[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair] — Sure Start

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 15 October 2009.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Kerry McCarthy.)

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families) 2:30, 15 October 2009

Good afternoon, Mrs. Dean. It is a pleasure to see you chairing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about Sure Start and children's centres, which are among the Government's proudest achievements. It is difficult to overstate the value of their impact on the everyday lives of mums and dads from all walks of life around the country. Sure Start children's centres give them access to antenatal and post-natal support, high-quality nursery care, health services, top-quality parental support, support for employment and training, and, very often, to the friendship of other mums and dads in their local community, from which they are able to draw more support. That was backed up by yesterday's fantastic early years foundation stage results, which show that the overall achievement of our five-year-olds is improving in every region. They also show that more than 100 local authorities are narrowing the gap between the highest and the lowest-achieving five-year-olds, and that overall achievement has improved by three percentage points nationally. That is only one percentage point away from the 2011 target and is the highest rate of achievement since records began. In addition, the results show that boys' achievement is improving in 11 out of the 13 early learning goals and has stayed stable in two others.

The results also show that, at the important age of five, children's centre services play a fundamental role in the lives of families and children up and down the country-so much so that it can be easy to forget that Sure Start did not exist when this year's secondary school starters were born. In 1997, none of these services existed. Back then, there was a disparate and rag-bag mix of provision, with enormous differences between the quality of early childhood services across the country-if parents could get anywhere near them in the first place. It was largely, but by no means exclusively, people in the poorest areas who endured the biggest postcode lottery regarding the quality of provision. The gap between the most disadvantaged children and the rest of us was allowed to grow unchecked in the decades before 1997, with children from vulnerable backgrounds carrying that disadvantage on into primary school and beyond into their employment. Each of those children was being denied the best start in life that would allow them to develop their potential and make the most of their future.

Sure Start was designed to reverse that inequality by recognising what most parents know anyway-that pregnancy and the first five years of a child's life are as important as the next 45 years. Our investment into those children, as communities and as a nation, is crucial. Like many Members of Parliament and like you, I am sure, Mrs. Dean, I have visited many children's centres both in my constituency and around the country, and I am confident that we have a level of consistency and quality in our children's centre services that could match any in the world. That is a fantastic reversal to have made in such a short space of time.

Photo of Jamie Reed Jamie Reed Labour, Copeland

I regret having intervened on my right hon. Friend, because she is making such an important contribution, but let me return to the point that she just made about the effect that Sure Start is having on reducing disparities between wealth and life chances within our country, as that is very important. Clearly, we are all committed to the Government's child poverty goals-indeed, they are now in statute-and to the abolition of child poverty by 2020; how will current, comprehensive Sure Start provision and our planned expansion of Sure Start provision help us to achieve our 2020 child poverty targets?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

The network of services that come together in a Sure Start children's centre directly address the reduction of child poverty. Let me give my hon. Friend a few examples before moving on in my speech. We know that children are most affected and influenced by what goes on in the family. If their parents are isolated and unable to get into the labour market, or do not have the skills to do so, a crucial mechanism for getting them back into employment can be access to skills and training. The work that Jobcentre Plus and colleges are able to do, and the remote learning that has been established through systems of support in Sure Start centres, means that parents are able to gain new skills and qualifications and are able to return to work supported in the sure knowledge that their sons and daughters will receive expert child care in a package that will support them while they are at work. That does not completely deal with the issue of work-family balance-we all know that is difficult, and we have more to do on that-but Sure Start centres are there, making sure that those parents can be supported.

All that means that we are starting to prevent the cascade down through generations of low aspiration, perhaps, and definitely of poverty and disadvantage, although we still have more to do. It also means, as the early years results that were published yesterday show, that we are able to make sure that in a very demanding world, in which social skills-language development, confidence, the ability to mix with others and the communication that starts so early in a child's life-are important, as well as academic skills, children are being provided with opportunities to develop those skills in Sure Start children's centres. That means that those children develop into confident primary and secondary school pupils who are able and ready to learn, and that they transfer into the world of work with the skills, ability and confidence that we will want them to have when we depend on their services-when they are in this House, running this country and making sure that our lives are secure. I cannot state strongly enough the importance of, and our commitment to, working with and supporting parents in those early years. That work is an investment not only in those parents, but for the whole community, because otherwise economic potential will be lost from parents now and from children in the future. That is how it will contribute to the anti-poverty targets.

There is a Chinese proverb, which I hope I can remember correctly. It states that if you are thinking a year ahead, plant a seed; if you are thinking 10 years ahead, plant a tree; if you are thinking 100 years ahead, educate the people-the Chinese always plan a long time ahead when looking to secure the future. I say, educate the children, and that is what we are doing.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Minister and to other hon. Members because I am unable to stay for the whole debate: I have to meet two employees from the Hadfield Sure Start children's centre in my constituency who are attending, as my guests, an event for community heroes at No. 10 Downing street this evening. I am pleased that she mentioned Jobcentre Plus, because the Hadfield Sure Start centre is a good example of how Jobcentre Plus staff, working with lone parents, can become a fully integrated part of the service provided by Sure Start centres. Will she pay tribute to the communities that have taken those lone parent advisors on board and integrated them into the Sure Start delivery service to play a full role, exactly for the reasons she has just outlined?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I congratulate my hon. Friend's constituents from the Hadfield Sure Start centre on their invitation to attend the community heroes reception tonight. I am sure that we all want to pay a huge compliment to all the staff who work in and around children's centres and to express our debt of gratitude for their dedication to the principles that I have just outlined. Jobcentre Plus, the health service and, in many areas, local authorities look directly at children's services and, rather than saying, "I will offer a service here or a service there," recognise that parents are there with their children and that we should take the services to them and build them around a family view and a child view, rather than expect them to negotiate the systems and structures that have grown up over years. Sure Start children's centres offer a unique opportunity, building on Every Child Matters, to empower and support families and parents and ensure, when looking at the location of that provision, that those services are family-focused and child-focused, rather than structure-focused.

I visited one of the Sure Start centres in my constituency last Friday, and that highlighted for me a further point about how services can be brought together. The occasion was a celebration of Booktrust called Bookstart Week. We were there to give to the parents of 18-month-olds and three-month-olds nursery rhyme books to be read to the children. The library service was also present because it organised for a story teller to come in and take part in the activities for Bookstart. That involves the parents, but the mobile library was also there, and that is connected to the local college, for courses, to Jobcentre Plus, to health visitors and to GPs.

In that children's centre, opportunity was taken not only to involve parents in reading and story-telling for their children's development, but to work with them on what they needed and wanted to do with their lives. There was a particular focus on dads, because dads often do not feel relaxed, or feel that that they cannot be found in the children's centres. Special facilities and clubs are run to get dads to come in and talk about the pressures they feel and what they want to do as part of their children's development. There is a huge amount going on already, but there is still much potential to develop.

It is always important to focus on the real changes that the Sure Start has made in people's lives. I shall give an example. A mum wrote to the Department of Health recently to say thank you for Sure Start children's centres. She had suffered from post-natal depression after the birth of her first child and had not left the house for two years. After the birth of her second child, a health visitor suggested that she go along to her local Sure Start centre. The staff there helped her deal with the children's sleep problems and taught her about child behaviour and her own parenting behaviour. At the same time, they encouraged her to go on a fourth first aid course, take an IT course and think about work-a point to which my hon. Friend Tom Levitt referred. That mum said quite simply that the centre had changed her life, and changed it for the better. That is the kind of anecdotal evidence we all hear, almost without fail, when visiting a centre, and each time those stories reinforce the huge human impact Sure Start has had on countless families across the country.

As we get closer to hitting our target of having a children's centre for every community by 2010, the research is backing up that evidence. The latest national evaluation for Sure Start shows, for instance, that in areas where there is a children's centre, parents of three-year-olds showed more positive parenting skills than those in areas without a centre and that they provided a better home learning environment. The three-year-olds showed better social development and a higher level of positive behaviour and independence, and the families took much greater advantage of the range of child and family support services available to them than did the parents in areas that, as yet, do not have a children's centre.

The Sure Start children's centres' survey of parents published earlier this year showed that more than 90 per cent. of mothers and fathers who use the centres were pleased with the service. We have been able to achieve all of that because we designed Sure Start on the basis of what families needed and on the best international evidence. We used research from countries such as the US, Canada, Switzerland and New Zealand, which showed that there is a substantial return to be gained on investment in good early years provision.

I have talked about the impact on families and the importance for the individuals, but those who want to be much more hard-nosed about it should look at the economic impact of early intervention that ensures that the later intervention in people's lives when they have started to go wrong, which is much more costly, is unnecessary. We know that the investment in services for the under-fives reduces the welfare spend by improving the life chances of children and by helping their parents. We know that it improves the cognitive development and behaviour, with knock-on benefits for all of us, by reducing antisocial behaviour.

I was utterly staggered to read a recent newspaper report that stated that the Taxpayers Alliance and the Institute of Directors had suggested cutting Sure Start on the basis that it was not working. To say that it is disappointing that two such prominent and vocal groups could put their names to such an ill-informed report would be an understatement. Perhaps when Mrs. Miller speaks, she would make it clear in this debate whether her party is equally committed to continuing to fund and invest in Sure Start, or whether they are still married to the idea of cutting it.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

I am sorry that I was unable to be here at the start of the debate. I have visitors from Bangladesh.

