Clause 186

– in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 pm on 26th March 2009.

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Arrangements for children’s centres

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I beg to move amendment 403, in clause 186, page 102, line 31, at end insert

‘alongside support for the wider family designed to improve outcomes for children.’.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment 405, in clause 186, page 104, leave out lines 1 and 2.

Amendment 406, in clause 186, page 104, leave out lines 8 to 10.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

This is another important clause. It puts Sure Start children’s centres on a statutory footing. The amendments tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends seek to strengthen the role of Sure Start children’s centres in supporting families. One of the biggest strengths—although in some quarters they would say the biggest weakness—of Sure Start, is that it is different in every community. The concept behind Sure Start children’s centres is that they can grow to meet the needs of each community they serve. Amendment 403 is designed to ensure that they can continue to do that after the Bill progresses through the House, and that they retain the flexibility that we in the Conservative party believe is their lifeblood.

One of the downsides of putting services like Sure Start children’s centres in legislation is that they must be closely defined. What they can do and, by implication, what they cannot do must be set down. In drafting the remit of Sure Start children’s centres, the Minister has been clear about what they must provide and that they must focus on early childhood services, as defined in section 2 of the Childcare Act 2006. Proposed new section 5A(2) defines those who will receive the services as

“parents, prospective parents and young children”.

That tight definition of users and services was not the starting point for most children’s centres.

Action for Children is concerned that the Bill must ensure that there is a balance between the core offer and responding freely to local needs. To make that point, I  will describe one of its useful case studies. The Kate’s Hill and Sledmere children’s centre is located in a very ethnically diverse community. A number of children there spoke little or no English when they started school and many families were isolated. Action for Children identified that to help the children, it must first help the parents. It launched an early-start English programme for speakers of other languages at the centre to help children and their parents learn English. By combining English with a focus on the children, the course enabled the team to reach families that they would otherwise have found difficult to reach.

Another is example is the Carousel children’s centre, which is run by 4Children. It meets the needs of children in the community effectively. It has developed to include after-school provision and the support of a pupil referral unit. It also undertakes extensive intergenerational work to help the old and the young to learn from each other. That successful children’s centre is leading the way in showing how Sure Start children’s centres must support the wider family if they are to improve the start in life for some of the youngest members of the community.

The examples that I have given show how the wider family approach can help to support the most disadvantaged children. The concern raised by Action for Children and 4Children was also raised in the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education briefing for Committee members, which legitimately identified the need for children’s centres to continue to play an active role in adult learning. NIACE clearly feels that the Bill may preclude that in the future. As we know, helping a child to get the best start in life is not just about the child. It is about the broader family; it is about mum, dad and the siblings. Whether the siblings are teenagers or under-fives, they are just as important in the life of the child. Grandparents also have a critical role.

Flexibility is needed, as the Government said in their guidance on the planning and management of Sure Start. Their own documentation says that no single model will suit all circumstances. However, it is not clear that broader support will be permissible in children’s centres under the Bill. Will the Minister confirm whether the projects I have talked about could fall foul of the tighter definition?

Amendment 403 attempts to redress the balance by enabling local authorities to strengthen the whole family through Sure Start children’s centres. Amendments 405 and 406 relate to provisions on consulting on changes in the way that a Sure Start centre is run or on the closure of a centre. There are barely three pages in the Bill given to enshrining the concept of Sure Start children’s centres into legislation, yet a sizeable part of those pages focuses on the need to consult on changes. Surely, a Sure Start children’s centre that is delivering a bespoke service for a community will have a clear understanding of its community needs based on probably strong data as well as consultation. While members of the community can give us their views, we also need to make sure those views are backed by hard, substantive evidence. The requirement to consult on every significant change to the services delivered, which is clearly defined as every

“change in the manner in which, or the location at which” a service is delivered, would put an intolerable burden on to children’s centres, taking management time away from improving front-line services. I would go further and say it could hamper innovation and the ability of  children’s centres to respond quickly to the changing needs of the communities in which we all live. The amendments we have put forward would remove the need to consult on operational changes but, importantly, retain the need to consult on any closures.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

