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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:11 pm on 27th April 2011.

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Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall 2:11 pm, 27th April 2011

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.