On my right hon. Friend's last point, would she reassure me that in my county of Derbyshire, which has been very much at the forefront over the years in early years provision and introducing Sure Start and then children's centres-we now have 46, with six in my constituency-there will be such provision? We now have a change in control of the county council. Will it be able to scupper plans for the last places where Sure Start and children's centres were to be opened?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will do our utmost to ensure that all local authorities deliver on their children's centres by March 2010. Indeed, we are investing £1 billion a year by next year to ensure that that happens, and we are monitoring councils to ensure that it happens, that resources are ring-fenced and that the services that we require are delivered.

There is something behind her suggestion that is obviously of concern to me. In the face of all the evidence of educational, social and developmental benefits for children through Sure Start centres, it is truly amazing that any local authority or political party would countenance cutting such provision. We would stand practically alone in the developed world if we had political parties that do not recognise, as this Government do, that investment in those early years is crucial.

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

Of course, I would not want the Minister to be anxious for any longer than absolutely necessary. She is well aware that the Conservative party has no plans to cut Sure Start. That has been made clear by several colleagues and by me for a long time. Could she give us the evidence on which she bases her assertion that that was a previous position of our party?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

Indeed, I can. The shadow Secretary of State for Health announced that the Conservatives would pay for an increase in health visitor numbers by raiding Sure Start budgets to the tune of £200 million.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I am giving the answer to the hon. Lady's question. That is 19.5 per cent. of the total budget, and therefore will lead to cuts.

Secondly, when the shadow Chancellor was repeatedly pressed by the BBC reporter Nick Robinson on whether he would guarantee the expenditure, he said that he could not give any such guarantee. What I said was based on what had been said by her party, but if, when she speaks, she were to say that her party has changed its mind and will not be doing either of those things, all of us in this Chamber would be pleased to hear that.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I have one sentence left, but I will give way and then conclude with my one sentence so that the hon. Lady can make her speech.

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

I thank the Minister for giving way. Perhaps she could assure her party today that the Prime Minister is also ring-fencing and guaranteeing the funding for Sure Start. Is that the position of her party?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

The hon. Lady knows full well-I have just said it-that more than £1 billion a year will be invested in Sure Start services by next year. That investment will continue to change people's lives. I do not think that either the Secretary of State for Education and Skills or the Prime Minister could be any clearer on that.

I believe we all know well the Jesuit saying, "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man." It shows how over time there has been an appreciation of the importance of investing in the early years. This Government were the first Government to invest systematically in the early years-some £25 billion to date, and commitments on funding-in partnership with local authorities. In my view, Sure Start truly is the crowning glory, the jewel in the crown of all the many achievements of this Government, and it is vital to families and young people in this country.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley 2:55, 15 October 2009

I thank you, Mrs. Dean, for giving me time to speak. Unfortunately, I have not had time to prepare anything because I am between visitors at the beginning of this debate and visitors coming later, but, as there are no other speakers, I will happily say a few words from my experience.

Derbyshire has had an absolutely excellent record in this area. It was very much at the forefront when there was an excellent, progressive Labour county council. One of my county councillors was very much in the lead on the local early years programme. Various projects and resources available from central Government have been used, first, to extend early years provision, then to bring in nursery centres and, finally, develop children's centres, thereby making our services coherent.

I remember one of the areas that I went to when I was a candidate before the 1997 election. I was pressed by one of our nurseries, which is now at the hub of some of this work in Alfreton, which is in a deprived area, to visit because they wanted to explain to me how the then Conservative policy around nursery vouchers would not work and was not the kind of development they wanted.

My right hon. Friend the Minister spoke about the educational and social development of children who have been able to participate in these programmes, and I have some figures for Derbyshire. The proportion of young children achieving a good level of development, as measured by the early years foundation stage profile, rose from 55.1 per cent. in 2007 to 60.4 per cent. in 2008, compared with a national average of 49 per cent. We can show positive progress in the development of our young children. We have also made progress in just one year in narrowing the gap between the lowest achieving young children and the rest, from 36.3 per cent. in 2007 to 33.7 per cent. in 2008.

What is so important is that the children's centres are flexible. They can respond to suggestions that are put forward by parents and by the local community on what is needed in the area. Tomorrow, because I am keen to attend the debate in the Commons on the Damages (Asbestos-Related Conditions) Bill, which deals with pleural plaques, I will not be able to join one of our local organisations that links into the Sure Start centres. It provides clubs for mothers to do peer counselling on breast-feeding. That important activity has taken place and has been very much linked into Sure Start and children's centres.

Photo of Jamie Reed Jamie Reed Labour, Copeland

Does my hon. Friend find, as I do, that when she speaks to health workers and people associated with infant schools, primary schools, GP practices and hospitals in her area, they are all passionate about the work that Sure Start does, and that they believe that their core work and the efforts that they have make to improve the lives of people who come through their doors would be seriously hampered by any cut in Sure Start provision?

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

I absolutely agree with that. My hon. Friend mentioned health provision. An interesting area is the link between services, and how different services can function from children's centres and Sure Start provision. There has been some talk, which may be referred to later, about what happens with health visitors, and how we ensure that they are available to people. That service is provided from Sure Start centres, and it is made coherent with looking at the other needs of people.

I asked the Minister about Sure Start centres a while back, after inviting her to visit one of ours, but my neighbour and hon. Friend Mr. Skinner, jumped in, requiring her to visit his children's centres, too-jumping on the bandwagon and promoting the cause of Derbyshire. He commented that not only were there health visitors in both the children's centres in his constituency, but they also had national health service dentists there. So there can be a wide variety of provision.

When the Leader of the House of Commons visited the Sure Start centre in Langley Mill children's centre a few months ago, she saw the Crafty Crew group, which works with children, providing entertainment and skills. The range of different facilities that can be and are provided from that base is fantastic, and developing that is one of our proudest achievements.

Sure Start did not just come as a fully formed policy at the beginning of this Government; it has developed from trying out types of provision and trying to move those into different areas. That is important. We did not just say, "We are going to plonk a children's centre in every area." It has developed from our development of early years provision and provision for the later years.

We are all positive about the work that the centres have done. Any suggestion of cutting back in any of these areas would be a huge mistake, because they enable us to provide joined-up services to our youngsters, giving them the opportunity to develop and get the provision that they need, along with the support that their families need, to enable them to progress.

Each of us who has visited the centres in our areas could describe a range of things that go on in them, although there are common features and the centres are growing and developing all the time. For example, help is offered to young mothers who may want to get back into employment, including courses and activities that may not be directly work-related immediately, but give them confidence in their abilities and skills to do things. It is important that we combine the developmental activities for the youngsters-combining the Sure Start centres with the nursery centres and pre-school provision in an area-assisting their development, with support for families and with the more hard-edged social provision that we need for deprived families who are perhaps in some difficulties. In that way, the services can be provided from and in co-ordination with the centre. We should be looking at how we can put on activities and offer assistance that may help parents get into employment and acquire the skills they need, including giving young mothers the confidence that they need to get back into work, linking into the health provision that I have mentioned, including using those facilities to encourage the benefits of breast feeding, with the health benefits that it brings, which is important.

I welcome this debate. I am sure that a large number of hon. Members could tell positive stories about the development of Sure Start and children's centres in their constituencies. I hope that there will not be any threat to the future of this provision and hope that we will, instead, consider how to develop it in a way that is not top-down, or with suggestions being made from the top and the development coming from the bottom-asking people in the communities who use those centres what they need and what kind of services they would most like to see provided.

Long may the Sure Start centres go on. I welcome this debate and applaud the work that has been done.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak 3:03, 15 October 2009

Mrs. Dean, you will not be surprised to hear that my remarks will complement and reinforce the message of my hon. Friend Judy Mallaber. As the MP for a constituency bordering Derbyshire, I am sure that you look with envy-as does my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne, whose constituency also borders it-at the high quality of pre-school education, particularly in Sure Start centres, delivered in our county.

Over the last 10 years, the local authority and the Government have worked together to ensure that the aims of Sure Start are delivered, as my hon. Friend said, as part of a comprehensive strategy for everybody. However, it started off, quite rightly, with consideration about where the need was greatest. The longest-established Sure Start centre in my constituency is at Gamesley-from where I can almost see the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish-which I want to tell right hon. and hon. Members about. It was a children's centre even before Sure Start and it has been integrated with nursery provision, health and adult education, with specific lottery-funded initiatives. It is in a deprived constituency. People would not think, looking at most of my constituency, that it contained one of the 5 per cent. most deprived wards in the country, but it does. The centre has provided a focus for the energy of that community to be brought together-it is the glue holding an otherwise fragile community together-and it is one of a number of public services that have been enhanced in recent years.

Lynne Kennington, who runs the Sure Start centre at Gamesley, is widely acknowledged on the national stage of Sure Start-[Interruption.] The Minister is nodding, so she clearly knows that name. We are proud of and delighted with the work that Lynne and her team are doing for some of the most deprived children in my constituency.