I understand the sentiment behind amendment 403, the suggestion that Sure Start children’s centres should offer support for the wider family. Many of the sorts of service to which this descriptor could apply, could be and are already being delivered: early childhood services, as the hon. Lady said, defined in section 2 of the Childcare Act 2006, and include social care and health services for parents, carers and parents to be and assistance to parents in seeking work through links to Jobcentre Plus services. These services could include parenting programmes to help parents with their children’s difficult behaviour, drug or alcohol addictions or simply finding work. All of these services should have a beneficial impact on child outcomes and all of them form part of the Sure Start offer in different localities. Half of children’s centres are located in schools and our programme of extended services in schools means that those families using the co-locator facilities also have access to the services for their older children. What we have tried to do in clause 186 in our definition is to provide maximum flexibility, while ensuring that all centres at a minimum provide assistance on accessing early childhood services and activities to engage children and their families. I would like to assure the hon. Lady that the projects she referred to certainly would not be precluded under our legislation. It would be a matter for local centres to decide what they do. Our departmental guidance encourages planners to consult local families before deciding which services to prioritise, which allows considerable flexibility to plan around need and respond flexibly. In our Sure Start children’s centres practice guidance, which we issued in November 2006, there is specific advice to local authorities that they could possibly include training for fathers, mothers and other carers including English as an additional language where relevant, which is the case she spoke of. It is important not to lose sight of the core offer of Sure Start children’s centres, which remains focused on very young children and their parents. It is right to leave the planning and arrangements for delivering services to those closest to the communities they serve. We would not want to force smaller centres with a particular focus on early years provision to extend their services to the detriment of the core. The key is flexibility.

With respect to amendments 405 and 406, we believe that carers and parents have a right to be consulted before significant changes are made to the services offered by their local centre and where those services are offered. In setting up Sure Start children’s centres we have placed a clear emphasis on local consultation before decisions are taken. All the evidence is that delivering services through children’s centres, based on what families with young children have said, works for them both in time and place and has encouraged families to take up services. We now have positive evidence of the benefits to all families living in a Sure Start area and the loss or relocation of any of the services children’s centres offer could be a matter of concern for families. We would not expect local authorities to consult on every change—we agree that that would be disproportionately burdensome—but we would expect  them to consult on significant ones. We will consult on the guidance for local authorities on the fulfilment of their obligations, under the Bill, to consult local people. That will provide a further opportunity to explore in more detail how to ensure that this requirement balances the interests of parents and children with the need to ensure operational flexibility for local authorities. I hope that that reassures the hon. Lady and that she will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families) 9:15 pm, 26th March 2009

I am quite reassured by the Minister’s comments on amendment 403, which will have reassured many of the organisations doing such an excellent job in helping to ensure that children in Sure Start centres are the success that we need them to be. I thank her for that and will not pursue the amendment now.

I am still not entirely convinced that the Minister has allayed my fears about amendments 405 and 406. One of the big problems that children’s centres still face concerns their ability to get their services to those who need them most—those disadvantaged families who tend not to take part in consultations or knock on the door and ask for help. They are the ones whom we have to go out and find. They are not the kind of people who take part in the sort of consultation enshrined in the Bill. I remain deeply concerned that the provisions dealing with consultation on the day-to-day services provided could not only hamper innovation, but mean that children’s services do not do everything necessary to focus on that silent minority who still find it so difficult to get the support needed to give their children the start in life that they deserve. In the interests of time, I shall not press my amendment to a vote, but we might need to return to this matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move amendment 424, in clause 186, page 103, leave out lines 7 to 11.

This probing amendment aims to clarify the purpose of the proposed duties of governing bodies for each children’s centre. The amendment would delete that provision. The reason for the probe is that it is very unclear how governing bodies and advisory boards will co-exist. The Conservatives have tabled an amendment in the next group that approaches this issue from the opposite direction, so I hope that we can deal with them briefly and at the same time.

