupil premium, which the right hon. Gentleman has real problems with, will deliver real change and real investment for disadvantaged young people up and down the country. I would also point to the review by Dame Clare Tickell, and the aspiration to simplify and streamline the bureaucracy around the early years foundation key stage. That was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. I am sure that the Secretary of State and Conservative colleagues will want to emphasise their own credentials when it comes to tackling bureaucracy, but those measures were certainly in our party’s manifesto. I therefore have no problem with running through the Government’s programme and looking at all the Liberal Democrat priorities that are being delivered in it.

The key point that I want to make is that we are in difficult financial circumstances and, yes, the money going to local government has been restricted and efficiencies are having to be made. As other hon. Members have pointed out, a pot of fairy gold seems to exist in the minds of Opposition Members, along with the belief that, were they in charge, all the financial problems would be solved. However, the cuts programme that they set out when they were pretending to be responsible in government has now disappeared. They said that billions of pounds of cuts would be necessary, but they are now not being at all specific about where those cuts would have been made. It is tiresome that, time and again in these Opposition day debates, whatever the subject, all we hear from them is, “Of course we know that cuts have to be made, but we wouldn’t do it there or in that way.” They never tell us what their alternative would be.

It will become increasingly obvious as this Parliament progresses that that refrain just will not do. When that refrain is tied to a motion such as the one before us, which seeks to scaremonger before a local election about the closure of a service on which people rely, it is even more unfortunate. It is also unfortunate that the “killer statistics” that Andy Burnham was hoping to present have not emerged; the picture is different.

Sadly, some jobs will go, which is absolutely to be regretted. I look forward to continued investment in early years education and leadership programmes that might provide something for people wanting to move from one job to another and allow them to carry on using their skills and make a contribution. I also welcome the Government’s Green Paper on special educational needs, particularly the strong aspiration to tie in health spending on matters that perhaps previous were seen as solely the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Education. There are lessons to be learned from Sure Start. In its early days, there were programmes to support breastfeeding, for example, which a primary care trust sometimes struggled to fund, given that supporting children’s centres was not part of the Department’s core area of responsibility. That was a controversial matter at the time.

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Stella Creasy (Walthamstow, Labour)

I note the hon. Gentleman’s support for early intervention, but I only wish that he had been more enthusiastic in the Education Bill Committee in supporting my proposals for achievement-for-all partnerships. In view of his point about Sure Start, does he share my concern that local authorities such as mine in Waltham Forest are having to make terrible decisions because of the funding cuts? Fantastic projects such as the Hamara family project—provided by Barnado’s for work with children with special educational needs—and the outreach buses on the Attlee Terrace estate are having to be cut in order to keep the centres open. These services are going and we will not have the centres to maintain them.

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Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall, Liberal Democrat)

The hon. Lady has managed to put on the record references to a number of projects in her constituency; as an assiduous local MP, it is absolutely her right to do so. It is for her local authority to consider and to reach a conclusion about what happens to these services. The local electorate will look at those decisions and no doubt respond accordingly—not this year in the hon. Lady’s area, but in other parts of the country. My point was about trying to get health spending brought more closely together with what the Department for Education does; further gains could be made from that approach, which is why I greatly welcome investment in health visitors, for example, during this Parliament. We will have extra professionals on the ground to deliver these key priorities in early intervention and support for people who, without it, might find it difficult to keep the family together. It is important to support young children in those crucial years.

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Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth, Conservative)

I am pleased to hear from my hon. Friend that, whatever the outcome on 5 May, I can continue to work with him for the greater benefit of the coalition in Cornwall in righting some of the terrible wrongs that have been left, especially the underfunding of education for Cornwall’s

younger people. Does my hon. Friend agree that health visitors, particularly in remote rural areas such as Cornwall, will play an increasingly important role in supporting families with young children?

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Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall, Liberal Democrat)

It is crucial to ensure that programmes that sometimes seem specifically targeted at urban areas also deliver in more rural areas. Sometimes there is a misunderstanding that all rural areas are prosperous communities and that money should be targeted elsewhere. That is not the main thrust of what I am saying, however, so I do not want to get drawn further down that road. Of course I look forward to working with my hon. Friend Sarah Newton to ensure that Cornwall gets its fair share of spending and investment.

Sure Start has done a fantastic job of reaching out to people in communities, but there are questions about whether all the money has been spent efficiently. When Diana Johnson pointed to projects under threat in her constituency, she specifically referred to a planning team. I am not aware of how much on-the-ground work that planning team does—it might be crucial—but it does not sound to me like a front-line service that is, as her Front-Bench team seek to imply, for the chop.

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Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, will he comment on—and, hopefully, dissociate himself from—his colleague who intervened and quoted one part of the Audit Commission’s report totally out of context, suggesting that the Audit Commission had said that early years intervention through children’s centres was a waste of money?

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Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall, Liberal Democrat)

I do not think it was said to be a waste of money. The argument was that things can always be done better, which is what the National Audit Office said. I hope that all Members agree that where issues have been identified independently and targets and aspirations for a policy have not been met, we can look for ways to do it better. My fundamental point is that, despite the financial situation, good councils up and down the country will prioritise children’s centres and keep them open to ensure that services have a reach—even if there is no insistence on having full-time workers in every specialism in every centre, which is what I would like to see if the money were available to fund it.

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Diana Johnson (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Kingston upon Hull North, Labour)

Of course all Members would agree that if efficiencies can be made, it is all to the good and we should see it happen, but is the hon. Gentleman honestly saying that a 50% cut to the children’s centre budget in Hull can be seen as a good thing and that services will improve because it is an efficiency saving?

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Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall, Liberal Democrat)

Of course I am not saying that spending less on a service is desirable. If we have the money in the first place, I would like it to be spent on front-line services, but I am not in a position to comment on how every single penny has been spent in Hull. I am pleased to note that my Liberal Democrat colleagues running the city council are keeping the children’s centres open and will provide services at them, which will reach across all the communities of Hull.

I conclude on that note. I hope that the debate will proceed by focusing on the positive aspects that Sure Start has delivered and the opportunities to continue delivering them.

2:27 pm
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Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

A year ago during the general election campaign, a woman in my constituency asked me what Labour had done for Gorton. We were standing outside the St James Sure Start centre on Stelling street, where she was waiting to collect her child. That lady, like many constituents of mine, will be wondering what is going to happen to that centre, which she took for granted as though it had always been there, archetypally provided by some heavenly intervention. It fact, of course, it was created by the Labour Government and was one of their most successful innovations. Incidentally, when Parliament was considering the Sure Start proposals, the then Conservative Opposition did not support them.

In a city such as Manchester, which has many areas of deprivation, Sure Start made a hugely positive impact. We have 14 major centres, of which several excellent ones are in my constituency. One in Farrer road in Longsight was built anew at a cost of £3.25 million and provides an exceptional environment where parents can take their children and be confident that they will be looked after. Throughout my constituency—from Gorton right through to Whalley Range—my constituents have come to rely on Sure Start and take it for granted. That is true not only of the centres, but the other facilities provided by Sure Start. In several parks, such as Platt Fields, they provide play areas and playgrounds that were not there before.

Sure Start is very well used and enormously valued. That was shown when my constituents, along with those of other Labour Members with Manchester constituencies, came down to London a few days ago to present a petition to 10 Downing street—to which we have so far had no response—asking for Sure Start to be protected.

Some of the petitioners came from the Levenshulme area in my constituency, and a couple of weeks ago we held a special meeting in Levenshulme to discuss with local parents what they wanted to happen now that Sure Start was under threat as a result of the Government’s policies. Mothers listed a number of reasons why Sure Start had made a difference to their lives and the lives of their families. They spoke of a cohesive approach, and said that Sure Start had given them points of contact with other parents. They said that, as well as providing facilities and services, Sure Start had given them an opportunity to make friends and establish links with peer groups. They said that it was particularly valuable to those who did not have much family support, and that it was very important to single-parent families. They also said that it gave parents the power of choice, but that power of choice is now being undermined and placed in jeopardy by the huge cuts being imposed by this joint Liberal Democrat-Conservative Government. The city of Manchester is one of the top four cities in the entire country to have suffered cuts in local government funding from this Government. Next year the cut will be £109 million, and the following year it will be £170 million.

