Opposition Day — [15th Allotted Day] — Sure Start Children’s Centres

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:47 pm on 27th April 2011.

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Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Shadow Secretary of State (Education and Election Co-ordinator) 12:47 pm, 27th April 2011

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?