I am particularly concerned about the requirement on governing bodies, because, as the National Audit Office noted, there are many different models of governance of children’s centre. Some are based on partnership boards, steering groups, school governing bodies, boards of community organisations and so on. The differences reflect the diverse practices of the sectors involved in managing the centres, and I applaud that diversity. To define governing bodies will cause confusion, given that a host of different people run Sure Start children’s centres. We need some clarification.

We also have advisory boards. I can see how they could work very well in local areas, and I am fairly relaxed about them being put on a statutory basis. My one issue is with proposed new section 5C(5)(c), which states that an advisory board must include

“parents or prospective parents in the responsible authority’s area.”

If an advisory board covers only one or two children’s centres, parents from the locality only should be included. Most constituencies, for instance, have very different communities with different needs, and I would not want advisory boards to be top heavy with those from, perhaps, the more affluent parts of town. We need a good cross-section. I therefore have a concern about that, but the major issue is that surely, if every centre has to have a governing body, will it not undermine the multi-purpose and community-focus nature of the centres? Will the Minister clarify the respective roles, functions, members and lines of accountability of governing bodies versus advisory boards?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

We are pleased that there is a variety of children’s centres available, offering a range of services to local communities. We want to ensure that they all have good governance arrangements in place. At present, advisory boards help to fulfil that requirement, but in the future it may be necessary to introduce governing bodies. It is a reserve power that we will use only if and when the time is right. As we explained in the indicative regulations, we might want, for example, to make regulations about the qualifications of centre managers. Some have argued that all centres should have a qualified teacher; we disagree, but it illustrates why this power could be needed.

Should the need arise to introduce governing bodies for centres, they would have a different role from that of advisory boards. It is likely that they would be a body corporate to which other statutory functions and responsibilities, such as a formal decision-making power, to enable the formal exercise of corporate governance, could be attached. That could not happen with the current advisory boards. If we ever did go down that route, we would expect the governing body to be smaller than the advisory board, with a more executive, less stakeholder representative focus. It would be responsible for taking decisions on the operation of the children’s centre and, in doing so, we would expect them to have regard to the views of users and particularly the advisory board. We envisage there being some common membership between the governing body and the advisory board, which would help effective co-operation between the two.

If we ever decided that governing bodies were desirable, we are absolutely committed to full consultation with all interested parties. The amendment would restrict future flexibility around appropriate governance arrangements for centres and I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw it.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank the Minister for her reply. I made it clear that it was a probing amendment, but, in terms of staffing, I remain concerned at the thought of potentially having a governing body and an advisory board for one children’s centre, which is not such a large entity as a school. I will withdraw the amendment, but the matter needs further reflection. I appreciate that it is a reserve power, but if it were ever used, it could introduce much bureaucracy and finding people to fill  the positions in a disadvantaged community would be quite a challenge. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I beg to move amendment 401, in clause 186, page 103, leave out lines 12 to 39.

There is a risk of bureaucratic overload at this point in the Bill. We have just looked at the role of children’s trust boards and the problems in understanding how they fit alongside local strategic partnerships and children’s safeguarding boards. The amendment would remove the need to establish yet another body—the children’s advisory board. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said in her remarks on the previous amendment, it seems extraordinary that there would be a requirement to have both governing bodies and advisory boards as well as children’s trust boards, in which there is a strong argument for having a more obvious role for Sure Start children’s centres.

The amendment would remove the need to establish yet another body. That would be good and ensure that we have more of the staff that we need to be engaged in frontline activities rather than having to run these burdensome and bureaucratic organisations. The explanatory note details that the role of the advisory board would be to advise and assist the centre manager, the local authority and its relevant partners to ensure that the centre provides relevant and high-quality services. Surely making Sure Start children centres participants in children’s trust boards would have a similar effect. They would make sure that their services were relevant and of a high quality, and remove another costly layer of bureaucracy. I do not mean costly in terms of money, but in management time by taking people away from the front line.