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Andrew Bingham (High Peak, Conservative)

The right hon. Gentleman is painting a good picture of the work done by Sure Start in my constituency, but I wonder whether he and his fellow Manchester Labour Members will make representations to the city council about the £95 million cash reserves that it is holding, and about one or two jobs that it is advertising. For instance, it is offering annual salaries of £38,000 for a communications manager and £128,000 for a creative graphic designer. Would that money not be better put towards Sure Start?

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Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman reads out some brief that has been thrust into his hands and talks about Manchester. I can tell him that he knows nothing whatever about life in Manchester and nothing whatever about the lives of my constituents, a huge proportion of whom have already lived in deprivation and are now living in worse deprivation as a result of what is being done by this Conservative Government. The latest unemployment figure is 9.4%. Let the hon. Gentleman not be briefed by his Whips to tell me about Manchester, because my constituents sent me to tell the House about Manchester, and that is what I will continue to do.

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Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

If the quality of the hon. Gentleman’s first intervention is anything to go by, I think that the House will be better off without a second intervention from him.

However, the problem is not simply the cuts in Manchester’s overall funding but the cuts in the early intervention grant, which helps to fund Sure Start. My right hon. Friend Andy Burnham said that nationally the cuts amounted to £50 per head. In Manchester, the figure is £80 per head: that is what this Government have done to the city. Manchester city council is utterly determined not to close any of our Sure Start centres, but because of what the Government have done—because of the disproportionately high cuts in the early intervention grant—the service that we have been used to in Manchester, and which the council wants to go on providing, will no longer be available.

The council is examining options, not one of which it would prefer to consider. It will have to withdraw from its current role as a provider of services and become a “commissioner of provision”. That means that it will try to provide services which are of sufficient quality and properly targeted, but because of the Government cuts it will not be able to continue to provide the service that a Labour Government enabled my constituents to take for granted as something that they would always have. When I was electioneering for the local elections—

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Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton, Labour)

Oh yes. I shall say more about the local elections in a minute.

When I was electioneering for the local elections last Friday, a constituent came up to me and asked, “Why are the Government doing this to us in Manchester? We did not want this Government in Manchester, but we are stuck with them, so why are they discriminating against us?”

The best that we can do is not to close any centres and to engage in a consultation process. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh has pointed out, on this as on so many other issues, what was said before the general election by both the parties that

comprise the present Government bears no relation to what they are doing now to service after service. The present Prime Minister said:

“we back Sure Start, but we will improve it, because at the moment the people who need Sure Start the most—disadvantaged families—are not getting enough of the benefit. So we’ll contract independent organisations that have a proven track record in helping families”.

One of the huge values of Sure Start was that it was socially cohesive. It did not discriminate socially between those who were more affluent and those who were in employment, and those who were less affluent and those who were not able to get jobs—and heaven knows, those who are not able to get jobs constitute an increasingly high proportion of the people I represent. But if the Prime Minister really wanted to approach Sure Start in the right way and to help disadvantaged families more, that is being breached to an even worse extent. The statistics show that constituencies such as mine are being penalised and targeted by the Government, whereas the families who, according to the Prime Minister, do not need Sure Start as much are suffering much less from cuts.

As I said earlier, the early intervention grant in my city has been cut by £80 per child. In Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Wokingham, it has been cut by £30 per child. The Government have decided to discriminate in favour of the affluent Tory-voting south, and against deprived constituencies like mine which need Sure Start. The Prime Minister himself needs Sure Start. But it is not only the Prime Minister who deceived the country before the general election. The leader of the Liberal Democrat party said:

“My party will protect existing child care entitlements and Sure Start”,

and:

“Sure Start is a really important programme that has made a real difference to millions of parents. Difficult decisions are going to have to be made in public spending but Sure Start is one of the best things the last Government has done and I want all these centres to stay open.”

That is what the leader of the Liberal Democrats says, whose party is conniving at undermining Sure Start and taking its valued facilities away from parents in my constituency who need them.

I have mentioned the local election campaign and what people are seeing happening, and I say this: a week tomorrow we in Manchester will be able to pass our verdict on the Liberal Democrats. There is no point in our passing our verdict on the Conservatives because we do not have any of them on the council, but we will be able to pass our verdict on what they have connived at in the abolition of—[Interruption.] I see a Minister grinning at what the Government have done to the deprived people in my constituency—at what they have done on education maintenance allowance and on Sure Start, at the £100 they have deducted from the winter fuel payment, at the deprived and the poor and those who need money having it taken away from them while the bankers’ bonuses go on soaring and soaring. We will decide in Manchester, and this House has got the right to debate these issues, and we will go on debating them until we have shamed this Government out of existence.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Lindsay Hoyle (Chairman of Ways and Means; Chorley, Labour)

Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me say that 11 Members still wish to speak and the wind-ups will start at 3.40 pm.

2:41 pm
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Caroline Dinenage (Gosport, Conservative)

I start by addressing the sunny side that we have been aiming to get to today by talking about the benefits of Sure Start. It has been fantastic for many of my constituents. At the age of 17, one of my constituents found herself pregnant with twins as a single mum. She had to deal with the challenges of that without the help of a loving family around her, and the burden of those challenges led her to self-harming. I am pleased to be able to say that she is now the proud mum of healthy, happy five-year-old twins, and she maintains that that is all down to the help and support she received from Sure Start. It led her to gain the right medical help that she needed and to gain the parental skills necessary to cope with the challenge of twins—which, let us face it, we would all struggle with. Sure Start put her on the right track and taught her how to be a responsible parent, giving her the skills required to be self-sufficient—so much so that she now acts as a mentor to young mothers in my constituency. She is a bright, shining example of why Sure Start is a good thing. The fact that people who were previously on the edge of society can come back in that way shows the great value of Sure Start.

My husband is in the military, so I know at first hand the difficulties involved in trying to bring up a family effectively as a single mum while a partner is away on duty. Two weeks after the birth of my second child, my husband was deployed overseas. Fortunately, I had a strong and supportive family around me to help, but I know that others are not so lucky. On my visits to local Sure Start centres throughout my constituency, I have met many mums with partners in the military who are living in married quarters that are miles away from their home town and from the support network of family and friends that those with young children sometimes need. All of them have emphasised the importance to them of Sure Start. It provides support for mothers to come together and gain the help and advice they need, and it provides them with a welcome opportunity to talk to someone over the age of five.

Sure Start centres provide important services for children and families and they must not be undermined. A recent independent review found that 54% of current incidents of depression in women and 58% of female suicide attempts can be attributed to adverse childhood experiences. That hammers home the great importance of the early years of our childhood to our future prospects. Research has shown that a child’s development at 22 months is an accurate indicator of educational outcomes at 26 years of age, while boys deemed to be “at risk” at the age of three have almost three times more criminal convictions in adulthood than their peers. This is why we must support children from the very start.

It is important to remember that Sure Start was initially introduced to provide a haven of support and advice for our most vulnerable families in particular, yet Ofsted reports that, under the last Government, half of Sure Start children’s centres were not reaching out to the most vulnerable. Therefore, it is crucial that these resources are protected in order to help those who are

most in need of help—from the children, whose health and well-being is improved, to the young parents, who are given the support and parenting skills that may have been lacking in their own lives. I know how much they gain from this lifeline.

Sure Start was one of the few positive legacies we inherited from the previous Labour Government, and it surprises me that it is the Labour-run councils up and down the country who are seeking to save money by closing these valuable centres almost as a first resort.

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

Which ones?

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Caroline Dinenage (Gosport, Conservative)

I will go on to give a couple of examples.

