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17 Apr 2002 : Column 194WH

Sure Start Programmes

11 am

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): I am delighted to have this opportunity of a debate on sure start programmes. It is not unusual for families to experience problems and finding ways to help them is vital if we are to develop a strong society. I want to begin by looking at the sorts of problems and difficulties that some families face.

Let us take a hypothetical example put together from some of the experiences that I have seen families face. It involves a young couple with a baby. The mother, a young woman in her early 20s, was brought up by her father following the death of her mother. The father, also in his early 20s, was brought up in a household where his father drank and he was more likely to get a clip round the ear than a kind word. He was already developing a drinking habit of his own and the arrival of a baby boy into the family brings its own stresses and strains.

Before the little boy is very old, the family comes to the attention of social services. There were a few unexplained bruises and an unhappy child. The health visitor becomes concerned about his well-being. A few weeks later, the mother, frightened for her baby's safety, contacts social services. She tells the social worker that on returning to the house she found the baby crying and distraught with bruising around his mouth. He was a difficult feeder and when he would not take his bottle, his father forced it into his mouth.

After a long period, the baby is taken into care and later adopted. A year later the couple, having begun to resolve some of their problems, approach social services saying that they want to have another baby but are worried that it would be taken into care. With help and support over a number of months, the couple have a baby who remains at home and thrives. Through contact with a number of agencies they have learned how to look after a child, what needs it has, what behaviour to expect at what age and how to love the child and encourage it to learn from an early age. How much better for all concerned if that young couple had been able to get the help, support and advice on child care from the start without feeling that they were failing by asking for help.

Many situations are not as stark or as tragic as that. The child who enters school never having been given a book to look at, not knowing how to hold a pencil, never having learned how to play with other children, is held back from the start. Parents who had bad experiences at school may feel unable to approach a school. Perhaps the child misses out on the benefits of playgroup or nursery. When the child goes to school, the lack of parental support—from fear and mistrust—create difficulties for her and soon she begins to feel as negative about education as her parents did.

Of course, it is wrong to say that help is not available to families. All children receive visits from health visitors and, where problems are identified, other support is usually found. Such support is often scarce, however, and help is often available only for the most severe problems. As I outlined in my hypothetical example, that is sometimes too late for a child and a family. Many families struggle for years to support their

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children and it can often be much later when problems arise. Children who have failed to gain the basic skills of reading and writing will struggle in school. They are unable to take part fully in educational activities and so may become disruptive or withdrawn. As they get older, they may opt out of school altogether. That dislocation from education can also be at the root of offending by young people.

Significant research also indicates that strong emotional links in families help children to grow up with a sense of their own worth. A respect for their community starts with the feelings engendered in the family. Many of the complaints that hon. Members receive are about the problem of young people creating disruption in their community. All our communities will benefit if we can find a way to prevent that from an early age.

It is often difficult to change the behaviour of young people by the time the education welfare officer, social services or the youth offending team become involved. It is easy to feel that it is too late for the young person. The costs to society and the young person are often great: additional costs are involved in trying to assist the young person once the problems have arisen. Common sense tells us that to invest in the support of families when children are young will save money when dealing later with the problems of young people and adults. We have evidence from the prison population. Many prisoners have difficulty with basic reading and writing, come from broken homes or have been brought up in care. None of that information is new, nor is it especially difficult to understand. However, doing something about it has been another matter. I therefore applaud the introduction of sure start, which is providing extra money to some of our most deprived communities to give all children a good start in life.

The importance of investing in families early in life has been known for years. It has been impossible to divert resources from dealing with older young people to preventing the next generation from suffering the same problems. The Government have not only recognised that, but through sure start are investing the additional money needed to begin to break the cycle.

The first benefit of sure start programmes is the ability to begin to intervene at an early stage. However, there are several other benefits. Sure start programmes bring together a range of support for children. A holistic view of the needs of children and their families is at the heart of the approach. I welcome the fact that the sure start objectives include the social and emotional development of children, their health, their ability to learn, and the wider importance of strengthening families and communities.

Sure start programmes need to bring together professionals from all the relevant areas to help families in a holistic way. It is vital that health professionals work with educationalists, who need to work with professionals from social services. The importance of voluntary organisations already working in the area must also be recognised. Sure start recognises the importance of the local community. It also recognises the significance of locating its programmes in the local community. From the start, communities must be encouraged to see the programme as theirs, and one that seeks to meet needs that they, as well as others, have defined.

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The recently submitted delivery plan for the Gleadless valley sure start programme in my constituency sets out those aims clearly:

The Woodthorpe estate in my constituency is another good example of how the programme is working in practice. A couple of weeks ago, I visited a group of young mothers who are developing their own support group called "Survivors". The group was originally brought together through the neighbourhood support fund, which is supported by another local community organisation. The young women found the group beneficial, providing the help and advice they needed and enabling them to support each other. Through the group meetings, they realised that they were not on their own; there were other young women in the area with the same problems.