If the Minister really feels that it is absolutely necessary to have a strict management structure in place, why not make it a sub-committee of the children’s trust boards and then at least it will not just float in the ether with people unsure how it fits into the other plethora of organisations with which they have to deal? If the prime objective is to include parents, that is probably already being achieved by most Sure Start children centres in the way that they organise themselves to involve parents in helping to determine what services are already in place.

Will the hon. Lady assure those of us who are worried about levels of bureaucracy in many areas of government, particularly in the matters that we are discussing, that she has taken heed of our concerns? Will she also take the opportunity to reassure the organisations that I have been talking to—we have heard mention of the issue in Committee—about the schoolification of the language that is used? Talking about governing bodies really starts to make some organisations feel that the Government might want to indelibly link children’s Sure Start centres into schools. I am not sure that that is their intention, but at the moment their use of language is not helping.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

In legislating for children’s centres, the Government are following the approach of putting into statute recognised best practice, building on the development, work and guidance already issued. We are  doing so in a flexible way, recognising that, for children’s centres as with many other areas, one size does not fit all. What we propose must be flexible for different circumstances, but we also know that certain approaches are important to the effective running of children’s centres. The creation of advisory boards is one of those areas.

Advisory boards are necessary for two related reasons. First, an effective advisory board provides support and challenge to centre managers. A National Audit Office report found that effective management boards or committees can support the effective delivery of children’s centres and provide focus and direction to give a good service to local children and families. Secondly, advisory boards also provide a voice for the community for users of services, especially parents, but also other interested, local stakeholders. They can also work with parents’ forums to ascertain the views of parents and users, who have a right to their say on how the children’s centre will operate, but who might not be comfortable in a more formal, corporate governance structure.

Clause 186 also enables more than one children’s centre to be within the remit of a single advisory board and that can be effective for clusters of centres in some areas. I hope that my explanation is sufficient to have reassured the hon. Lady.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I wish that the Minister’s response was sufficient to have reassured me, but she does not understand that, by setting up more and more organisations and structures, she is taking people away from doing what we need them to do, which is to improve the start in life of youngsters and babies. Setting up yet another board, yet another set of meetings for people to attend and yet another set of minutes for people to read for a meeting will do nothing to free up people’s time to do what they need to do. That is indicative of the Government’s obsession with trying to micro-manage things and not let people get on with the job that they need to do.

I accept that we are under time pressure and shall not press the amendment, but it is a great shame how the scrutiny of the Bill has been arranged. As a result, we probably do not have the time to look at such elements in detail. Perhaps they are something that the House really does need to return to because, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, it is incomprehensible how all the bureaucratic structures fit together. It is no way to set up a new body.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

My comments were not quite so harsh on the advisory boards; for example, the National Children’s Bureau feels that it is working very well in their local areas. My main concern is having two layers there.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I am sorry. I meant that the hon. Lady was picking up on the issue of having two organisations, which could be doing similar things and working in parallel. I will not press the amendment now, but I hope that the Minister will think about the comments that have been made. I know that she shares my hope that what we are doing today will improve the lives that young people have in all our communities, but this is probably not the way to go about it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I beg to move amendment 404, in clause 186, page 104, leave out lines 14 to 39 and insert—

‘5E Services available through children’s centres

(1) The management of children’s centres must determine with the local authority and children’s trust boards which services are necessary to strengthen families and improve outcomes for children in the local community.

(2) In meeting their duties under subsection (1), priority must be given to providing services to support the most disadvantaged families.

(3) Relevant partners have a duty to work with children’s centres to assess how the services are best delivered.

(4) Health visitor services must be provided by children’s centres.

(5) The Secretary of State may, by regulations, determine the services to be provided under subsection (4).’.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 399, in clause 186, page 105, line 13, at end insert—

‘5H Children’s centres: information on costs

The local authority must, on an annual basis, publish in respect of each children’s centre within its area information on—

(a) budgets allocated to children’s centres,

(b) administration costs incurred in the operation of children’s centres, and

(c) any other relevant costs associated with the children’s centres.’.