Some of these councils are cutting valuable front-line services to save money, while protecting the pay packets of the council hierarchy. There are some bizarre—and, frankly, ridiculous—job titles, including a creative director at the county council of Sir Gerald Kaufman, earning £120,000 a year. Labour-run Liverpool city council is closing four Sure Start centres, and its record is a prime example of the wasteful spending that has plagued the effectiveness of our front-line services as, meanwhile, it has an astonishing 23 employees earning over £100,000 a year. Its recently retired chief executive earned more than double what the Prime Minister earns.

Labour-run Manchester city council has put question marks over its Sure Start centres, as the right hon. Gentleman outlined, despite having paid 18 employees over £100,000 a year, having cash reserves of £95 million, as my hon. Friend Andrew Bingham pointed out, and having the highest levels of funding per head in the area. The recent efficiency measures will provide the councils that have been reckless in their spending with an opportunity to reform their strategies and, as a result, function in a more streamlined and effective manner.

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Julie Hilling (Bolton West, Labour)

Does the hon. Lady understand that councils whose areas suffer the greatest deprivation, and which are therefore mainly Labour-run, have faced disproportionately large cuts from the Tory Government, and does she accept that the biggest cuts are taking place because they have received less grant from the Government?

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Caroline Dinenage (Gosport, Conservative)

I cannot comment on the councils in the hon. Lady’s area. I can only speak about my own area, which has some of the highest levels of social deprivation in the south of England, and highlight the fact that our country would not be in this situation—spending 39 times the Sure Start budget on the deficit—if the previous Government had not left us in such a pickle.

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

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Caroline Dinenage (Gosport, Conservative)

Much as I would love to give way to the shadow Secretary of State, he will have plenty of time to say what he wants when summing up.

Hampshire county council has been discussed a lot in the debate. There were plans to keep the number of individually managed centres at 81, but to reduce the number of management hubs to 53. There were never plans to reduce the number of centres. No Sure Start

centres in Hampshire were ever planned to be cut; it was just the management of them that was considered. I can well understand why the Opposition struggle with the concept of reducing bureaucracy, management and red tape even though not doing so would be at the expense of front-line services.

Hampshire county council is making £6 million-worth of savings while protecting front-line services. It is even planning to increase the number of family support workers but outsourcing some of the IT and admin from the county council in Winchester and merging some of the management structures of the smaller centres that are closer together. No front-line Sure Start services will be cut, nor will any family support worker posts. From speaking to the mums who use the Sure Start centres, I know that the most important thing for them is that the service will continue in the same way. In fact, they have all identified that savings can be made, while front-line services can be protected. I have given them my absolute commitment that I will continue the dialogue with Hampshire county council to ensure that that is what happens to front-line services and that no mums or families suffer in any way. That is why I called on the Prime Minister in a recent Prime Minister’s Question Time to endorse proposals that protect front-line services, and that is why I criticised the mischief-making that has resulted in Sure Start being used as a political football. It is, was, and always will be, far too important for that.

Sure Start transforms lives in areas such as Gosport, and I have been inspired by the work of our local centres in dramatically improving the well-being, educational achievements and health of children.

2:49 pm
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Frank Field (Birkenhead, Labour)

I wish to pose a question at the beginning of my short contribution: why are we attaching such importance to today’s debate? I say that because Sure Start is part of a wider area of concern, which the Secretary of State rightly called the “foundation years”. There are two reasons why the House is concerned about this area and what is happening to it, how it will be developed and how it might be affected by any cuts programme. The first is that over the past decade or so we have been given a great deal of new knowledge about how brains develop. In the past, we looked to schools and universities to make good class differences, but development in neuroscience suggests that we need to start much earlier and take action as children develop from the womb and until the age of five. So if we are really concerned about widening life chances and ensuring that people can move from their early years into education and into work, we need to prioritise the foundation years.

Much of the concern of Labour Members has been about what has been happening to Sure Start, and I want to pose some questions about that and end with a suggestion. We are not going to persuade the Government to go back on their non-ring-fencing, much as we would like them to, and so I make a plea to them. Other programmes and public expenditure reviews will take place during this Parliament and I hope that before the Government embark on their second, and probably last, public expenditure review for this five-year Parliament, they will question whether, with hindsight, the non-ring-fencing of some of these key services has been a good

idea. The Secretary of State needed all his skills to avoid answering questions from Labour Members today, because real losses are clearly involved when local authorities with reduced budgets have to make choices on what they think is most important in the area covered by the intervention grant.

If the Government are to make real sense of the foundation years during this Parliament, they will need to change their attitude towards non-ring-fencing. I intervened earlier to ask whether the money for the new initiative of very significantly increasing the number of poor children between two and three who will receive nursery education will be ring-fenced, and the Secretary of State gave us the good news that it would be. So we can conclude that although the Government are not going to say in public that, with hindsight, they were probably wrong not to ring-fence, it is clear that in any future settlement they will prioritise those areas where they believe the greatest gains for taxpayers can be got from spending their money. I suggest that, in the next review, foundation years spending is one area that needs to be ring-fenced.

The second question that I wish to pose applies particularly to Labour Members, but also to those on the Government Benches. We are all anxious to present Sure Start in the best possible light. It is true that it has established itself as a universal service that is non-stigmatising and offers help, but I question whether we have the information at our disposal to be so confident that all Sure Start centre budgets are being spent in the best way possible. When Sure Start began in Birkenhead 10 years ago, I sought in vain to gain from our four local centres information on the number of children in their area, the number of children that they were contacting and whether they were ensuring that the greatest help went to the most-deprived children—I never received answers. Now that Sure Start centres know that things are up for grabs and that, for example, the schools in Birkenhead are probably going to bid for the centres, people are of course anxious to talk about what their services might provide.

In an age in which there is less money in most areas for Sure Start, it is more important that the money is spent on the poorest children, not the richest. Adam Smith’s hidden hand seemed to work at the doors of Sure Start, in that the doors were opened most widely to those bushy-tailed mums who are confident about themselves and who saw what a wonderful service it was and went in—they have benefited fully. I still ponder about the number of mothers in my constituency who are very poor, who are suffering from post-natal depression and with whom nobody makes contact. That is the group that Sure Start needs to be most involved with.

Photo of Dan Rogerson

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall, Liberal Democrat)

Does the right hon. Gentleman think we could ensure that the more resource-intensive activities that take place in the children’s centres could be targeted while also ensuring that they can still be used in other ways to encourage everybody to come in, to work together and to learn from each other and support each other? Does he think we can get the balance between those two things?

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Frank Field (Birkenhead, Labour)

My report tries to suggest how we can keep the service universal while also concentrating help on those in greatest need. That is crucial if in the next

10 years we are to see not only a development of the Sure Start budgets, but a significant increase in the budgets for foundation years—that is where any new money should go. It would help Sure Start to meet that objective if the Government were to move as quickly as they could to ensure that foundation years provision overall, and Sure Start in particular, was paid by results. In that context, we need to consider whether more children are better ready each year to start school as a result of expenditure in this area. I have asked heads in my constituency, where we have had Sure Start for 10 years, and they have said that that is not so.

The collapse in parenting may be occurring at a greater pace in some areas than it is more generally throughout the country—this problem is not a particular one. One of the great reasons why we support the foundation years is that more children are less well nurtured now than was the case 10, 20 or 30 years ago. One of the great things that Sure Start is about is trying to ensure that those young people who did not have good parents and who did not learn the ropes from them find from somebody else the best way of ensuring that their children are really fit to start their first day of school.

I hope that the Government have learned the lessons about ring-fencing. We will see this in their actions, because I do not expect a Minister to say at the Dispatch Box, “I think our approach was wrong, but next time it will be played differently.” Secondly, I hope that we all agree that whatever our framework for Sure Start, we want to ensure that the most vulnerable children are helped most. I wish to make a brief suggestion about the next stage of this policy. The Government have accepted all the proposals that they could immediately accept from my report, but one proposal relies on the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I suggested that each time the Chancellor considers whether to increase benefit rates for children, he should consider whether in that year it would be more appropriate to spend some or all of that money not on benefit increases, but on building up foundation years provision.

