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.