Amendment 369, in clause 189, page 109, line 7, leave out ‘and quality’.

Amendment 527, in clause 189, page 109, line 7, after ‘quality’, insert ‘and sustainability’.

Amendment 370, in clause 189, page 109, line 9, at end insert—

‘(aa) improving the quality of early childhood services that are provided in their area, and’.

Amendment 528, in clause 189, page 109, line 11, at end insert—

‘(c) the desirability of maintaining a range of different types of providers of services including those from the private and voluntary sector.’.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families) 9:30 pm, 26th March 2009

One of the most pressing problems that children’s centres face is how to involve the local primary care trust in their work. There is ample evidence to suggest that the most effective way to reach out to the families most in need of support is through medical professionals such as health visitors. Yet the involvement of health in children’s centres is, at best, patchy. More often than not, the involvement of health in a centre would have been a result of the tenacity of individuals, not a corporate commitment from PCTs. I am sure that the Minister is as aware as I am that more precarious arrangements are at risk of breakdown if an individual moves out of their job, and that has to change. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether the motivation for including proposed new section 5E was an attempt to force that change in terms of the involvement of health by placing a duty on all relevant partners to consider whether early childhood services should be provided through children’s centres.

I understand the intention of the Bill, but amendment 404 seeks to probe further into the Minister’s thinking and achieve the same outcome without children’s centres  effectively losing their ability to shape the services that they need in order to meet the needs of their individual local community. As proposed new section 5E is currently worded, any early years service may find its way into a children’s centre, regardless of whether it is a priority service for that community. How effective, and indeed practical, will that be? The amendment would put children’s centres back into the driving seat in managing the services that they provide and put a duty on the relevant partners to work with the children’s centre, rather than the other way round, which is the way it appears in the Bill at the moment. However, I am sure that the Minister will help us understand that better.

Amendment 404 also recognises the importance of giving priority to supporting disadvantaged families. This is something that a number of interested parties have raised an eyebrow about: there is no explicit mention in the Bill of the need to do that. Despite the issues that we have regarding not achieving the outreach to disadvantaged families, I know that it is a priority for the Government, as much as it is for my party.

The remaining part of the amendment serves to pinpoint the pivotal role of health visitors in children’s centres. The Minister will be aware of the Conservatives’ long-standing policy to reinstate the universal health visitor service through Sure Start. I am pleased, at long last, that as a result of the recommendations in Lord Laming’s most recent report, the Secretary of State seems to be coming round to our way of thinking.

Amendment 399 seeks clear information on the true cost of children’s centres to ensure that there is transparency in expenditure, and also to help the third sector organisations that want to bid for managing Sure Start centres and providing services there. Too often, I hear the phrase “there is not a level playing field” when the third sector bids alongside local authorities to provide services. Having information on the costs of children’s centres on an individual basis will help third sector organisations when they come to it.

Amendment 527 would put a duty on the local authority to consider sustainability as well as quality of services in the childhood sector. That is important because, when we start to look at funding streams for centres into the future, considering the recession, we need to ensure that sustainability is taken into account.

There has been a lamentable decline of health visitor services that must be reversed. We now know that 40 per cent. of health visitors are handling case loads of more than 500 children. Indeed, 20 per cent. are handling case loads of more than 1,000 children. The provisions that we would put in the Bill would help to ensure that health visitors can provide the support and have the effect that we need in our communities.

Finally, amendment 528 promotes the use of private, voluntary and independent providers. There is useful provision in the Childcare Act 2006, to which I believe I have referred before, that requires local authorities not to provide child care services unless they have no alternative. The provisions in the amendment would guard against the duplication of services and help promote the PVI sector. I urge the Minister to consider whether there is a place in the Bill for a similar approach to that taken in the 2006 Act because, all too often, local authorities have taken the view that they should be the managers of  centres and the providers of services. They have not really thought more innovatively about how they could involve the third sector. Indeed, only a handful of centres are run by third sector organisations.