Some Labour Members are slightly apprehensive about that suggestion, because we have been committed to abolishing child poverty, as defined in monetary terms, by 2020. Those on the Government side are also committed to that and I think that Labour Members fear that if the Government decided to move moneys from benefit increases to services, we would lose that goal of abolishing child poverty as we defined it when we were in government. I wish to suggest that that clash does not exist. A couple of years ago, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation supported research examining the most effective ways to ensure that more children live in households with incomes above the target of two thirds of median earnings. It found that that was done not by increasing benefits, but by increasing the amount of child care. In fact, if we attended to that and ensured that child care was of high quality, up to half of those children who are now deemed to be poor would not be poor because their parents would be able to combine the work and tax credits that are available to give them an income that would take them out of our definition of financial poverty. I suggest that the Government consider significant increases in child care and that they finance that by

holding back on some benefit increases for children in future years. We will not only achieve more quickly the goal of abolishing the numbers of children in financial poverty but, by ensuring that child care is of the highest quality, we will also ensure that many of those children are better prepared to start school and that their lives will be very different from those of their parents.

I chair the new academy in Birkenhead and we have been debating what should be in our contract with the town. I think that one part of our contract will be that we will run an academy that will ensure that children coming to our school will have the opportunity to get better jobs than their parents did when they had to start work. That is what most parents mean by social mobility, and I hope that I have shown today that if we consider the amount and quality of child care, we might not only lessen the amount of financial child poverty in our country but significantly open up the life chances of our poorest children.

3:01 pm
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Richard Fuller (Bedford, Conservative)

I have listened with great interest to the debate. Speeches seem to have fallen into two categories: they have shown Sure Start as a shared success on which today’s debate gives us an opportunity to improve and they have made it a partisan issue and an opportunity to score points. We just heard from Mr Field, a man whose comments are always listened to very attentively by Members on both sides of the House, and his speech was a classic example of the first of those two categories. He made some very good points, one of which I shall comment on—that is, improving and taking Sure Start to the next level. Of course, we have heard other speeches, most notably that made by Mr Slaughter, that are more partisan and point-scoring.

I felt that the shadow Secretary of State’s speech was uncharacteristically ineffectual today. I always look forward to listening to his speeches, but I felt that it fell somewhere in the middle, as though his brief told him to make some electioneering, rallying, partisan points but his heart told him that Sure Start was far too important to be brought down to that level.

I want to try to address some of the points and try to avoid some of the partisan claims. My first point concerns the closure of Sure Start centres. I know that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends went through the general election confronted by Labour party smear stories about our intentions for Sure Start. It was a disgraceful smear then and it is a disgraceful smear when we hear it repeated, albeit in a muted way, today.

I am glad to have heard Members on both sides of the House talk about those councils that, even in very difficult times, are showing their commitment by maintaining Sure Start centres and to have heard the commitment on that point from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. When we hear that councils such as Harlow and Kent, which my hon. Friend Gordon Henderson mentioned, and, I understand, Liberal Democrat Councils and Labour councils such as Tameside have committed to maintaining Sure Start centres, surely that shows that this is truly a shared commitment for all parties. Why are other councils closing Sure Start centres? What have

they done to find other savings? What sorts of overpaid jobs are they protecting? How analytical have they been about their budgets? Are we sure that they are not playing politics with children’s futures? I do not care what their political stripe is—I ask the Minister whether, through this process, he will pay close attention to the reasons why those councils are closing or threatening to close Sure Start centres.

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Julie Hilling (Bolton West, Labour)

Can the hon. Gentleman explain how a local authority such as Bolton can cut 25% of its budget without harming any of the services it provides?

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Richard Fuller (Bedford, Conservative)

That will definitely be a challenge. I know that the hon. Lady has deep experience in youth affairs and youth matters from her previous role, but people in Bolton have a higher level of public expenditure per head than we have in Bedford, where the deprivation level is about the same. When there are sharp reductions, that will cause some issues. That is an issue for her council to consider and it is crucial that services should come first for her council and for other councils. The methodology for delivering those services is where resources need to brought back into the budget.

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Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth, Conservative)

Cornwall council is keeping all 40 of its Sure Start centres by using innovative methods involving consulting parents or federating the centres under the advisory boards or school boards. That will lead to reductions in management costs without reducing services. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a good example of a council that is not cutting front-line Sure Start services?

Photo of Richard Fuller

Richard Fuller (Bedford, Conservative)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I do not want to get too distracted by the issue of public expenditure, which I shall come to a little later. I am not sure that we want to tie our views about the future of Sure Start specifically to this period of deficit reduction measures and their consequences for local councils.

One benefit of being smeared by the Labour party about our intentions on Sure Start during the general election—a smear that has been proven to be completely without foundation—was that I got the great opportunity to visit a number of children’s centres in my community of Bedford. I must reinforce some of the points made by Members on both sides of the House about what a tremendous venue they are for networking and experience sharing between young mothers and fathers. In my home community, which is marked by a tremendous amount of ethnic diversity, when one goes to a community centre such as the neighbourhood centre in Queens Park and sees the Sure Start centre and the children’s services offered there, one really sees people from different communities mixing. That would not have happened without Sure Start—or, at least, not in such a great way—and we all want it to be maintained.

Many comments have been made about ring-fencing and about its role. In response to a question from Duncan Hames we heard that neither the Conservative party nor the Labour party continued to commit in their manifesto specifically to ring-fencing this budget. It is important, however, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead just said, to see what the consequences of getting rid of the ring fence will be on our budget. I am not sure that I would come

to such a definitive conclusion as he would, if there are examples of where the loss of ring-fencing has led to closures. This period of reduction is quite exceptional and considerable benefits can be found by putting the responsibility for determining the budgets for Sure Start centres down into the local communities. As councils reinforce their commitment to Sure Start centres in difficult times, that opens up more opportunities for examples of best practice to come to the fore and broadens the service offerings that local councils will seek to put in their centres.

Let me return to the issue of the overlap between cuts to public expenditure and the commitment to Sure Start. This is not good territory for the debate. As I mentioned, it is incredibly difficult for councils to match their budgets in difficult times but the issues about the future of Sure Start need to go beyond the short-term deficit reduction measures that councils are having to take. Importantly, we should remember when we hear speeches about committing more money to something that we lead ourselves down a false path if we think that that always leads to better outcomes. Commitment is not shown by how much money is spent. That kind of thinking leads to profligacy, waste and ultimately to a complete mess of the finances, as we have seen with the situation of general government. Thinking that money is our indication of commitment is more sinister because it sets up expectations of what will be provided far beyond what it might be possible to commit to. It stifles innovation, creativity and opportunities to make more out of less and it also withdraws a commitment to volunteering.

Volunteering is an area in which we are already seeing, in many of the Sure Start centres in Bedford, a significant number of volunteers coming forward to expand the role of the services offered. That should surely be most welcome in all areas and communities. Volunteering reinforces the networking value that we get from our centres and enables us to do more effective outreach into our communities, particularly hard-to-reach communities, in all our towns and constituencies.

Today has been a good opportunity for us to identify ways in which Sure Start centres can be improved beyond the measures already identified by the Government in terms of expanding early-years provision. However, progress must be based on a recognition by all parties that there is now a shared commitment to Sure Start, which is being reinforced and not threatened in these tough times. I hope that all Members on both sides of the House will support the Government’s endeavours in that regard.

3:11 pm
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Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, Labour)

It has been a good debate. I have been interested in early years for a long time. When I became the Chair of the then Select Committee on Education and Skills, the very first report I did was into early years. Some Members who were on the Committee during that inquiry are still in the House. We thought it was pretty groundbreaking of us to hire at the beginning of the inquiry someone with a PhD who was expert in the development of the child’s brain. We had the benefit of wonderful research people such as Professor Kathy Sylva, who was a significant influence in understanding that a child’s life chances are

largely determined by early-years stimulation before 22 months. That is quite startling and was very new thinking 10 years ago.