When I visited them a few weeks ago, they told me that not only did they feel more confident as parents and as women but, for the first time, they were able to tell other people what they needed. They knew their estate, its problems and the solutions for young women like themselves. They had made contact with their local sure start scheme and could say what services and support they needed.

That is an excellent example of people in the community helping to develop sure start, and of initiatives that help them to work together. Often, pots of money are given to different projects without there being a clear, overall strategy. On their own, such projects may have little impact, but by joining up the work of two different projects a lasting difference can be made to the lives of young women and their community.

The key to joining up those initiatives was not policy makers or local authority officers but putting power in the hands of local communities. Communities do not think like departments, they do not have the boundaries of budgets, structures and hierarchies; they see the issues and the problems and they begin to find their own solutions.

Sure starts provide the means to build on existing services that are working in the community. In Sheffield, home start is part of the sure start programmes. Home-Start is a national body, which is organised at a local level, providing volunteer support by mothers to other mothers—in some places, by parents to other parents. As a social services manager, I had a key role some years ago, in developing a home start for the area in which I worked. Using the model of local volunteers who had experience of bringing up children under five, parents experiencing difficulties with their own under-fives were able to receive support. It is recognised that everyone with small children needs support, but it is not always readily available to every parent. The service did not have the stigma associated with other services for families with problems and that is an essential aim for sure start projects.

Another feature of that home start project, which was funded through city challenge money, was building up the skills of volunteers to take a more active role in their community in their own right. It was successful in that

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aim, with many volunteers building on the training that they received through home start to take on courses or paid employment. Some went on to be committee members for the local home start and for other community organisations. If sure start programmes are also able to achieve that, they will help children to have a better start in life and communities to become stronger and develop ways of meeting their own needs.

It is important that sure start is not linked only with voluntary organisations. One of the benefits is that Government and local government departments can work through programmes to meet their aims and targets. For example, in Sheffield, the health authority's strategy for improving oral health included co-ordinated initiatives with sure start, providing funding for children up to two years old to have feeding cups, toothbrushes and paste by giving packs to parents.

There are many other good examples of sure start programmes throughout the country—we will no doubt hear more about them this morning—where services are working together to break down barriers between health, education and social services to ensure that all families and children get the support that they need, as early as possible.

I especially welcome the essential evaluation process that is built into all sure start programmes. It will produce information about initiatives that work and where sure start really makes a difference to families and children. The information will ensure that we know that the money currently allocated to sure start is doing what it set out to do; there will be an extensive body of knowledge of the different ways in which sure start programmes have sought to meet the shared objectives. There will also be knowledge of good practice and, most importantly, we will build up information about what really works.

On that point, I want to put some issues to the Minister. Sure start has, rightly, been widely welcomed. Few people could disagree with its aim and objectives. The additional finance to develop the programmes has been welcomed with open arms, with areas bidding for many more programmes than the Government have been able to fund.

I have set out today why I believe that sure start should achieve its aims and objectives. If it proves to be an effective model, how will the Government ensure that the lessons that are learned can be used in other areas? It is unlikely that there will be funding for every area that wants sure start or we think might need it. However, every area already has agencies working with families: health visitors, social and educational services, and community and voluntary organisations. How can those existing services learn the lessons to achieve the aims of sure start, and of all of us, for the development of all young children? In short, how can the sure start approach become mainstream provision for the benefit of all children?

Sure start rightly tries to move our society away from the situation in which, from the day a child is born, we can look at their family and neighbourhood and have a good idea of what chance they have of succeeding in life. However, we do not want sure start to create further divisions or children living on a sure start-supported

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estate to have a better chance than those on a next-door estate that does not have such an initiative. The Government should be commended for developing the sure start programme, but I want it to make a difference to an even greater number of children. If that can be achieved, we will be on our way to giving more children real chances in life and to building stronger communities and society.

11.17 am

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) on securing the debate and adding to the number of women Members of Parliament in south Yorkshire in the 2001 election. I am pleased to be able to take part today because I am on the board of the Denaby sure start programme, which now includes Conisbrough. When the Denaby sure start first began as a trailblazer project, we were just part of a local authority ward. We have now been extended to cover the whole of the ward and include Conisbrough, which raises new challenges.

My hon. Friend is right. The Government's priority is to recognise that Governments can play a supportive role at the earliest points in children's lives, not by nannying, but by meeting the needs of parents in the community. We must recognise that parents play the most important role in a child's life and that they need support as well.