During the 2005 general election, I had the pleasure of taking the then Deputy Prime Minister to the building site of the Fairfield Sure Start centre in Buxton, in the second most-deprived ward in my constituency. That centre was fully up and running a few months after the election and it has been seamlessly and instantly integrated into the pattern of provision for that community: it is next door to the youth centre and on the same campus as the infant and junior schools and looks and feels as though it really is part of that community, even though it has only been there for a relatively short period.

I am particularly pleased with the way that the former High Peak and Dales primary care trust, now known as Derbyshire County PCT, has engaged with the Sure Start centres, and Fairfield is perhaps the best example of that. Like the centre in Bolsover that my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley mentioned, we have an NHS dentist facility in the Fairfield centre-there is a vacancy for a NHS dentist there, if anyone is interested-which is tackling a need that was there. This part of the constituency had the greatest level of dental caries and the lowest level of child registration with dentists, so Sure Start was used as the medium for bringing that service along.

The Fairfield centre was closely followed by one at Glossop, with the conversion of a former teachers' centre on the edge of a deprived estate at Whitfield.

Another purpose-built Sure Start centre came along in Harpur Hill, at Buxton, built on the campus of a primary school as part of its general development, with wider community use in mind, including shared facilities, to serve the ward as part of the extended-school concept.

Number five on the list is the centre at Hadfield, which I mentioned earlier during an intervention. We have just celebrated the 3,000th Sure Start centre in the country, and I am pleased to say that my Derbyshire colleague, the hon. Member for Amber Valley, and I both have six centres in our constituencies, so we are doing better than average. The centre at Hadfield has been established quite close to a primary school and adjacent to a nursery. The vibrancy of the team there-from memory, they are exclusively women, which may be an issue; perhaps we need more men working in Sure Start environments-means that there is so much energy, vitality and commitment to reach out into communities. I had no hesitation inviting representatives of this team to the community heroes event tonight. Anita Mistry and Karen Foster will be on their way across London now. Later, they will get a tour of the Commons, before going over to Downing street.

The sixth and final Sure Start in my constituency is at New Mills. At the moment, it functions pretty much as a virtual Sure Start, because it does not yet have permanent premises, although they are being built. There was a big debate about the centre, and I am not convinced that it is entirely in the right location. Although it is not in the most deprived part of town, however, I am told that it is attracting a clientele from among those who most need it in the New Mills East ward. The situation is being monitored carefully to ensure that the work is targeted at those most in need.

Like my right hon. Friend the Minister, I was involved in a Bookstart event, which was held by the Sure Start people last week at New Mills library. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and I was just as scared by the crocodile as the children were. One member of the library staff there has the job of liaising with Sure Start in the area, so it is a case not just of Sure Start attracting and working with other services, but of other services looking to Sure Start to see how they can share facilities.

Photo of Jamie Reed Jamie Reed Labour, Copeland

My hon. Friend is making an excellent contribution, although I must stress that my constituency is nowhere near Derbyshire or Lancashire.

Photo of Jamie Reed Jamie Reed Labour, Copeland

I thank my hon. Friend for that offer and I will take it up.

Does my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak agree that one of the criticisms that has been regularly levelled at the Government during their time in office is that they have redistributed wealth and opportunity by stealth and not talked enough about that redistribution? As he will know, certain commentators in the political sphere are discussing theories about nudging people towards certain behaviours. One of Sure Start's unbridled successes in areas of need up and down Britain is that it does an awful lot more than cater for children and meets an awful lot of unspoken policy objectives. My hon. Friend talked about Bookstart and literacy, and he will know that literacy is similarly only one small part of Bookstart. It is also about getting parents to read to their children, helping the family unit to cohere, getting parents to set an example and promoting social cohesion. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of Sure Start's unsung triumphs is that it promotes social and community cohesion and helps the family unit to stay together? It is a fundamental social good-it is about much more than child care.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

To that particularly long intervention, let me give a particularly short answer-yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At last week's Bookstart event, a lady told me about the books that she had received-the ones that people are given when their child is nine months old. When the family subsequently went on holiday, they took a bag of books with them, and the parents would read to their 18-month-old daughter every night. That lady talked to me about the role that books played in her family in a way that suggested that there had not been a culture of books.

Similarly, on a recent visit to Sure Start, I was told that one had been able to feel the nervousness the first time a police officer had come in. Now, however, police community support officers go into the Sure Start centre in their yellow jackets and they are part of the family of people who work there, building relations with the children even at a very early age. For the reasons that my hon. Friend mentioned, that represents a huge investment in the confident, self-regulating, self-disciplined communities of the future, from which we will all benefit.

I could not talk about my experience in Derbyshire without mentioning my previous experience as a resident of Gloucestershire. When I was a parliamentary candidate there 20-odd years ago, my right hon. Friend the Minister came up from Bristol to visit me-she has not changed a bit. In those days, we had an odd situation in pre-school education. When Princess Diana came to live in Gloucestershire, we welcomed her because she was a pre-school teacher. At the time, there were no local authority pre-schools in Gloucestershire. It had been a Conservative authority for ever, and pre-school work had never been a priority. I know that that was 20 years ago and that we have all grown up and learned since then, but the proof of the pudding is in the way in which political parties demonstrate what they can achieve when they are in power. The Tories completely neglected nursery education and pre-school education generally because they did not see themselves as having a role in it. I hope and pray that during the short time in which my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley and I have lent Derbyshire to the Tories-we will get it back in three and three quarter years-they will not dare to touch the Sure Start centres. Those centres cater for everybody and for a very real need. They are an investment in safe communities for the future.

Finally, let me declare an interest. I heard yesterday that I am to become a granddad for the third time, so I have a vested interest in making sure that Sure Start and all pre-school and school facilities, which have benefited from the investment, spirit and courage of this Labour Government, remain as good as they are, both now and in the future.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education) 3:16, 15 October 2009

Perhaps I should start by declaring a similar interest in that I have a granddaughter who, until my daughter returned to a work after a year, engaged in many activities. She still goes along when possible, sometimes with her grandfather.

In 1997, I happened to be the chair of education in a new unitary authority. Although it was not 20 years ago, there was just one state-run nursery school. The mix of private and voluntary sector provision was important, but supply was very limited and there was virtually no family support. Child poverty increased in the 1990s and by 1997, the number of children living in households in poverty had reached extremely high levels.

The Liberal Democrats-I will put this firmly on the record-welcome the enormous commitment that the Government have made to expanding nursery education and setting up Sure Start centres. In general terms, the centres mirror a model that we proposed in a policy paper many years ago. We have always understood that investment in the early years and early intervention are crucial for families, children, communities and, ultimately, society.

Neither my constituency, which straddles several local authorities, nor the whole Poole local authority qualified for any of the original Sure Start centres. My experiences of Sure Start's early work are therefore limited to visits around the country. Interestingly, one ward in my constituency is in the 25 per cent. of most deprived wards in the country; there are great variations within it, however, and large pockets of deprivation with high levels of need. That was not fully addressed until quite recently, with the more comprehensive rolling-out of the children's centre programme. It was very important to move beyond the most deprived areas, because we inevitably missed a lot of families who were living in very deprived circumstances.

My ward was part of the neighbourhood nursery scheme and a health action zone, but some of the antisocial behaviour problems that, sadly, present themselves today, as recently reported for two weeks running in The Sunday Times, could well have been tackled earlier if there had been finer tuning of the identification of deprived areas and if the early funding had been more targeted. That was one of the major early criticisms of Sure Start-that the programmes were not necessarily reaching out to some of the most deprived localities in the neighbourhood. I am pleased to say that Poole now has a comprehensive programme of activities and support groups throughout the borough.

I, too, attended national Bookstart day at Creekmoor children's centre, which is based in the library there and where there are extra rooms for the many activities on offer. I was given a colourful leaflet outlining all the activities and support groups and explaining where they are in Poole. Given that Poole's ethnic minority population is only 3 per cent. of the total, it is impressive that, for example, we have a Czech and Slovak support group and a Polish-speaking family group. We also have a dad's club, a grandparents support group, a young parents group and much more-the leaflet is covered with things that are available, which is very exciting. At the session that I attended last week, I did not listen to stories-I sang nursery rhymes. A statistic was mentioned while I was there: 35 per cent. of younger parents-18 to 24-year-olds-do not naturally sing nursery rhymes with their children. Indeed, many of them are not aware of the words. That makes one realise how important rhyme-time sessions are. It is such a bonding between parent and child and is so important to early learning and development.

In the next few weeks, I shall open another children's centre, in the Dorset part of my constituency, in an area with clear needs, which the county council originally overlooked totally. I supported parents in their lobbying for a centre, and although it is not a purpose-built facility, the services are beginning to be provided, using existing buildings.

As hon. Members may imagine, I am not simply going to give a glowing report on children's centres, and I want to deal with the question of whether, in the post-2006 phase, they have always been located in the right places. Decision making is local, the Government have given local authorities money and the allocation of funds has been relatively generous. However, in some respects, questions arise about whether there has been more haste and less speed. In another part of Dorset, one centre will effectively close, although a good development is that a new centre is to be opened in a deprived area. It appears that the location was wrong, and that is down to the local council.

