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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:50 pm on 27th April 2011.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 3:50 pm, 27th April 2011

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.