I welcome today's debate and I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate my fellow board members, with whom I have shared the ups and downs in trying to get the project off the ground in the past few years. I congratulate our director Julie Warren, who has just gone on maternity leave, and wish good luck to Jane Stanley, who has just been appointed as deputy and will cover many of her duties. I congratulate all the sure start staff and the volunteers from the community who have put so much effort and support into making the project such a success, in particular with the parenting group that we have formed in our board.

Our board made the early decision that it would consist of a third each from statutory agencies, community representatives—of which I am one—and parents. That brings its own challenge in bringing people together from different backgrounds and ensuring that they all have an equal say and stake in decisions.

I am sure that the Minister would agree that now is a good time to raise questions, some of which she may not be able to answer when she sums up today. With the roll-out of more sure starts—Doncaster will shortly have five—it is an opportune moment for hon. Members to talk about their experiences and views, which might be helpful in these pioneering days to the ongoing development of this policy area.

I realise that other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall just raise a few issues. First, funding is important. Sure start has a good funding basis on which to develop, but the reality is that other funding is in force in the communities where sure start is located. Conisbrough and Denaby, for example, have neighbourhood renewal, health action zone and housing management programmes, a town centre partnership, the Wellgate community project, the community composting network, the organic community farm and more.

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Additionally, we have the crime and disorder partnership, which covers Doncaster, the early years child care development partnership and more. Those are all worthy projects and it is proper that the Government should fund them.

In several respects, however, those projects are dealing with the same issues as sure start, albeit with a different focus. One issue in common is the regeneration of communities, which is about social as well as economic regeneration. I represent a former mining constituency, as does the Minister, which has just one working pit today. Several generations have not worked down the mine and are not part of the old welfare network that the National Coal Board and the unions provided for the mining communities. Today, communities are grappling to find a new sense of social cohesion for the future. New jobs and skills for the future are an important part of that.

Many of the neighbourhoods in which sure start was piloted, is situated or will be coming on line soon have different pockets of funding without much cohesion: the issues need to be brought together. The Government, the Minister and other Ministers must recognise that we must encourage linkage between the different regeneration groups.

Jane Stanley, the deputy director of our sure start, found out by chance that a community group wanted to develop a training centre. Child care, education and training are, alongside health support and everything else, an important part of sure start's ethos. The truth is that poverty is at the root of the most vulnerable families' problems. Education was probably hit and miss for many families and the thought of going back into education holds its own challenges for many.

Here is an obvious linkage: one community group could lead on that issue, but sure start should be part of the process. Funding may be available through objective 1 or neighbourhood renewal, but joined-up thinking about the linkage of issues is necessary. The last thing that we want is community groups, whether development groups or trusts, doing all the leg work in competing for funding, when there could be more cohesion and working together. That is important for sure start, which has received funding to pay for staff. Many other community groups do not have staff, but work purely on a volunteer basis.

We must ensure that sure start is not viewed as the big sister with all the money, staff and professionals somehow undermining the other voluntary groups. That is not good for people management or working together. We do not want the volunteer groups to feel intimidated by another organisation taking over. Our board has to grapple with issues as important as linkage, but there are lessons for other sure starts in Doncaster and throughout the country.

It is important to consider management. In Doncaster, we have five sure starts. Two of them—Conisbrough and Denaby sure start, with which I am involved, and Mexborough sure start—will be under the Doncaster West primary care trust. The other sure starts will come under NCH management. Clearly, if we have five sure starts in Doncaster, there will need to be an overall Doncaster liaison group through which they can work together. As other parts of south Yorkshire come online, there will be the potential for sub-regional liaison.

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I hope that people will not misunderstand me. I do not want to create a mammoth bureaucracy, but the situation needs to be considered, and Government help would be useful with regard to ideas about how it can be managed. We want to avoid a revolving-door situation, in which the same people are always going to ever more meetings.

The chair of the early years child care and development partnership, Trevor Finch, attends our sure start board meetings. However, with five sure starts in Doncaster, how will that partnership meet the needs of all five? The answer may be to have a representative on the liaison group and somehow feed into that.

My next point concerns baseline data. At least one sure start was knocked back because of a poor business plan. A key element was whether the base data on the population's needs were accurate. That was not my scheme, but having been through the process, I have some sympathy. The collection of accurate data is fraught with difficulty. Much of the local authority data is not broken down within a ward—it is only on a ward basis—so trying to break data down into smaller communities is difficult, particularly when one is trying to set targets. In addition, I understand that information on child minders is hampered by data protection legislation.