Several years ago, when I had to go out to find Sure Start centres, I visited one at Bovington, where there is a large Army camp. What is needed there is very interesting. My feeling was that the Ministry of Defence should contribute towards the costs, because there were many very young wives there, isolated in a rural part of Dorset. In addition, many of the Army houses have been sold-it was some of the cheapest housing around-so there were lots of young families. Any hon. Members who have travelled to rural parts of Dorset will not have seen too many buses; public transport is very limited. There was not even any fresh fruit available in the one local shop. One of the things that the Sure Start scheme did was to arrange for fresh fruit to be brought in once a week. I live in an affluent part of the country and it is eye-opening to realise how many needs were not being addressed before we started thinking in Sure Start terms.

There are, however, some crunch questions. Is Sure Start achieving its objectives? Is it demonstrably offering good value for money? What are its shortcomings? We can all talk about the many good things, but I think it does have shortcomings. Are those shortcomings being addressed? We are asking an awful lot from the Sure Start concept. We want it to be fully integrated-an operational miracle. It should assist in lifting children and their families out of poverty; it should also educate, integrate local services, rebuild relationships, strengthen communities, give access to health care and probably do 100 more things besides. With so many objectives and different models and approaches throughout the country, evaluations are quite difficult, but with the amount of financial investment in Sure Start, it is vital that clear, positive outcomes should be identified.

The latest figures show that by 2010-11, Sure Start will be receiving £1.9 billion of Government funding-more than two and a half times the amount it received in 2003-04. However, it was obvious from the outset that many potential outcomes could not be achieved in a short time span. Like the Minister, I found the report by the Taxpayers Alliance and the Institute of Directors extremely surprising. To condemn Sure Start for failing to raise the educational attainment of this year's 11-year-olds does not make sense. We should be achieving more for our 11-year-olds, for all sorts of reasons, and I may well criticise other aspects of the educational system, but I do not think that one can lay that at the door of Sure Start.

Photo of Jamie Reed Jamie Reed Labour, Copeland

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her involvement in the Sure Start centres in her community. It sounds very similar to my community in Cumbria, where there are pockets of wealth surrounded by rural deprivation. That presents difficult problems. I congratulate her, too, on drawing attention to the standard of arithmetic within the Institute of Directors these days.

The point about value for money and the efficacy of what Sure Start centres provide is interesting. The hon. Lady's party champions localism in all things. Does she believe that Sure Start services should all be centrally determined; or should they be allowed to develop organically to meet local needs?

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

I was studiously avoiding saying who controlled the county council, but now I have been tempted to say that it is Conservative controlled. I believe in local decision-making, but commitment is needed to channel money to communities in the best way, and not to the places where perhaps particular parties' electoral strength lies. That is perhaps the easiest way to say it.

Returning to the Taxpayers Alliance report, the national evaluation of Sure Start services, made the important point that

"In looking at the initial implementation of Sure Start programmes it became apparent that for a variety of reasons; including, lack of availability of suitable staff, the need to train new staff, the time taken for planning permission for new buildings, the time taken for the construction or conversion of buildings; setting up programmes took a lot of time. It was typically not until three years after the initial approval of a Sure Start programme that it became close to fully functional. This meant that the first 60 programmes approved in 1999 did not become fully functional until 2002."

Obviously, a small proportion of the cohort from Sure Start centres would be only seven.

The Minister drew our attention to the early years foundation goals. If I were not so unhappy with the goals, I might have commented on them too, but I am pleased to hear that more confident and self-assured children are entering primary school.

I share with several hon. Members a strong belief in early intervention, and have attended many debates with Mr. Allen-indeed, I am surprised not to see him here today. It makes such a difference to lives. Many studies have shown us how important it is to invest to save. A recent one, "Backing the Future", by Action for Children and the New Economics Foundation, shows that for every pound spent in an Action for Children Sure Start centre, the social return is £4.60. That is pretty convincing.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I am also familiar with the work by the New Economics Foundation that the hon. Lady mentions. In 1979, the Black report on how to eradicate health inequalities was published. It suggested a figure of £2 billion as the cost of implementation. Does the hon. Lady feel that there is a parallel? The then Conservative Government said that figure was impractical, unachievable and unaffordable, and immediately binned it. Over the past decades, we have paid the cost of picking up those health inequalities, not only personally in people's lives, but through the public purse. That again shows that early intervention makes sense regarding people's lives, children's development and economic spending.

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

I absolutely agree with that point. I must be cautious not to commit my party to the £4 billion suggested in the report that I mentioned, or I will get into trouble. However, the Liberal Democrat party is committed to spending more on early years development in general.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

Will the hon. Lady confirm that that comes at the cost of abolishing the child trust funds that are so important to families and help them to build up resources to support their children as they move into adulthood?

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

I do not think that it is matched penny for penny. Obviously, the Liberal Democrats have always been opposed to using money in the child trust funds. We want to use that money in more effective ways. Again, it is a matter of short-term or long-term provision. That money will be accessed at the age of 18, but we think that there are too many lives that need extra support now. In particular, we wish to use the child trust fund money for creating smaller classes for children aged five and six, which is really important. I will return to that point later regarding the follow-on through school.

Barnardo's has identified the children's centre model as a key intervention in breaking the cycle of poverty and transforming patterns of poor parenting. It feels that such centres should provide

"co-located, non stigmatised services that are tailored and targeted in order that resources follow need".

When we look at the aims that a typical Sure Start centre is likely to have, they seem enormous. They include outreach, home visiting, support for families and parents, good-quality play, learning and child care experiences, primary and community health care, family health, support for people with special needs, and access to specialised services. In addition, we would like to have employment advice, links with Jobcentre Plus, literacy and numeracy programmes, relationship support and domestic violence services, to name but a few.

Of course, it is highly unlikely that all Sure Start centres will be expert at providing all those things, and that is where local decision making is really important, as is the governance of the centre itself. I welcome the proposals in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill to engage more with the local community and to ensure that the services on offer are appropriate. Research carried out by Capacity indicates that Sure Start is "unquestionably crucial" in promoting early childhood development and responding to deprivation. It states that the strongest centres are providing all those services.

One of the difficult services over the years has been outreach work. In a number of studies, it has been identified that not enough outreach work has been done, and that those hardest to reach have not been reached. Some studies are beginning to show improvement in outreach work, but I suspect that there is still a long way to go. The Government have allocated more money for more outreach workers.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her support. While commenting on outreach, will she dwell on the fact that it is the outreach work from Sure Start that the Conservatives have said that they would cut?

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

I would be extremely disappointed if any outreach work was to be cut. I believe that we need more outreach, more training, more skills-perhaps we have not got the definition of what an outreach worker does right yet. The issue needs a lot more work, but I am extremely pleased to see that better evaluations are coming through.

The service is also rather patchy regarding how much help there is for families to gain skills and work, in particular links with jobcentres. We can all come up with good examples, but a number of major studies, including the recent Ofsted report, seem to indicate that Jobcentre Plus is not tied in sufficiently. That is particularly important in terms of tackling the child poverty objective.

Interestingly, the national evaluation of Sure Start suggests that allowing staff to identify areas of improvement and working towards those goals improves the quality of the services they provide. Barnardo's feels that lessons have been learned during the development of the Sure Start pilots, and there seems to have been a progression. However, during that progression, there have been lost opportunities. I suspect that large sums of money have not been used in the most effective way. For example, a report from the National Audit Office in 2006 concluded:

"For day-to-day monitoring at local level, we found centres and local authorities were uncertain about how they should measure their performance. Over half of local authorities we examined were not carrying out any active performance monitoring."

It is not good enough to throw large sums of money at something without monitoring and evaluation at all levels. I believe that that is improving, but there is further to go.

Assessment is particularly difficult as there are long-term goals and shorter-term learning aspirations. We are probably reaching those shorter-term goals, but breaking into the vicious cycle of poverty is not only difficult and involves fighting against the tide, but it will not be fully realised by the Sure Start programme for years to come. It is a difficult area that needs continuous monitoring.

From Sure Start, there must be continuity into school. If parents have been given a lot of support for their child up to age five, cutting off that support once the child reaches school age does not make sense. That was apparent from my example from Bovington.

The health visitor service has changed over the years. I have looked at the numbers: in 1997 there were 10,025 health visitors and in 2009 there are 8,764. I value the excellent services that they provide. They have a crucial role to play and the current service needs strengthening. The scoping study carried out by Capacity for the Department for Children, Schools and Families identified health visitors as crucial partners in outreach work, identifying and assisting with problems in families who do not yet access Sure Start. However, in terms of the effectiveness of health visitors in the centres-this is only one study; it is going against my instincts-health visitors are still not seen as an immediate source of advice. Is that because we have a generation that has not known health visitors? I suspect that it is. Parents are not likely to cite a health visitor because they have not known that service. In Poole, we seem to have a good health-visitor service, but I think that the area needs rebuilding.

Some surveys suggest that dads are not given enough attention in some Sure Start centres, but in other centres we can find good examples of that. There must also be an emphasis on speech, language and communication needs-again, a lot of evaluations have identified those areas as not yet receiving enough focus. We could also be doing a lot more work on safeguarding, and although we are definitely making progress on integrating services, I am sure that, sadly, we could all find examples of places where integrated working is not yet functioning as well as it might. However, there are some amazing stories where a family are supported from all directions, they come through, and their whole life is changed.

