“Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Government welcome the recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on the health effects of Sure Start. It is crucial that in our pursuit of better outcomes for children and families and in making spending decisions, we are guided by high-quality evidence, and this report gives us more of that.
The report shows very clearly that children in disadvantaged areas benefit most from services; indeed, those in the richest 30% of neighbourhoods saw practically no impact at all. The policy framework we have in place reflects this evidence. In 2013, the Government introduced a new core purpose for children’s centres, focusing on families in the greatest need of support. While we have seen local authorities remodel services, there are now more children’s centres than at any time prior to 2008, and in fact since Tony Blair was Prime Minister. This is at a time when government is making record investment in childcare, with more than 700,000 of the most disadvantaged two year-olds having benefited from 15 hours’ free childcare since its introduction in 2013.
In addition, under the Government’s healthy child programme, children and families now receive five mandatory health visitor checks in the early years. The statutory framework also contains important protections so that outcomes for children and families, particularly the most disadvantaged, will not be adversely affected by the proposed changes to children’s centre provision.
The IFS also concludes that policymakers must,
‘consider which types of services and models of provision could most effectively help this group’.
The Government agree, and indeed we already have work under way to do exactly this. As part of our £8.5 million early years local government programme, we announced in April that the Early Intervention Foundation will look at children’s centres and other delivery models to find out what works well, so that local authorities have more evidence to help them continue to make the best decisions for their communities”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The IFS research demonstrates the critical role that Sure Start plays in children’s health as well as in their general development. The key findings are that the Sure Start programme begun by a Labour Government 20 years ago had a big, positive effect on children’s health, reducing the hospitalisation of children from disadvantaged areas by the time they finish primary school. Indeed, by age 11 Sure Start prevents about 5,500 hospitalisations each year, at an estimated saving to the NHS of £5 million.
Surprisingly, the Statement says that the Government welcome the report, although it is not clear why. Even more surprisingly, it asserts that there are now more children’s centres than at any time prior to 2008. How can that be? Last year, the Government’s own figures admitted that more than 500 Sure Start centres had closed. We know that it is many more than that. How does the Minister justify that astounding claim?
With the upcoming spending review, the IFS calls on the Government to review the impact of Sure Start and decide how the programme will be used. We thoroughly endorse that call, and I ask the Minister: will the Government commit to responding to the report’s recommendations before the Summer Recess, because children in disadvantaged communities cannot wait while the Tory party continues its self-indulgent navel gazing?
My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord’s question about the exact number of children’s centres, as at the current state, there are 2,353 main children’s centres and a further 700 linked sites open to families and children. The important part of this issue is that all noble Lords share our concern to help improve the chances of disadvantaged children in our society. We have taken a slightly different approach through the introduction of the offers for two year-olds, three year-olds and four year-olds, where we are providing free childcare for hundreds of thousands of young children.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement and, like him, I welcome the report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The report indeed shows that children in disadvantaged areas benefit most from Sure Start centres. The IFS report is not about childcare, nor indeed about children’s centres; it is about Sure Start centres and is entitled, The Health Effects of Sure Start.
The unique feature of Sure Start centres is that they offer a range of services to parents and children. The evidence is clear that Sure Start centres contribute significantly to improving the life chances of families in the most deprived communities—for example, as we have heard, by reducing the hospitalisation of young children by more than 5,000 a year and saving millions to the NHS. Sure Start centres also offer mental health support to young parents.
Why are the Government only now asking the Early Intervention Foundation to look at children’s centres and other models of delivery? We already know that more than 1,000 centres have been closed and that Sure Start centres are of greatest support to children in deprived areas. So why are the Government kicking the evidence-collection can down the road? The Minister must know that cuts to local authority budgets have inevitably impacted disproportionately on the most disadvantaged young children.
I have two questions for the Minister. Will the Government take a holistic view of the needs of families, and will they ensure that the early years pupil premium, frozen since its introduction five years ago, is increased in line with the pupil premium?
First, on funding generally, it is important to remind noble Lords of the opening comments in the IFS report executive summary, which state that we are now,
“one of the highest spenders on the under-5s in Europe”,
having lagged behind in the 1990s. So a great deal of progress has been made. We do take a holistic view, which is why we have put so much emphasis on supporting disadvantaged families with healthcare; that has enabled those families to get into work, which we know is one of the clearest ways to improve their prospects and quality of life.
The noble Lord asked about increasing the pupil premium. That will be a matter for the spending review, but we have done a lot in this area, including on the pupil premium that he mentioned. The introduction of the three year-old and four year-old offers gives 30 hours to families for the first time in history, and 340,000 children will benefit from that.
My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister comment on the need for Sure Start centres to be accessible? Clearly, if they are well targeted, they bring great help to children born in a disadvantaged area. Many of those areas are rural, however, and while it is one thing to provide accessible Sure Start help in closely populated urban areas, it is quite another to do so in rural areas, as I know my noble friend understands.
The noble Baroness is quite right that the provision of services in rural areas is much more difficult. Again, we have taken the education route, which is why we have looked at the provision of childcare for the two year-old offer, from which nearly 750,000 children in the country have benefited. The take-up of that offer has gone up nearly every year since its introduction; we are now at a level of 72%.