I have always been absolutely committed to the idea that what we do for children in their early years is of the utmost importance. It sometimes irritated me, as the years went on, when we did inquiries about every other bit of education right through to higher education, that we seem to live in a strange world in which we take things for granted and spend less on early years and more as children get older. I heard a small voice constantly telling me—you will remember sharing this view in your former role, Madam Deputy Speaker—that we should be spending more money on the earlier years and tailing off spending in later years. The amount of resources we put in does matter, but I agree with Richard Fuller that what is important is how that money is spent and the quality of the spend.

Interestingly, the very last inquiry I did as the Chair of the Committee was also on Sure Start and early years. In parallel to that last inquiry we did another into NEETs—those not in education, employment or training. There is a very strong relationship between what happens to a child in their first months and years and whether they are likely to end up as a NEET. That link is vital. Stimulation is important and it is sad to go into a school or other setting and be told by people there that they can identify pretty accurately very early in the life of a child whether that child is a potential NEET. That is depressing. I am sure that everyone in the House would agree that, although we came into politics for all sorts of strange reasons, most of us share the belief that all human beings ought to get the chance to develop the potential and the skills that they were born with. For me, that is what the Sure Start and early-years stimulation debate is about. I am sure that we all want to ensure that potential is developed to the full and that we do not want talent to be wasted. We live in a competitive world and I am unashamed to say that I want our country and our economy to be successful. I want it to grow and do wonderful things. If I were to speak in the next debate, I would say that there is a clear link between what happens in a child’s early years and their potential to go to university and make the most of their life.

This issue is partly about resources and partly about spend, but it is also about quality and how it is monitored. It is very difficult to find really good experience and then to spread it fast. That is even more difficult given that the nature of poverty is changing. I know that I am in danger of boring the House on this point because I keep coming back to it. For so many people in the House and outside it, their idea of poverty is a concept from 30 or 50 years ago—a kind of static poverty. When I go to early-years settings and schools up and down the country I find a dynamic poverty. I am talking about children not being in the same school for very long and moving on as their parents move. I am talking about a dynamic in which people come from other countries and do not have the English language at home, perhaps having a foreign language on their televisions. I am talking about children who get very little support from the home environment. The nature of poverty has changed and, like all human beings, we tend to live a little in the

past. We have to recognise the nature of poverty today, the challenges of deprivation that a child in poverty has today and the fact that they are different from the past.

One inspiring thing about the work on early years is the fact that the quality of research is better than any educational research I have come across. I have often criticised the quality of educational research in some of our universities. There are complex reasons for that, such as a lack of good salaries and a lack of attraction to those areas of research, perhaps because there are much better salaries for those who stay on and become successful head teachers or principals. The quality of early-years research has been outstanding and we have to build on that.

We also have to be able to evaluate success. It is not good enough to go along anecdotally and say, “I saw this wonderful example of a Sure Start centre” in Southampton, Huddersfield or anywhere else and think that it is easy to replicate. So many of the successful systems that one looks at are difficult to replicate because they involve excellent people who have shown leadership and built successful teams. That is not impossible to clone—it is not impossible to have a system—but we have to realise that it is difficult. When the concept of Sure Start was originally introduced, we decided that we would go to the 500-most deprived communities in the land, but there was a big flaw in that approach because most poor children do not live in those 500 poorest communities. That is a dilemma for us all. It is more difficult than asking where the 500 poorest communities in Britain are. That does not work and there have to be more centres than that, which is why we moved to a figure of 3,500.

I think there are some ideological—no, not ideological, but intellectual—differences between us. When we looked into this issue in the final report, a couple of members of the Select Committee would have liked to have gone back to a smaller number of centres. I do not think that that was callous or because they wanted fewer centres; I think it was because they thought that we could probably do better over a period of time with 500 centres and that dissipating talent as a resource was dangerous. I disagreed with that, as did the majority of the Committee, on an all-party basis, because we thought that 3,500 was the number necessary to reach those poor children wherever they were in our country. There is a lot to learn and my worry is that the methods for assessing quality are not refined enough. I do not think that Ofsted has been good enough in the past; it has been improving but still more needs to be done in terms of assessing and spreading good practice.

One of the wonderful things about our Sure Start and children’s centres—I hope that people agree—is that they represent the end of looking at children in bits. Previously, we would look separately at a child’s health, stimulation and so on. In a Sure Start centre, for the first time, the assessment of all sorts of bits of their needs were brought together in one place, so that a child, for whom there might be a lot of pressures and challenges, was looked at holistically. That children’s centre was a one-stop shop where the child was evaluated and got the proper help. That is not always in a building. It is a matter of outreach, finding out which child needs the help, and giving it. I agree with my right hon. Friend Mr Field that that is difficult, but it can be done.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Bedford about resources. No one wants to waste resources, but we all know what will happen if Sure Start is cut by a significant percentage. I do not care so much about buildings, although having a building near a community which people can identify and get to is pretty important. If, as is the case in the constituencies of some of my colleagues, a children’s centre that used to have a substantial budget now has £25,000, not much can be done with that. It is all about resource.

I make a plea to the Secretary of State. He always says that cuts are necessary because of the economy and the dreadful things that the Labour Government did in connection with debt. He would say that, as we would probably do in his place. Those of us who care about children and about education want him to go into Cabinet as a bruiser and a thug, to bash the table and say, “I want a budget for my children and for the future of children in our country,” and to be much more physical about it. Sometimes I think he is a little too polite when he gets round that table.

3:21 pm
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Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham, Conservative)

It is always a pleasure to follow Mr Sheerman.

I oppose the motion moved by the shadow Secretary of State for Education, Andy Burnham, and his assertion that local authorities are disinvesting in Sure Start centres. My local authority, Medway, has 19 Sure Start centres and all 19 are being kept open. Seven of them are in my constituency. There is a seven-year age gap between the centres in the two parts of the constituency. Medway, an excellent Conservative-run local authority, recognised that the centres were a valuable lifeline. It is always right for such decisions to be made by local authorities, because they know what goes on on the ground.

The seven Sure Start centres in my constituency include one at Burnt Oak school in Gillingham, which I attended back in 1984. It is a tough area where there are real social and economic problems. The Sure Start centre deals with those.

The shadow Secretary of State accepted that Sure Start centres were being kept open by local authorities across the country, but he asserted that they were only bricks and mortar, and that there was nothing substantive about them. He is wrong about that. If he comes to Medway, I will take him around our Sure Start centres, show him what they do, and show him that they are not just bricks and mortar. They hold drop-in sessions for parents and children, play activities with music and stories, ante-natal classes and baby clinics. The centres offer encouragement and support for parents thinking about training and finding new jobs. They have links with local schools and voluntary agencies. They provide information and advice on breast feeding, speech and language therapy, and parenting classes. That is what goes on.

The shadow Secretary of State may acknowledge that Conservative authorities show no inclination to close Sure Start centres and that it would be wrong to assert otherwise, but he asserts that they are just bricks and mortar. They are not. The Government and

Conservative authorities such as mine in Medway are committed to keeping those Sure Start centres and helping the most vulnerable to get the best start in life.

The role of central Government is crucial, in partnership with local authorities. We are discussing the extra funding and resources that may be made available in future for two-year-olds, but it is not something that will happen only in the future. I have a letter from the Department for Education dated 31 March[Interruption.] Maybe the shadow Secretary of State is not putting his questions properly or succinctly, and that is why he is not getting answers. The letter is addressed to the authority to which I referred, Medway, and it states:

“I would like to thank you for the bid that you submitted to test out effective approaches to the expansion of free early education for two year olds and to improve provision for three and four year olds. We are pleased to confirm that your bid has been successful.”

So it is not just about the future. It is about this Government. Within the first 12 months they have expanded facilities for two, three and four-year-olds. That is why I say that in partnership with local authorities, which do an excellent job, the Government are committed to supporting early years provision for our young children in the most difficult and deprived areas, which I certainly represent in Gillingham and Rainham.