Evaluations and deficiencies in evaluation have led to changes in the programme, and clearer outcomes are now identifiable, but further developments are desirable. I conclude that progress has been made, but we could always do better. Partnerships with the private and the voluntary sectors are all-important and the contribution that Home-Start in particular makes in the early years is very important.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families) 3:40, 15 October 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean. I am pleased to follow Annette Brooke, who brought a note of realism to our discussions. I do, however, congratulate the Minister on calling the debate. It is a pity that it clashes with such an important defence debate in the main Chamber. I am sure that if we were having this debate in the main Chamber, more Members of Parliament would be present. I am sure that the Minister's Treasury credentials, which she brings with her into her current team, will be most welcome and a useful addition to some of the deliberations going on about not only the future of Sure Start, but other areas in which she is working.

It is clear that the Minister is still a little new to her brief. I think that today's debate will help her to understand a little better the position of both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party. I am very happy to forward her a copy of our policy document on the future of Sure Start, because in terms of her understanding of what we propose, it is clear that she has not had a chance to review it yet. Suffice it to say-

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

I think that I shall make a little progress before taking my first intervention from the Minister. In our policies on Sure Start, we are looking to sharpen the delivery of Sure Start and use Sure Start health visitors to do that as an integral part of Sure Start. I shall come on to that when I have made a few other comments.

Before moving on to my main remarks, I need to cover the Minister's comment, in her opening statement, about funding. Government funding and the mountain of Government debt have been a great concern for all our constituents. The Minister will know from my comments today, but also from those I have made publicly over many months and, indeed, years, that my party firmly supports Sure Start and has clear policies on how we will develop it further if there is a Conservative Government after the next election.

Hon. Members should be clear that Labour has already said that it has not ruled out cuts in the budgets of the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Indeed, its Secretary of State has announced plans to cut £2 billion of DCSF budgets-in particular, getting rid of one in 12 deputy heads. The challenge across the board is for all of us to deliver better value for money for all our constituents, whether in DCSF expenditure or any area of expenditure. I hope that the Minister's comments earlier, when I asked her about Government spending, did not show any complacency on her part, because I am sure that our constituents would not expect complacency when they know the mountain of debt that the country has to face.

All hon. Members who have spoken have given their own story about Sure Start, and there are some excellent Sure Starts in my constituency. Unfortunately, the pockets of deprivation in my constituency, although intense, were not big enough to be part of the first phase of Government investment in the field, so we are still in the early phases of putting in place Sure Start support in my constituency. Hon. Members will know that Basingstoke has London overspill communities, so although we are a thriving part of the south-east of England, we have many communities that need such extra support.

Two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit one of the new phase 2 children's centres in an area of my constituency called Buckskin. The Honeycomb children's centre is run by an inspirational manager called Dennis Czech. He is also one of the first male managers of a Sure Start centre that I have had the pleasure to meet. I congratulate Hampshire county council on recruiting such an excellent member of staff. I had the opportunity to meet and chat to many different parents. One mum was coping with the ups and downs of twins. A grandmum was also there with her daughter's twins. I met some local child minders who pop in as part of their regular weekly schedule and mums and toddlers who were there for a singalong group to help the children with speech development. The neighbouring Star nursery, which I had visited before, is full to capacity, so such provision is very much needed in a town where two working parents is the norm. It is the norm because in Basingstoke it takes two people working full time to make ends meet. In that part of my constituency, the new children's centre has filled a vacuum and is very much valued not only by parents but by the professionals working in the area to ensure that the support for families is as it should be.

I have yet to visit a children's centre that is overrun by the privileged middle classes that we read about so often in the national press. I am not sure whether hon. Members will disagree with me on this, but I think that painting a picture that Sure Start centres are simply for those who could afford to pay for services themselves is not a helpful way of talking about the very valuable role that many Sure Start centres are already playing in our constituencies.

The basic level of human support given by local centres such as Honeycomb or, indeed, any Sure Start centre that I have visited is integral to what makes them powerful. They help parents to come together, as hon. Members have described, and to find ways to strengthen their own communities. That type of support may be offered by community groups or church groups in other parts of the country. It is also the sort of support that we all get from our families, but for many new mums today, having family down the street is not the norm. Having children later in life, at the age of 30, is the norm. Not necessarily having social networks built up in one's community is the norm. Having the ability to go into a Sure Start centre and start to build up one's confidence as a parent is therefore absolutely as it should be.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I do not know whether she has to hand the Conservative party policy document "Helping new families", but on page 3, where it talks about how to pay for the policy, it says that the cost of the policy is £200 million per year and that that will be funded from the children's centres budget, instead of funding outreach to isolated communities. That is £200 million, cut. We do not need to read the hon. Lady's Sure Start document, because it is in another document, which she may not necessarily be familiar with, but perhaps she could comment on that document, or has it now been withdrawn? If it has, could she explain that to hon. Members?

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

I am not sure that that directly links to the point that I was making, but as the Minister will know, from having perhaps read the document more than she let on earlier, the prime objective behind having health visitors working integrally at the heart-[Interruption]-of Sure Start-[Interruption]-is that they will have a professional outreach role, which as she will know from other-[Interruption.]-documents that she has read is one of the most effective ways that outreach is put in place.

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

The Minister is clearly over-excited. If she holds on to that excitement, she will hear a little later about how important it is that we get outreach right. She will of course have listened to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, who brought a note of realism into the debate: outreach has not been as effective as it needs to be. If the Minister is complacent about the way in which outreach is working, she needs to do her homework more thoroughly on some of these issues-[Interruption]-because with the bricks and mortar that have been established and a-

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

On a point of order, Mrs. Dean. I know that the hon. Lady might have slightly different views from me, but she cannot put words into my mouth. For the record, the Government are investing very heavily in outreach work because they value it for the reasons that both hon. Ladies have given in their remarks.

Photo of Janet Dean Janet Dean Labour, Burton

That is a debating point rather than a point of order.

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

I could not agree with you more, Mrs. Dean. Perhaps the Minister needs to calm down a little.

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

May I first complete the point that I am making? It is important that we get outreach right. If we do not get that important service properly through Sure Start, not only will the Government be ignoring a lot of evidence but they will be letting down the most vulnerable groups in our communities. I am sure that that is not the intention, but if the Minister were to listen to the points that are being made today, she would understand why we believe that our approach is measured and well thought through, and that it will provide the sort of support required.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

Would the hon. Lady be more precise about the extra amount that will apparently be going toward the cost of further health visitors? Exactly which of the current Sure Start services will have to go in order to fund that? I am not clear about what could go without damaging the current services. It would help to have a bit more precision on that point.

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

I am not sure that such an intervention should have been made, as I have not yet raised the subject. I am not sure that a Government debate on the progress of Sure Start should allow the House to scrutinise the financial details of Conservative party policy. The hon. Lady may not have seen our document, but I can tell her that the funding for such a policy is to be found in the Government's paper on outreach; they identify a significant shortcoming in Sure Start, saying that the money will be used more effectively to put trained outreach workers in place. That approach is absolutely right; we need to sharpen the way in which Sure Start is to deliver outreach. However, the delivery of funding for outreach workers is not the only debating point today. I shall now return to the other points that I wish to make.

Before considering whether progress is being made, we need to clarify exactly what we are trying to progress towards. Sure Start has faced that problem from the beginning. It is all about child development. It is child centred, and firmly draws on

"evidence that outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds were to a large extent influenced by early-childhood experiences".

Those are not my words but the words of the late Norman Glass, the architect of the programme. It focuses on child development and ensuring, above all, that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have the sort of support that everyone knows they deserve.

Photo of Jamie Reed Jamie Reed Labour, Copeland

The hon. Lady identified the benefits of early years intervention and of Sure Start itself. With that in mind, does she regret not supporting the budget allocated to fund Sure Start?

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

I am not sure how that point ties in with the objectives of Sure Start. The hon. Gentleman needs to focus a little more on my speech rather than on making interventions that may have been given him by his Whip.

Photo of Jamie Reed Jamie Reed Labour, Copeland

If only I had been given intervention points by my Whip.

How on earth can social objectives be met without funding?

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

The hon. Gentleman may not have been focusing on what I was saying earlier. Ultimately, we support Sure Start and its objectives. That is the important point. However, I wish to continue my speech rather than have an in-depth discussion of Sure Start's budget.

I do not know whether the Minister has a reason for pressing the matter further, but we are here today to discuss the progress of Sure Start. We have not spoken about it in detail, although the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole valiantly tried to put on the table some of the facts and research that were so lacking in the Minister's speech. Rather than pursuing a financial analysis, we should be reviewing the subject of the debate-the progress of Sure Start in reaching its objectives. That is why we are here today.

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

I shall resist giving way to the hon. Gentleman again. He could have made a speech himself rather than making a series of lengthy interventions that were almost speeches in themselves.

When discussing whether Sure Start has been making progress, we need to consider the evidence. It is not a small programme. It is important not only for the impact that it has on our communities, which has been mentioned extensively, but for its effect on the Department's purse-£2 billion plus every year. Every five years, the programme deals with another generation of children. We should not forget that the programme was launched in 1998. In some areas, it has had 11 years to develop and come to fruition, although, as I said earlier, it is not the same in all areas. For instance, in my constituency Sure Start is a relatively new phenomenon; however, it has been in place in some areas for more than a decade.

