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 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.