Julie Hilling spoke about deprivation up north. She may have her experiences of deprivation, but in my constituency there is a seven-year difference in life expectancy between one part of the constituency and another. I grew up in that constituency and in that deprived area, and still live there. We in the south have high levels of deprivation. The discussion should not be about north or south. Wherever there is deprivation, help must be provided. I will work with the hon. Lady on that.

Of course Sure Start centres are crucial to help early years development, but the role of the voluntary sector should not be forgotten. For example, Contact a Family helps to support 300,000 families with disabled children. It is right and proper that we recognise the excellent work that it does. The state, local government and the voluntary sector each have a role, and should work together in partnership.

I recognise that brevity is a virtue, not a vice, so I shall be brief. Many of those who work at Sure Start centres or who want to work with the voluntary sector are hindered by bureaucracy. For example, those who work with children in the early years must have qualified teacher and early years professional status. There are not many in the voluntary sector who have such qualifications. I welcome the Government’s commitment to review that requirement. There are many people out there who want to work with our young ones through the big society and the voluntary sector to give them the best start in life.

I welcome the support given by central and local government. I pay tribute to the excellent workers in our Sure Start centres. They are dedicated and committed, and they need that support. They also need freedom from bureaucracy. It is right that the Government should review the requirement for Sure Start centres to be open for 40 hours a week, although there may not be a need for that and those resources could be used elsewhere on the front line. I support the Government’s provisions and proposals, and disagree with the shadow Secretary of State’s motion and assertions.

3:28 pm
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Julie Hilling (Bolton West, Labour)

I want to talk briefly about the cumulative effect of cuts to the organisations that make up the sum of Sure Start provision, because Sure Start is not just about child care; the best centres provide so much more.

Meadowbank in my constituency provides support for families in one of the most deprived wards in Wigan. It provides not only the usual support for parenting and child care, but all sorts of educational provision for mums and dads, encouraging them to improve their basic literacy and numeracy and to get back into formal learning. Those courses are at risk, however, because of cuts to further education funding.

The centre works in partnership with the Connexions service to support young people into employment, and Connexions is not—or perhaps I should say, was not—just about careers advice; it was also about providing opportunities for young people to build their confidence and skills and to undertake different work experience. Money was available to provide bespoke opportunities to help the hardest to reach into employment, training or education, but Connexions funding is part of the early intervention grant, so it is disappearing as we speak. Thousands of Connexions workers were made redundant on 31 March, and many thousands more have received letters to say that they are at risk of redundancy.

Meadowbank also provides sexual health services to young people and to their parents, services that are at risk due to the cuts in teenage pregnancy and health service funding. Teenage pregnancy funding was also put into the early intervention grant pot. Meadowbank has worked with the youth service to provide informal education to children and young people, but guess what? Youth service funding is also part of the early intervention grant and faces savage cuts. I truly hope that Meadowbank stays open, but it will not be able to provide the services that it did 12 months ago.

Sure Start centres in other parts of my constituency have run out of libraries—libraries that are at risk of closure because of the disproportionate cuts that the Tory-led Government have made to local authorities in the north-west. That in turn puts Sure Start services at risk.

I was always taught that you cannot get a quart into a pint pot, or indeed a quart out of a pint pot, but the Secretary of State seems to think that you can. He has put a range of funding streams into the early intervention grants, and forgive me but I am going to list them. They are Sure Start children’s centres; early years sustainability; the two-year-old offer; the disabled children short breaks programme; the January guarantee; Connexions; the child trust fund; Think Family; the youth opportunity fund; the youth crime action plan; the challenge and support project; the children’s fund; positive activities for young people; the youth taskforce; the young people’s substance misuse service; the teenage pregnancy service; key stage 4 foundation learning; the targeted mental health in schools programme; ContactPoint; the children’s social care work force; and the intensive intervention fund. I think that I have listed them all, but I may well have missed some.

The Secretary of State says that Sure Start funding has been increased, and I suppose that we could say that—if we agreed to get rid of every other programme

funded by the early intervention grant. That is impossible, of course, because of the statutory duty to provide many of those services, but it is also unwise, because of the work that service providers actually do.

It is time for honesty in this debate. Funding to all the areas now covered by the early intervention grant has been cut, so funding for Sure Start has also been reduced.

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Anna Soubry (Broxtowe, Conservative)

Does the hon. Lady agree that this is all about political will? In Nottinghamshire, where we too have had great cuts in Government money, not only have we ensured that we do not need to close a single one of our 58 Sure Start centres, but in Awsworth in my constituency we have actually opened one. It is about political will—balancing the budget, cutting bureaucracy and getting into the reserves. Does she not agree?

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Julie Hilling (Bolton West, Labour)

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I do not know how Nottingham manages to get a quart out of a pint pot, but when we look at a £50 per head cut and, in Wigan, a £60 per head cut in funding, we find that it is impossible to keep all the services open. We only have to look at the faces of councillors and council leaders in Bolton and Wigan to see the difficulty that they have in trying to support existing services. Bolton has to find £42 million of cuts this year. How on earth is it supposed to do that? Over two years, one quarter of its budget will be cut.

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Julie Hilling (Bolton West, Labour)

No, let me finish my point.

Bolton and Wigan will not—I hope—close any of their Sure Start centres. They are at risk because of the cuts to libraries and other services, but my overall point is that the other services which make up the Sure Start project will be cut: youth services will be cut, Connexions will be cut and teenage pregnancy funding will be cut. All those services will be cut because the Tory-led Government have savagely cut their grants to local authorities.

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Anna Soubry (Broxtowe, Conservative)

And those cuts would have been made if the hon. Lady’s party had been elected, because her party would have had to make cuts of at least 20%. So will she answer me this, please? How would her local council have implemented the budget had there been a Labour Government with 20%-plus cuts?

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Julie Hilling (Bolton West, Labour)

I am absolutely delighted to answer that question, because Bolton council prepared for £15 million of cuts this year—the amount that the Labour Government told the authority that it was likely to face. It was therefore facing £60 million of cuts over four years. No doubt, that money was difficult to find, but the council now has to find £60 million of cuts over two years, and potentially another £30 million after that. With £15 million of cuts, would life have been hard? Yes, life would have been difficult, but instead of that it has to find £42 million of cuts.

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Andy Burnham (Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator); Leigh, Labour)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because I can, I hope, give Anna Soubry an answer and support what my hon. Friend is saying. Let us look at the range of the per-child cuts under the early intervention grant this year. In a number of authorities, such as Kingston

upon Thames and Hampshire, they start from £30 per head for every person under 20. Let us turn to some of the authorities that my hon. Friend mentioned. The cut for Wigan is £60 per head, while for Liverpool—

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Dawn Primarolo (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means; Bristol South, Labour)

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is supposed to be making an intervention, and we are coming towards the end of the debate.

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Julie Hilling (Bolton West, Labour)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I look forward to my right hon. Friend giving more of that information.

It is utterly unacceptable that the Government should be playing a game that says that local authorities have the funding and are therefore making the choice. The Government have cut funding to local authorities and have cut the pot of money that is funding Sure Start. They are wrong to do so and they should reconsider their decisions to harm families, children and young people struggling for survival in the dark days of high unemployment and ever-rising costs of living.

Finally, it is not enough to say that Sure Start centres will remain open. The question must be about what services remain and whether they are of the quality and quantity that prevailed previously. The answer, too often, is a resounding no. The Government should rethink their decision and truly look at how they can support children and families, without saying that the money exists within local authorities to do that, when patently it does not.

3:36 pm
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Ben Gummer (Ipswich, Conservative)

I have to profess that I am underwhelmed by the motion. It asks, in the end, for the Secretary of State to monitor the evidence. The Opposition do not ask for the closures of half the Sure Start centres in the country to be reversed, but that was the threat put before the electorate at the last election.