I am pleased that the Minister seems keen to consider the results, because a great number of studies have been made over the last decade, including some over the past few months that we have not had the chance to consider fully, given the length of the summer recess. I am sure that the Minister would not want to appear complacent to parents, or to the staff of Sure Start centres, by overlooking the important results of that research. The dedication of Sure Start staff is overwhelming. Day by day, they do whatever they can to strengthen our communities. However, as one centre manager told me, all too often it can feel as if they are working with one hand tied behind their backs. I realise how important it is to unpick why people feel like that, and how important it is to scrutinise Sure Start in order to make it even more effective.

The Minister spoke about Jobcentre Plus. How many Sure Start centres have working within them an effective Jobcentre Plus? How many have had problems securing the sort of relationship that she mentioned in her anecdote? First and foremost, however, we need to consider the problems faced by Sure Start in our communities. Those issues need to be addressed. Although we fully support Sure Start, we should start to address those problems that are clearly starting to raise their heads.

It will come as no surprise that one of the key factors alluded to by many Members is the role of health within Sure Start centres. It is always useful to put facts on the table. Less than one in five children's centres have formal agreements with primary care trusts about what services should be provided through Sure Start. Although I could give some case studies of those Sure Start centres I have visited that offer excellent health care services, all too often it is a postcode lottery. It can depend on local people and local relationships; it is not embedded into the culture of Sure Start as was intended.

Interestingly, when Sure Start was launched, I would not have been standing opposite just one Minister, but a Minister from the then schools Department, and a Health Minister. At that time, both Ministers were working hand in glove, much as I work with my hon. Friend Anne Milton, the shadow Health Minister. That critical link with health must be embedded into Sure Start if we are to see some of the developments and improvements needed in the outcomes for children. I am not the only one to say that. The Minister may be aware that the Select Committee on Health recently reported on health inequality, a subject that she mentioned herself. The report states that Sure Start

"has yet to demonstrate significant improvements in health outcomes for either children or parents" and it calls for more rigorous monitoring. The report was issued earlier this year, so it is quite contemporary in its analysis. It favours significant developments in the programme with a more structured role for health.

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

As the hon. Lady is reflecting on health, I wonder whether I could mention childhood obesity, which I omitted in my contribution? We clearly have not done enough on that matter. The Pre-school Learning Alliance has made the staggering prediction that a high percentage of two-year-olds will be obese in the very near future.

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

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. If individual Sure Start centres have an embedded health structure, they can start to pick up on specific local issues. The Sure Start centre in Chatham, which I visited, has a strong relationship with its primary care trust, and has addressed the very issue that the hon. Lady raises. It has identified obesity as one of the main issues in its local area, and has used the flexibility within the Sure Start system in a very constructive way. It has put in place a healthy eating café, to which parents and children can come when they are attending breastfeeding classes or other activities. There is a desire to help parents understand how to improve the diets not just of their children but of themselves as well. However, that embedded health role is not the norm. The National Audit Office's own figures graphically show that that direct link with health is not the norm. Will the Minister tell us what she is doing to ensure that there is a change in the future? She will be as aware as I am of the data that show that having health at the heart of Sure Start will improve its delivery.

The Minister gave another anecdote about a health visitor who advised one mother to attend her local Sure Start centre. That mother was very fortunate because the average case load of health visitors means that many do not get that one-on-one treatment or that level of advice. In my own constituency, the case loads of health visitors are near enough double what is recommended for a national standard. Throughout the UK, the average case load of a health visitor is some 362 families. Therefore, although, anecdotally, we can say that health visitors are able to offer personal advice, we know that the reality is that the numbers are not there and that people have not been recruited. That is why our Sure Start health visitor programme will address the very issue that the Minister raised-the personal advice and support that mothers and parents need at what is a very pressured time in their lives.

If we are to analyse the progress of Sure Start and not just pretend that all is rosy, we must consider a second challenge, which is the fundamental understanding among parents of the role of Sure Start within their community. The Minister referred to a piece of research that was commissioned by her own Department-I am not sure whether she was there at the time-that stated that 90 per cent. of those who use Sure Start services are pleased with them. However, she did not point out that the same piece of research, which was published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in February, stated that only 50 per cent. of parents were aware that Sure Start offered services other than just child care. They did not know, for example, that it offered health and family and parenting services. When we dig down further into the detail, we find that just 13 per cent. of the target population have used the other services. Having a Sure Start centre in the community to bring together the services that will support families to thrive is the right objective, but, at this point in time, all too many parents are simply not aware that that is what their Sure Start centre is doing. A vast majority of those people-not just anybody off the street, but the target market of Sure Start centres-are not making use of what are fundamental and vital services. In contrast, 70 per cent. of the target population are aware that Sure Start offers child care.

As a working mother, I know in my heart how critically important child care is, but Sure Start offers more than that. Every hon. Member here today will agree with me on that. Will the Minister tell us what she is doing to help Sure Start centres' hard-working staff raise the profile of the other services that are on offer? I urge her to consider how important Sure Start health visitors would be in helping parents not just to understand but to take delivery of the broader range of services. Parents should be signposted to support services right from the start when those important early routines are established.

The third area that the Minister did not cover in her notes is the importance of reaching out to the most disadvantaged families, which is an issue that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole raised. Perhaps other hon. Members who spoke in the debate-although there is only one of them left here-are not aware of that either because they did not cover it in their contributions.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

The provision started in areas of deprivation precisely for that reason. It reaches out very much to people in difficult situations, as do some of the services that function from Sure Start centres.

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

I understand the hon. Lady's point. What I was saying was that there is an awful lot of evidence, which is not simply from the Department's own national evaluation of Sure Start but from other organisations, that points out that more can be done. Obviously, the centres in the hon. Lady's constituency are working incredibly hard to reach out to disadvantaged families, and I am sure that they are going above and beyond the call of duty in what they are doing. None the less, the evidence is that outreach to the most disadvantaged families is not consistent in its execution or efficacy. Therefore, it is incumbent on hon. Members to ensure that we scrutinise what is happening with Government money, that we make the service more effective, that we listen to the logical evidence that is presented to us, and that we look at ways in which we can evolve policy so that it can be more effective in the future.

I refer to a report that Ofsted brought out two or three days before the summer recess-I am sure that some hon. Members will have seen it-that said that half of all centres are not reaching out to the most vulnerable families. I am sure that the Minister will tell us why she feels that Ofsted has got to this position and what her Department is doing to address it. Ofsted is not the first organisation to point out such a fact. Let us hope that the measures that the Minister puts in place will ensure that it is the last.

The Minister will know that the core objective behind our Sure Start health visitor programme is to address that very issue, because the research shows clearly that the most accepted form of advice is from health visitors. Health visitors are the people who can get their foot in the door. They can help families who find it difficult, for whatever reason, to seek out the support of services themselves. It could be a single mum who finds it quite tough to go down to a Sure Start centre with her baby-she could be young and feeling like she is being judged. Alternatively, it could be a mum with children who have special educational needs, or a mum who has had a multiple birth. There are many different reasons why individual families find it difficult to seek out support and help for themselves. What the research shows extremely clearly is that a health visitor can go into the home in a way that almost nobody else can, to help to direct and deliver services that this most vulnerable group of people needs.

I want to ask the Minister to comment on another part of the Ofsted report, given that we have not had a chance to discuss that report before now, although it was issued in July. It showed that three out of 10 Sure Start centres find it hard to gain the trust of black and minority ethnic families. Again, we know from the NESS evaluation that that is a group of people who have not been positively impacted by Sure Start. That is yet further evidence that there is more work to do to reach out to BME communities in a positive way, to ensure that the full benefits that right hon. and hon. Members have said are received by many families in their communities are received by all those families who are in need.

The fourth area that needs to be addressed is evaluation. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole picked up on that, too, and I hope that the Minister will comment on it. As the hon. Lady said, we are talking about long-term goals in relation to Sure Start, but we need to have short-term and medium-term evaluations in place, so that we can see how we are doing in our attempt to achieve some very important outcomes for children.

There are now three, or perhaps even four, pieces of research that point out very clearly that the way in which Sure Start is being evaluated makes it very difficult to assess whether some work is effective. We are talking about some of the most important problems that a Government can try to deal with, such as how to remove entrenched poverty; how to help children to escape a cycle of poverty; and how to use Sure Start as a positive force for good, to strengthen families. However, in the past few months alone, we have had four separate reports that clearly indicate that we do not have a sufficiently rigorous appraisal process in place to be able to say, hand on heart, exactly what is working within Sure Start and what is not working within it. We can all give anecdotal evidence about what is working, but when one looks at the facts and figures, there are some gaps. Perhaps the Minister, with her Treasury background, can help her Department to start to fill those gaps.

I do not need to remind the right hon. Lady, but there are four different reports on Sure Start. Most recently, Ofsted looked at outreach and clearly stated that some centres are simply not collecting data on how to evaluate the impact of their work. That is a very simple problem; methods of collecting such data are not in place and data collection is not ingrained into the culture.

Capacity, the third sector organisation, has also examined the question of evaluation. It has said:

"Systems for expressing outcomes or robust links with the Every Child Matters Framework or wider poverty reduction are less well-developed."