I pay tribute to the superb work done by Action for Children, Barnardo’s, 4Children and a number of other independent organisations, including Lifeline. They run excellent examples of Sure Start children’s centres. They are moving the agenda forward, and we should be doing everything that we can to encourage their excellent work.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

It is a pleasure to speak to amendments 369 and 370, which were tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West and for Yeovil, and me.

Amendment 404 would replace one set of provisions with another. Although it is hinted at, I still do not see the term “outreach work” in either set. That point was made by the three people from Action for Children, 4Children and the Family and Parenting Institute who contributed to the Committee. The Bill offers an opportunity to insert the importance of outreach work, which could then be backed up with some guidance. For example, nobody really knows what the qualifications are for an outreach worker. A lot of work needs doing on that. That amendment would be quite useful, because it would enable one to focus on that difficult aspect.

I support the proposal to add sustainability. We have a conundrum: we want to increase the quantity and quality, and we want affordability and sustainability. However, in the early days, a lot of settings were created, probably in the wrong place, as local authorities were set targets to provide so many pre-school places. They went at it in a rush, and the number of places has fallen subsequently, because they have not been located in the right place and perhaps the quality was not there. We must be concerned that money is not wasted in this very large investment process.

Amendments 369 and 370 are about quality. Although the word “quality” would be left out of proposed new subsection (4A)(a) to the Childcare Act 2006, a far more specific new subsection would be added that is far more specific about

“improving the quality of early childhood services that are provided in their area”.

During our debates on the 2006 Act, we spent much time talking about quality. We did not decide on anything conclusive, yet it is an important matter: poor-quality child care provision is damaging, particularly for younger children. We spoke of the development of a kitemark, which was taken on board, but I have not heard about the idea in recent years. We need to have some confidence about the quality of provision yet not be totally dependent on inspections.

We need to discuss how local authorities can assess and measure quality, and incorporate a system of continuous quality improvement in early childhood services. The Government must take that on board. The word quality is in the clause, but we need a clear definition of its meaning, as it can mean many things to different people. Previously, we have focused on quality. As we progress and expand provision, it is important to ensure that all-important quality. I await the Minister’s response with interest.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

I shall speak first to amendment 404, which seeks to replace the duty on local authorities and relevant partners to consider delivering services to a children’s centre with a requirement that children’s centre managers work with the local authority and children’s trust boards to determine which services will be provided. I agree that the sort of conversation implied by that amendment—one that involves centre managers—should take place, but it is not sensible to remove the requirement on local authorities and relevant partners to consider delivering services through children’s centres. It would not be the in the best interests of parents and children, who benefit from joined-up services, or the centres themselves, which may otherwise be overlooked in deliberations about service delivery. The duty in clause 186 on local authorities, primary care trusts and Jobcentre Plus will not marginalise Sure Start children’s centres. I believe that it will ensure that they remain centre stage.

Sure Start children’s centres are already integrated into the operation of the children’s trust, as many of those involved in delivering services in children’s centres will be relevant partners in the children’s trust and represented on the children’s trust board. In regulations, backed by guidance, we will require the children’s trust board to consult the advisory board of each children’s centre in the local area when preparing their children and young people’s plan, thus improving statutory mechanisms; thereby, those providing services on the ground, parents and local communities can contribute to local services planning and provision.

Health services already play and will continue to play an important part in the services that many children’s centres provide. The recently published strategy for children and young people’s health, “Healthy lives, brighter futures”, made clear the Government’s commitment to a strengthened role for health and children’s centres, with a named health visitor linked to each centre. However, we believe that it is right to provide local flexibility, so that the best location of health services can be determined locally, to facilitate access to and maximise the benefits of those services to young children and their parents. Requiring all children’s centres to provide a health visitor service would reduce that.

Amendment 399 would require local authorities to publish details of children’s centre budgets annually and centre by centre, but that would place an enormous bureaucratic burden on local authorities, and it would not achieve the transparency on the costs involved in delivering children’s centre services. Resources for children’s centre services come from several sources—the local authority, the NHS and Jobcentre Plus.