As I mentioned earlier, Ms Harman was in my constituency during the last election. I confronted her at the entrance to the Tree House Sure Start centre. She shouted at me that centres in Ipswich would be closed within months of the general election. What has happened? Not only has every centre stayed open, but two new ones have opened. The services have been protected because of the decisions of the Conservative county council, which faces £90 million-worth of cuts over the next two years, and because of the strength of will of Councillor Graham Newman, who leads the children’s and young people’s services there.

Suffolk shows how it can be done. The shadow Secretary of State suggests that the centres are hollowed out. Last week I was at the Tree House centre, on the anniversary of that altercation with the right hon. and learned Lady. I went inside with Claire Ball, the manager of the centre. It is true that parts of the organisation of Sure Start centres are having to be remodelled, but Claire Ball is introducing new services and the county council is excited about the possibilities in the Health and Social Care Bill, which will allow it to integrate social services yet further within Sure Start centres.

I assure the shadow Secretary of State that every centre is staying open. Perhaps he will tell that to the right hon. and learned Lady. I have written to her and

confirmed that she has not apologised for the smear that she made. Every centre has stayed open and the services are being improved and increased.

That bears testament to the passion that Government Members feel for Sure Start. It is telling that more Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members are attending this Opposition day debate than Labour Members. I exempt Mr Field from that criticism. I do not want to embarrass him once again by mentioning him, but he has driven many people on both sides of the Chamber into politics. Having been discouraged from this vocation from perhaps too close a connection with it, he was the one person who saved it in my mind.

The genesis of the right hon. Gentleman’s idea is to have a broader universal service, with funding targeted at those who need it most, to repair the damage of decades of failure—not dreamt of or created by anyone deliberately—in communities across the country. The failure has been of a structural welfare state that does not support families and does not, at times, support communities. That failure was not designed, but it has happened. We are in the process of re-stitching together communities, and Sure Start is part of that.

May I ask the Secretary of State and Ministers to address two things that could be improved? We need proper longitudinal studies through Sure Start into primary education so that we can understand the evidence, but there are blocks in data protection which prevent that from happening. Primary school teachers would very much welcome better co-ordination with Sure Start managers and assistants, and they could do that better if data protection rules were relaxed. It would also be useful to be able to encourage a greater diversity of providers so that we can share best practice across the country.

Conservative Members are passionately in favour of Sure Start, and that is why it is such a pleasure to see it flourishing in my constituency under this Government.

3:40 pm
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Sharon Hodgson (Shadow Minister (Education); Washington and Sunderland West, Labour)

This debate, like others before it, has shown the strength of feeling in this House that the children of this country deserve the very best.

Let us be clear about why we are here today. The Government’s mandate was to protect and improve the Sure Start network; instead, they have done the opposite and put centres up and down the country at risk of cutback and closure. There is no way in which Ministers can hide behind the favourite line we hear of late that this is a coalition and manifestos do not count. It is not the case that the Tories wanted to abolish Sure Start and the Lib Dems heroically stood their ground with the Business Secretary wielding his secret weapon menacingly, because the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and every single Member sat opposite me today were elected on a promise to protect and build on the Sure Start centre network. The fact that they have done the opposite represents yet another broken promise to the British people.

I was always brought up to think that when someone breaks a promise, the least one can expect is an apology. This debate gave the Secretary of State a chance not only to apologise to the parents, carers and children who will suffer because of his broken promise but to

make amends for it. Our motion gives Ministers an opportunity to say to all the parents who are fighting tooth and nail up and down the country to save their children’s centres, “We are sorry; we will keep our promise.” Ministers have said in this Chamber that there is enough money in the early intervention grant to maintain and improve Sure Start. In the comprehensive spending review, the Chancellor told us that there is £1.135 billion every year throughout this Parliament. If that were true, they would have no problem in voting for the motion, but they will not do so. The Minister will no doubt cite the localism agenda. Decisions should be taken locally, he will say—but these should be decisions about how to improve outcomes for children rather than where to cut inputs. In this case, localism is not about who makes the decisions but about who takes the blame.

Reinstating the ring fence is not a panacea, but it would bring back the stability and security that the Sure Start network needs. It would let managers and staff concentrate on how to deliver the improvements that we all want in children’s centres rather than forcing them to focus on financial fire-fighting year in, year out. Parents would have the sense of security, which they do not have at the moment, that their local centre would be there from the moment their child is born right up until they started school. We would have a sign that the Government are listening to all the advice that they have sought—not least from my right hon. Friend Mr Field, whose excellent speech we heard earlier, and my hon. Friend Mr Allen—and that they are taking early education and early intervention seriously. It would also mean that we would not be left with situations such as those in Tory-controlled Hampshire, which is facing 35% budget cuts; Liberal Democrat-led Hull, with its smoke and mirrors and 50% cuts; and Tory-led Hammersmith and Fulham, which has a strange hub-and-spoke model where the spokes are buildings with a caretaker and a bottle of bleach. A building running on £25,000 a year or less is not a Sure Start children’s centre—it is just a building.

We are giving Ministers a chance to increase their popularity with parents—and not just the Toby Youngs of this world, either: parents such as those I met on mother’s day outside Downing street, who were handing in petitions from all over the country that, on that day alone, contained 52,000 signatures; parents such as the ones who came to the Sure Start seminar in Parliament, which was hosted by my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham; parents such as those I met recently with my hon. Friend Chris Williamson, who are fighting Tory-controlled Derby city council over its plans to close or cut centres; and parents such as those I have met on doorsteps over the past few weeks in Sheffield, York, Peterborough, Gravesham, Newcastle and Sunderland in my own constituency. No matter where one goes, the view is the same: the Government are letting down families and attacking social mobility at every stage of a child’s life.

We have heard a lot today about Hampshire. The debate has done a real service in exposing the cynicism of some Conservative councils. We heard the surprise news that a last-minute extraordinary meeting was called in Hampshire yesterday, although a final decision is not

due until 24 May. That is a blatantly cynical move to get through the local election period. The council is still cutting £6 million from the budget, which will cut right to the heart of the service. One of the petitions handed into Downing street on mother’s day was from Hampshire, and another petition signed by 22,000 parents was handed in on 18 April by 50 mums from Hampshire. That may well have led to yesterday’s U-turn. Twenty-eight centres were earmarked for closure or serious cuts, and there was a legal challenge to the rushed consultation.

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Sharon Hodgson (Shadow Minister (Education); Washington and Sunderland West, Labour)

You have already spoken, thank you.

We announced the subject of this Opposition day debate last week, just before the bank holiday weekend. The fact that an extraordinary meeting was called over a bank holiday weekend and hastily arranged for the other side of the weekend is very telling. I am sure that the tens of thousands of parents in Hampshire who signed the two petitions were happy when they heard the news, as we were when we heard it today. However, the news is bitter-sweet. Although we are told that no centres will close, they face a 35% budget cut: going from £17 million to £11 million is a £6 million cut, which is huge. A £6 million cut is much more than just the streamlining of services, and parents know that. They use the services, and will notice if they are taken away or diminished. Indeed, on the Facebook page for the Hampshire children’s centres campaign, this is not seen as a U-turn or a great victory. The group is still campaigning, because it is deeply worried about the £6 million cut and the effect it will have on children’s centres. It says that the campaign goes on.

The Secretary of State loves playing to the gallery, so why will he not give the people what they want and say that he will consider bringing back the ring fence? After all, it would be a nice boost for all those Tory and Lib Dem candidates who are struggling on the doorstep. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, who is one of the most knowledgeable people in this area, challenged the non-ring-fencing of this vital area of expenditure and said that the Government should change their attitude to non-ring-fencing. That is strong stuff from a highly respected expert in the area. I hope that the Government pay heed to that.