In NESS itself, we can see that there may well be very strong evaluation in place, but it also shows quite graphically that Sure Start has only hit five of 15 NESS indicators. Worryingly, NESS shows that some negative effects persist, notably for black children-from memory, I think that it was black boys who were particularly negatively affected in Sure Start areas.

I do not need to remind the Minister about the problem of evaluation, because her own Department issued a further report in June on financial benchmarking, which I read with interest over the summer recess. It was quite extraordinary to consider that a programme that has now been in place for 11 years should prompt the comment in the report:

"consistency of structure, service offer and financial reporting do not exist."

That is quite a clear statement. Perhaps the Minister will help us to understand exactly what her Department will do, following that report in June, to ensure that improvements are made and that we have a robust way of benchmarking the impact of an important programme, which has such a vital role to play for so many families in our constituencies.

The fifth area that the Minister did not touch on in her opening remarks is the critical role that Sure Start has at its core for supporting families with children who have special educational needs. Further work in this area was done by Anne Pinney in 2007, as part of NESS. Her research showed that only half of Sure Start centres employed a member of staff with specialist training in special educational needs. Anecdotally, I can say that I have been to Sure Start centres where they have said that that is a real concern of theirs; they want to be able to offer more support, particularly to children with special educational needs. I am very fortunate in my constituency that the Pebbles Sure Start centre, which Hampshire county council set up, has been established with a nursery that has a specialism for children with special educational needs. I am very proud of what I think is a really groundbreaking idea. However, that is an anecdote and such provision is not the norm. The figures speak for themselves and, as I have said, only half of Sure Start centres employ a member of staff with any specialism in that area.

In her opening remarks, the Minister rightly picked up on the early years foundation stage results that were issued in the last 24 hours, I believe. She said that she was very satisfied with the job that was being done in that respect, but, again, I urge her to look a little more closely at the detail of what was announced in those results, because she would then see that only 42 per cent. of children in the 30 per cent. most deprived communities in our country secured results in the seven scales that are set out in the EYFS, whereas 57 per cent. of children in other areas achieved results in those scales.

Furthermore, the gap between those in the most deprived areas and the least deprived areas has barely changed in recent years. It is worrying that the Minister did not pick up on that in her earlier comments, although perhaps she has not had a chance to review the EYFS results in enough detail yet, as they have only come out quite recently. Nevertheless, I find it worrying that the gap between those who are most advantaged and those who are least advantaged may in some way be marginalised when the Government start to analyse the results. I urge the Government not to do that, but to stand up and acknowledge that gap in achievement. It may have decreased by 1 per cent., but I am sure that the Minister and other Members would not be happy or content with that decrease and would want greater progress to be made.

I did not expect to talk about EYFS in this debate, which is directly about Sure Start, but given that the Minister referred to EYFS in her opening remarks, I would also be quite interested to understand what strategies she has in place to tackle another worrying problem, which she did not highlight in her comments. It is that the results issued yesterday showed that one in six boys cannot write their name or simple words, which is double the rate among girls. The gap between the most deprived and the most advantaged exists, but we also now seem to be seeing an entrenched divide between young girls and young boys. Young boys at the end of the reception year are less likely to know the alphabet, less likely to be able to count to 10, less likely to be able to sing simple rhymes and less likely to be able to dress themselves. Those are all elements of what Sure Start is focusing on to help children to be school-ready, so what plans does the Minister have in place to tackle that problem, rather than just celebrate any improvements that have been achieved? We do not want to dwell solely on what we have achieved; we also want to stretch ourselves to achieve better results in the future.

Those are the main areas that the research tells us need to be examined as we look at the progress of Sure Start. A number of different organisations have given us the benefit of their experience on the subject-not just the DCSF itself, but the Children, Schools and Families Committee, Capacity, NESS and a number of others-so there is quite a body of evidence for the Government to consider in more detail than they may have had before. My party has a clear position, a clear commitment and clear proposals on Sure Start. The Minister might need to examine them in a little bit more detail so that she understands them fully.

We owe it to families to ensure that we can quantify the impact of Sure Start and give them our vision of how that important service will develop. Most importantly, the Conservative party will put at the heart of Sure Start an army of Sure Start health visitors, stemming the flow of outgoing health visitors and recruiting into the profession more than 2,000 new people. Health visitors are proven to be effective at outreach and giving families the support that they need to thrive and establish good routines in the early days. It will be similar to the kraamzorg support scheme in the Netherlands and draw to some extent on the Olds model in the US, which also has important lessons for us to learn. In that approach, health will no longer be the missing partner but will be at the heart of an effective service of the sort that we know our communities need.

We have also been examining the training of health visitors, with input from those within and outside the profession on how that could evolve to increase health visitors' expertise. Perhaps special educational needs could be identified in the early years, which are critical not just for the child but for parents, who all too often have to wait until well beyond the school starting age for special educational needs to be identified and referred on for diagnosis. More health visitors will be in place to ensure that Sure Start can effectively help to diagnose the 20 per cent. of women who suffer post-natal depression, who all too often go undiagnosed because they do not know how to seek out the support that they desperately need.

Probably one of the most important issues is how health visitors working through Sure Start can help parents to get the support that they need for their relationships with each other, which as we all know come under a great deal of strain with a first baby. The very point when parents want their family to be strong and successful can be the point when they are most likely to experience family breakdown. We feel that Sure Start can, where necessary, take an active role from the start to help parents to understand that they can be signposted to assistance and avoid family breakdown, which is a tragedy, particularly when very young children are involved.

As we evolve a firmer foundation for Sure Start and move forward into the future, we can also consider the successful models created by voluntary organisations, which have a critical role to play. I am sure that the Minister will want to discuss further what the Government are doing to support the third sector's capacity to be more involved not only in running services through Sure Start centres but actively managing them. There are some excellent case studies from which much learning can be drawn, including cases of successfully getting health involved, even though the framework is not as robust as it needs to be.

I am thinking particularly of the work of 4Children, which runs the Carousel centre in Braintree. I have visited the centre and seen at first hand how the local authority works with 4Children to bring together more services for families. It hosts a resident health visitor, a community paediatrician and specialist nursery care for children with developmental issues. All the statistics and research that I mentioned show that such services are not readily available in all centres, but they are available at the Braintree centre. It is important that we learn from such successful models and see how we can roll out a similar approach into other areas. The Carousel centre has gone on to offer after-school and holiday care and actively supports intergenerational involvement; grandparents come in to volunteer their support. The centre is at the heart of the community, as all centres need to be if they are to be as successful as they can be, and, importantly is led by the voluntary sector.

It might be only six months before the next general election, but they are an important six months. I know that the Minister has been in her post for only a matter of weeks and that it is difficult coming into post at the tail end of a Parliament. She is still trying to get to grips with a complex brief, but I hope that she will be able to respond to the issues that I have raised and some of the facts and figures that I have mentioned. It is easy to talk about anecdotes and one's individual experience, but much more difficult to take a step back and say that there are issues that must be addressed if we are to be true to the people who work in Sure Start, the concept of Sure Start and a desire, which I believe is shared, to strengthen the communities in which we live. Sure Start has an important role to play in that.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families) 4:25, 15 October 2009

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), for High Peak (Tom Levitt) and for Copeland (Mr. Reed) for their contributions to this short debate, which reinforced points about the role of Sure Start centres in narrowing the gap between the highest and lowest achieving children, raising attainment, working with the work force to ensure its development and encouraging social cohesion. I will pick up each of those points in responding to the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller).

There is always a balance, particularly in a relatively new programme. I remind Members that it is a bit difficult to evaluate the whole programme of Sure Start children's centres, as the last ones are not yet completed and will not be open until March to December 2010. However, the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole was generous. I think that she would set the same priorities as the Government in deciding how to roll out a programme of developing Sure Start centres, given the constraints that she clearly identified in terms of work force capacity, centre location and the need for buildings to be constructed. It should always be a priority to start with those in greatest need, and the Government have taken that approach as we have proceeded through the development of Sure Start children's centres,.

The hon. Lady was right to identify the difficulty involved when a small community suffers disadvantage, whether it is surrounded by an affluent area or isolated in a rural area. The question then becomes how to ensure that services are delivered to such communities. This Government are not unique among developed countries in struggling to balance where investment is placed. As she will know, we must strike a balance, in partnership, between local authorities' rights under local democracy to take decisions about their priorities for the location of children's centres and recognition of the challenge of ensuring that services reach out into all communities.

For that reason, the Government decided and announced that we would increase funding for outreach workers, so that they can work similarly to health visitors, community paediatricians or speech therapists by having a base and reaching out. We stated clearly that we want to ensure that there are outreach workers in the most deprived areas. We must develop the training and the partnerships that the hon. Lady rightly identified as being important. Those could be with the Department of Health, the local health service or the local authority, depending on what is suitable.

In debates such as this, there must be a balance between being fair and celebrating this huge achievement. The work force in Sure Start centres must be congratulated on that. However, we must recognise that the job is not finished and that there is more to do.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I would like to make a few more points, but I will certainly answer the points made by the hon. Lady.