If the local authority were to publish only the budget details for which it is accountable, we would see only part of the full expenditure picture. The way in which the resources flow to centres varies should reflect local choices, circumstances and preferences. Some authorities delegate the majority of the children’s centres revenue to the centre itself; others commission services centrally and deploy them across a range of centres; and others tender for a third party to run the centre and its services under contract.

We recognise, however, that there is still much to be done to support centres in achieving value for money and local authorities in putting resources where they can make the most difference for children and families.  We have been exploring the feasibility of designing a benchmarking system for similar centres to compare their costs, and we will publish the findings shortly.

I will use this opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole about outreach. It is not mentioned explicitly in the legislation because it is already provided for in the Childcare Act 2006. Section 3 requires local authorities to identify parents who would not access early childhood services of their own accord and encourage them to use those services.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education) 9:45 pm, 26th March 2009

It is an interesting reflection that it is specified in the 2006 Act. In all the evaluations of Sure Start centres, outreach work is one of the weakest aspects. Perhaps we need something on top of the existing legislation.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

Or maybe we just need to ensure that the existing legislation is adhered to. That is the outreach activity that we require all children’s centres to undertake.

Amendments 369, 527, 370 and 528 seek to amend the provision that we are building into section 3 of the Childcare Act 2006 through clause 189 to require local authorities to consider the quality, quantity and location of existing services in the area as they make arrangements for integrated early childhood services. On quality, I am sympathetic to the broad thrust of amendments 369 and 370, which I believe are intended to embed a culture of quality improvement in the delivery of early years services.

We share that commitment, but we believe that it is very much within the spirit of the existing legislation. For example, the early years foundation stage helps ensure that whatever setting parents choose, they can be confident that their child will receive a quality experience that supports their learning and development. Our graduate leader fund and early years professional status are driving up work force standards.

We also recognise the extra value and expertise brought to services for children and families by organisations in the private, voluntary and independent sectors. We want to ensure that Sure Start children’s centre services include the best of those. We have been clear all along that in making provision for integrated early learning and child care within Sure Start children’s centres, we do not expect local authorities to set up in competition with existing good-quality provision.

We believe that amendment 527, which requires local authorities to have regard to the sustainability of early childhood services provided in the area, is also unnecessary. Clause 189 makes it explicit that a local authority must have regard to the services already available in the area when deciding arrangements for integrating early childhood services, and it follows that services should be sustainable.

Amendment 528, which would require local authorities to have regard to the desirability of maintaining a range of different types of service, including those from the private and voluntary sector, is also unnecessary. I have explained that we have long recognised the extra value and expertise brought to children’s services by organisations in the private, voluntary and independent sectors. Indeed, we have made it a condition of grant that authorities consider and consult all local child care providers before  deciding how child care in children’s centres will be delivered. With that, I hope that the hon. Lady will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I thank the Minister for her thorough answers on the four amendments. I hope that she is right that the PVI sector is not overlooked. She feels that amendment 528 is unnecessary, but the experience on the ground is that there is a culture of not always looking first to the PVI sector. Hopefully those involved in the area will read her remarks and take heed.

I understand the hon. Lady’s point that there are provisions in the Bill that should cover sustainability, but I am again thinking of the future. Sustainability needs to be taken into account. Ensuring that the true costs of centres are fully understood is difficult. As she said, the funding streams come from myriad different organisations. That makes it difficult for elected Members to understand the true cost of Sure Start centres, which is something that we should all be thinking about. However, I understand her point that a true cost would not necessarily be provided through the amendment and other streams might be coming through as well.

The Minister’s response to amendment 404 was less convincing. I do not think that how the Bill and this provision are structured will do many favours for Sure Start centres. They could be left in the position of having an obligation to take on services that may not be that helpful. The Minister talked about ensuring that Sure Start centres are not overlooked, but there could be an unintended consequence.

I thank the Minister for her reassurances. I shall not press the issues in the amendments, but hope that she will ponder them further, outside the Committee. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 186 ordered to stand part of the Bill.