It is not as if the Secretary of State has not had practice at backing down. In fact, he is probably the most qualified person in the Cabinet when it comes to U-turns, and that Cabinet includes the Deputy Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh laid bare at the beginning of the debate the reasons the Secretary of State probably will not back down and support the motion. He repeated the claims of Ministers that Sure Start funding is protected and showed that that simply is not true. There is not enough money to maintain the current network of children’s centres if Ministers expect councils to deliver all the other important programmes that the grant pays for, such as short breaks for disabled children. How can there be enough, when there has been a real-terms cut of 22% in the pot?

If I am wrong, why are centres closing or effectively being mothballed, and why are services being cut? If I am wrong, why would Ministers have a problem with the motion? But I am not wrong: they are, just as they have been wrong on Bookstart, on EMA, on the English

baccalaureate and on Building Schools for the Future. They are the most incompetent Department in a shambolic Government, and the worst thing is that children’s lives are at stake.

I know that some Government Members do see the value of Sure Start and recognise the importance of protecting it, and we have heard from some of them today. My plea to those Members is simple: support the motion and show their constituents that they understand the priorities and concerns of ordinary, hard-working families, even if their Front-Bench colleagues do not.

3:50 pm
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Tim Loughton (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education; East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

What a debate we eventually had. I have to say that in almost 14 years in the House, I have never known such an anticlimax at the opening of an Opposition day debate as when the shadow Secretary of State spoke today, following his top billing in the press and his frenetic tweeting about this important motion and debate.

We were promised a grand tour d’horizon of local authorities taking the axe to children’s centres. After the shadow Secretary of State stated the blindingly obvious about Sure Start centres featuring in the top five most popular policies—and after reminding us of how former Prime Ministers had constantly scaremongered about Conservative policy on Sure Start—he tantalised us with the prospect of “getting to the bottom of the facts on the ground”. He started tentatively with the mention of Derby, where, allegedly, some six Sure Start centres could be threatened. That went unchallenged.

We then heard about Hammersmith and Fulham, where, in fact, a new Sure Start centre has been opened. We briefly heard mention of Barnet and Bromley, and then we went on to Hampshire, where we were told no fewer than 28 Sure Start children’s centres were going to be closed—until it was pointed out that in fact not a single one is going to be closed or ever was going to be. Yet when challenged by my hon. Friend Caroline Dinenage, the shadow Secretary of State said that he did not read the Hampshire daily press.

The right hon. Gentleman then came up with the absurd claim that Hampshire council had deliberately performed a U-turn because it felt so threatened and intimidated by the prospect of today’s Opposition day debate that it had to climb down. Then we heard that it was all about electioneering in Hampshire, despite the fact that Hampshire county council, which runs the Sure Start centres, does not have any elections this year. If any local authority was so fickle as to base its policy on the prospect of a 46-minute, lacklustre, misinformed, misfired and opportunistic speech by the shadow Secretary of State, I would want my money back if I was a council tax payer in that authority’s area.

Even when the right hon. Gentleman had been well and truly rumbled, was there a word of apology, a hint of retraction, a whimper of humility? Not a murmur. Indeed, he went on to repeat his calumny later in his speech. And that was it—that was the tour d’horizon around the United Kingdom. He then quickly shunted off into the sidings with an attack on Chris Huhne on EMA, tuition fees and AV, none of which features in the motion. It was 46 minutes of gloomy and mostly unfounded predictions—what a dead loss of an opportunity.

Perhaps we can see the reason for that lost opportunity. Although the shadow Secretary of State is not a reader of local media in Hampshire or elsewhere, as we have found out, he is certainly an enthusiast for Twitter. The basis for today’s debate was his tweet of 25 April, when he proudly announced:

“Labour has called debate on Sure Start & Tory/Lib Dem broken promises this Weds. Tell me which local egs you think we should highlight.”

I looked, and not many people tweeted back. There was a tweet from Diana Johnson about Sure Start centres, but that was it. From what I can make out, answers came there none, although the right hon. Gentleman does appear to have had at least one fan.

What an anticlimax from the mover of the motion. However, his scaremongering was soon eclipsed by the news from the Government Back Benches about yet more local authorities pledging to keep their children’s centres open, even over and above those on the list recently surveyed by 4Children and the Daycare Trust. Northamptonshire is adding an early attachment expertise centre, West Sussex is not closing any Sure Start centres and Ipswich is adding two, despite the scandalous observations and scaremongering of Ms Harman that half of them would disappear if we won the election. We also heard from my hon. Friend Anna Soubry that a centre opened recently in her constituency.

This is an important debate on an important subject. Clearly, there is all-party support for retaining a network of children’s centres, which has never been in doubt, as every Back-Bench contribution made clear. Mr Slaughter went on about the importance of children’s centres, but as usual got his figures wrong—he completely ignored the revenue streams for children’s centres apart from the local authority stream.

My hon. Friend Dan Rogerson rightly said that there were no killer statistics in the motion. What is the Opposition’s alternative? What would they cut?

Sir Gerald Kaufman, who has returned to the Chamber, made a rather arrogant speech. He thinks that Manchester, and he as a Manchester representative, have a monopoly on deprivation. However, I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend Rehman Chishti, who said that multiple deprivation is the same whether it is in the north, the south or any other part of England. If wards with multiple deprivation in my constituency had a fraction of the funding that wards in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, had, they would be much happier than they are now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport, having skilfully rumbled the shadow Secretary of State, showed how Sure Start centres can transform the lives of our constituents. As usual, that skilful, well-informed paragon of reasonableness—Mr Field—made a very important point about ring-fencing and payment by results. His point on the latter was absolutely right. The question we should ask is this: are more children being made school-ready as a result of spending on children’s centres? He is right that payment should flow on that basis.

I hope that we do not need to ring-fence money. Rather, I hope that local authorities spend money and do the right thing in the interests of their constituents. They are best placed to decide on that, and I do not want to ring-fence money if their decisions produce the right results.

My hon. Friend Richard Fuller spoke of our shared commitment to children’s centres, but why do only some councils choose to close children’s centres while others manage not to do so? Why are some councils adding to their reserves rather than trimming back on overheads before they look to trim spending on Sure Start?

Mr Sheerman, who as we all know has form on early intervention, made an important point about the strong correlation with those not in education, employment or training. He said that much of the thinking on early intervention and Sure Start is backed by empirical research, which is what we want. The Government are interested in qualitative research on the outcomes of children’s centres. The entire Opposition argument is based on quantitative analysis and figures. The Government want better Sure Start centres, producing better services for better effects on the children who desperately need them, particularly those from the most deprived communities.

Let me be clear yet again that this coalition Government are 100% committed to Sure Start. We always have been. Early years is a priority, and Sure Start has proven itself as a programme that has the capacity to be life changing. We have no intention of forgetting that; on the contrary, we want to build on the success of Sure Start and to put it at the heart of our approach to early intervention. We want to narrow gaps in achievement and improve social mobility, which the previous Government singularly failed to do as they presided over an unprecedented widening of the poverty gap.

However, this Government believe that the best way to do that is through greater local decision making and accountability, greater involvement of organisations that have proven expertise in service delivery, and the greater use of evidence-based intervention. We want children’s centres to provide the foundation for stronger earlier support, retaining a network of children’s centres that offers universal services that are accessible to all families, but with targeted support for those families who are in greatest need.

This coalition Government are 100% committed to Sure Start children’s centres, but reform is needed to make them more effective in providing a universal service that is focused more effectively on families in greatest need. This Government, however, have an approach to reform that is radically different from that of the previous Government. Children’s centres need to have more flexibility to do more to help the families in the greatest need, to involve a greater diversity of providers and to be more accountable to local communities. There are no easy solutions or quick fixes, but it is time we trusted local authorities to make the right decisions for local people—we do, but Labour does not, and that is why I urge the House to vote against this opportunistic motion.

Question put.

The House divided:

Ayes 207, Noes 312.

Division number 259

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.

4:00 pm
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Dawn Primarolo (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means; Bristol South, Labour)

I now have to announce the results of the deferred Division on the question relating to short selling. The Ayes were 287 and the Noes were 20, so the Ayes have it.

[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]