Issues such as these will always involve a struggle. People talk about hard to reach groups. That is not the sort of language that we should use because the challenge for the services is to ensure that they reach out to families. We are in the early stages of that. I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole that this is a matter for local authorities. The location of some children's centres may not be aligned with her or my assessment of where they would be of the greatest benefit, but we must defer to local authorities and understand that they make such decisions as best they can. There will be a duty for local authorities to consult their local communities and users before opening or closing centres.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

No, I will not give way on that point, but I will give way in a moment.

We must find the right balance to decide where the investment should go first. When it is not economic to have a full children's centre in a particular place, we must still reach out to the groups that need the services.

I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole on healthy eating and the Change 4 Life programme, and in particular on the availability of fresh vegetables and fruit in certain kinds of shops. She may be aware that the Department of Health is running pilots through the Change 4 Life programme in which it funds the display and storage of products that shops cannot make available at a reasonable cost because they do not have the right equipment. I have seen the role Change 4 Life plays in many Sure Start centres, not only in relation to diet, but in working with parents on smoking cessation.

That leads me to the way in which health should be partnered with Sure Start centres. The hon. Lady made the fair point that we have huge expectations because we can all see many things that Sure Start centres could do. So many things are connected in people's lives and one of those is health. The question is at what speed we should move to deliver such things. In my move from the Department of Health to the post of Minister for Children, Young People and Families, I wanted to consider what more could be done to encourage such partnerships. It is not rocket science-I am not talking about writing guidance or cascading more things down.

One example of what the Government are doing is the role of children's trusts, which the hon. Lady has supported. Under the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill that is before the other place, the trusts will be able to bring together health services, local authorities, third sector organisations and other partners before the location of services is decided upon, so that the child is at the centre of the commissioning programme.

I am sure the hon. Lady would agree that we should go beyond the issues that she touched on and into questions of the mental health of adults, adolescents and children. A number of hon. Members have mentioned that. For example, if a mother is under huge pressure, there should be an understanding at an early stage of how her mental health might influence her child. Through the presence of such early understanding, so much more can be achieved.

Our hopes and aspirations for Sure Start children's centres are built on our experience and celebration of how much they have achieved thus far.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

Does the Minister agree that we must progress in an orderly fashion? Although I can think of other services that could be provided from Sure Start centres, we must embed those that are there and ensure that they are working properly. Our aspiration should be to add further services. One difficulty is the speed with which that should be done. We must ensure that such services are integrated in the planning, even if they are not in the centres at this stage.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I think we would all agree that we must be careful about the balance when we expand a service and ask more of it. Staff in Sure Start centres and schools are sometimes uncomfortable with the pressure we put on them to develop their services. There must be time for existing services to bed in. There will always be debate about whether the pace is fast enough, but this debate should be about whether we agree that Sure Start centres should move forwards, not backwards.

The valid point was made that we must ensure that Sure Start children's centres publicise their presence, not just through outreach workers, but at every available opportunity, so that parents are aware of all of the services that they offer. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole referred to a publication that makes exactly that point. From 14 September, all Sure Start centres have been encouraged and supported by the Department in developing what is, for want of a better word, their communication campaign-how they make sure at every opportunity that parents know about the services they have on offer. As we move towards having some 3,500 children's centres in every community by next March, it is important that that message gets across.

There have already been amazing results in terms of publicity, and we will need to see whether that translates into recognition-the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole has clearly seen that happen. There have been more than 300 items of press coverage, events have been held in children's centres, and more events are planned as we move through to March. Those events will particularly focus on the local authorities where the children's centres themselves are saying, "Here we are. This is what we do. Come in and see." We will be using every opportunity to generate publicity because, as is so often the case, although the people who use the service celebrate it, we need to reach out to those who do not.

Again, the hon. Lady mentioned the effectiveness of Sure Start and how we measure that over time because some changes are short term and some are cultural, long-term changes. That goes back to the point I made in my opening remarks about some changes taking much longer to assess. When the centres have all started and come on-stream-some are not yet fully developed-it seems somewhat unrealistic to expect a fully consistent financial benchmarking and measuring of them going forward. It is not possible to have that. The centres must be responsive to the local need for services, and therefore what they provide will vary. It is important that the centres have financial mechanisms in place and that they are able to look at what they are providing locally and whether they are actually delivering for those communities. However, of course, as the hon. Member for Basingstoke said, we need to ensure that we have more rigour in relation to that, as the programme is fully implemented.

I say to the hon. Lady that the Ofsted pilots on children's centres have already started, and that they will be considering exactly what we should be taking forward and measuring the centres on. We have had advice on that. The inspections cycle is expected to start early next year, but, of course, that is subject to parliamentary approval of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill-as is setting up the children's trust-which is in the other place. The issue of recognising what needs to be done in the future has been acknowledged and taken forward by the Government, and provision has been made to ensure that we have the necessary rigour.

I do not want to put words in the mouth of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, but I think she said that although she agrees most definitely with the outcomes we are trying to achieve, sometimes her opinion on the method varies. That is perfectly legitimate. She referred to the early years foundation results and seemed to demonstrate a positive engagement with the programme-in fact, her party has made a commitment to future investments.

I have dealt with the question of how to ensure that we have rigour and efficiency, and how we will try to encourage further integration with health through the children's trust. In doing so, I think I also covered the questions of special education and when it is needed, particularly for the very young. I have also dealt with outreach, but there are a number of further issues to which I would like to turn briefly.

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

Will the hon. Lady allow me to ask a question on the issue of outreach?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

May I just finish answering all the hon. Lady's questions, as she was keen for me to do? If she then wants to add anything more, I am happy to respond.

The hon. Lady asked me some specific questions on children's centres, and raised the absolutely valid but difficult issue about Sure Start children's centres and their involvement and ability to support families, particularly those under pressure or stress or those that need somewhere to go for advice. I agree that the issues of families, family relationships, children and parenting need to be addressed when going forward. Those are very difficult subjects, because parents are responsible for their children, and family is private. None the less, we need to consider how we can develop services that parents can access and where those services should be when they are needed. Family and family responsibilities are very much issues that the Government are looking to address in a Green Paper.

On the early years foundation stage and the information the hon. Lady particularly asked for on boys, this is the first year of measuring. The information shows that many good things should be celebrated-for example, the fact that the largest increase is in early language development, and the huge progress that 100 authorities have made in narrowing the gap. In one year, the gap in achievement-as measured by this range of factors-between children in disadvantaged areas and the rest has narrowed by 1 per cent. That is very good and it needs to be sustained. However, she is quite right to say that girls continue to outperform boys. There is still a gap because girls continue to do well, although the performance of boys has improved on last year.

We need to ensure that boys are able to develop, particularly in terms of writing skills. The hon. Lady rightly pointed that out and asked what the Government are doing about it. In consultation with stakeholders and the profession, the Government are developing specific guidance and support for local authorities on how to work with and support those areas. We are considering what strategies work in ensuring that we try to close that gap-it will not be done overnight, but it needs to be done. In addition, in the local authorities where there is still an issue with the gap between the best performing and those performing not so well, the Government run a programme called "Making a Difference," which provides a specific support mechanism through which the Department works with local authorities.

In a balanced way, the Government have come to conclusions regarding the strengths, what should be celebrated and what should receive further investment of time, effort and resources. That brings me to my final major point.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

No.

Frequently, not only in the House but in local government debates, claims are made about wanting further investment, and speeches are made about why that is necessary, while suggestions are simultaneously made about cutting the very budgets that provide current services. That is the position-I will give the hon. Member for Basingstoke the last word on this-of the Conservative party. I absolutely agree that more health visitors are needed; indeed, the Secretaries of State for Health and for Children, Schools and Families have published a document today and have made it clear, in working with the profession, how we will take that forward and why it is important for those health visitors to work in partnership with Sure Start children's centres.

However, the increase in health visitors cannot be at the expense of Sure Start children's centres; it is supposed to be in addition to them. Page 3 of the Conservatives' document, "Helping new families", states clearly that they would not develop outreach worker provision, but would cut the number of outreach workers and spend £200 million on health visitors. Not only will the cut in outreach workers result in a loss of service, but it will not raise the £200 million without further cuts to the Sure Start budget. The shadow Chancellor, Mr. Osborne, was pushed on this point by Nick Robinson, on the BBC, on 30 June 2009-fairly recently. He was asked:

"Are you protecting Sure Start?"

His answer was:

"I'm not protecting other areas. I'm not going to go into specific details of individual programs but I've made a positive decision and this is part of the choice that David Cameron and the modern Conservatives have made to protect health spending, to protect international development spending because we think those are important commitments for the kind of society we want".

So they are not making a commitment to honour the investment in Sure Start. Members of the modern Conservative party, or whatever it wants to call itself, cannot stand in debates and say how much they value Sure Start-although I am very pleased that they do-and how much they want to see it developed, and then announce elsewhere that they are cutting the budget.

That is what the three parties are saying about this spending. I think that we all agree that Sure Start has utterly transformed the landscape of early childhood. Some things have gone right and some things have not; there is more to be done and we still need to reach out and make sure that the provision gets to those who need it most. However, it is part of a reform structure that says, "Every child does matter; we're going to put them at the heart of what we do and we're going to make sure that we invest in them," and that means not cutting budgets. This question still hangs over the modern Conservative party: are they going to cut Sure Start-yes or no?

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.