In practice, not only sure start, but probably every regeneration bid—whether from the Home Office side, the Department for Education and Skills, or wherever—relies on a group or partnership spending a year auditing or drawing together data on crime, poverty and income. In that case, why not have a central information unit collate and update that information for each locality to stop everyone reinventing the wheel? All those different projects rightly have to assess the outcomes that they are achieving as compared with when they started, and a unit such as I have described would avoid the need for individual groups to scrabble around to pull information together.

On resources or support for family support strategies, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley about mainstreaming. As I have said many times, we have five sure starts in Doncaster. I like to think of them as five pebbles in a pond. They are all in different locations. I hope that the effect of their work will ripple outward, the ripples will at some point converge, and the whole of Doncaster will eventually be covered by the innovation and ideas that sure start brings to the discussion about supporting family strategies.

There are other issues. Within my sure start, health visitors have adapted their work. Some health visitors have seized that opportunity. Previously, they did not have the opportunity or funding, but now they have. Others have found it more difficult to make the transition. They have worked in a certain way and are not ready and I imagine that that is probably the case in a number of other fields that involve working with families, such as social services and education.

There are lessons to be learned about how we can take the new ways of working forward. That leads into the modernisation of the national health service and social services. The question is how we can take ideas from the new ways of working in sure start and apply them to national qualifications and training for all workers in

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those different fields. Some of the best practice from sure start could be integrated into the national training accreditation for health visitors in future. That would be one way of mushrooming up some of that best practice.

Likewise, before sure start, we traditionally had family centres in Doncaster, and we still have them. Much good work is done in those centres, but they are sometimes not helped by the perception that they represent an old model of local government delivery in this field. There are some fantastic people working in those centres, who, without the funding of sure start, are trying to do what it is doing. How can we embrace them in our family support network? How can we give them a chance to reinvent themselves, even if, in many cases, they are doing very good work?

On links with common health messages, sure start deals daily with drugs and teenage pregnancy. Many groups and organisations, and those involved with healthy living and healthy schools programmes, should talk to sure start about what is happening to the people whom they meet. Those groups are often not consulted or brought into the loop, although their input is valuable to the bodies and organisations that lead the way in such subjects. Government funding should require sure start to become one of the partners, or at least a consultee on such subjects, when that is appropriate.

The Government are achieving a lot and are prioritising family support, although every family is different. It is difficult for the public to get a total picture of what is going on, as there are so many initiatives and projects. Families do not fit into nice neat boxes or have, for example, only pre-school children. They may have both children at primary school and teenagers, and grandparents may be involved. Our sure start is meant to be for pre-school children, and it is, but we often have to engage all members of the family so that they can understand what we are trying to do and how we can bring them in. There are also those families in the community, particularly of an older generation, that no longer have children living with them.

Now is a good time to take stock of sure start and how it links with the national child care strategy. I am delighted that we have a full-time day nursery as part of our sure start building. However, that is not the end of the matter; we need to have all the other services in the community as well. The building is one thing, but it is the services outside the building and how we link them up with other services that support families that are important. That is a challenging piece of work. I have gained tremendously from being involved in my sure start project. I congratulate the Government on the initiative, and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley for arranging the debate.

11.32 am

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) on initiating this important discussion. It is nice to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) because we paupers in the 175 square miles of Lancaster and Wyre do not have a single sure start project. I fervently wish I did; I am here partly to ask why we do not have one, as we need several.

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I have managed family centres and child minders, have been part of local education authority partnerships, and have worked in community development, and I am particularly envious of places that have sure start programmes. They are a classic example of how the Government are working to attack poverty and some of the most difficult and entrenched problems associated with it. Sure start is the epitome of good community development. It is an anti-poverty strategy that empowers families and enables generations to move out of the cycle of deprivation lasting decades, and it enables them to improve their communities and their lives.

Sure start programmes are a way of transforming the ghastly self-serving bureaucracies with which the public sector can become engaged. The public sector can challenge them and change them into powerful agents on behalf of communities. They seem to me to be a radical way of approaching service development, and of ensuring that such services strongly reflect the needs, views and ideas of the local communities that they serve. Such projects are needed if we are going to establish responsive services that listen to and learn from the people on the ground who experience the daily reality of their communities' poverty and deprivation. They are also needed if we are going to attack the professional and organisational boundaries that often get in the way of the provision of really good services to people.

There is not a sure start programme in my constituency, but I am married to someone who managed one until a few months ago—I sometimes felt that I was married to a sure start programme–—and that has left me with a good impression. Sure start works. It is a model to which communities respond. People understand what it is trying to achieve; the residents of places that have suffered most from long-term unemployment, poverty, poor services, community breakdown and deprivation recognise that a programme that will focus on the needs of a new generation can help their communities to escape from the isolation and alienation that they have experienced and that, therefore, it is worth supporting. Such communities recognise that what is needed is a long-term approach to difficulties that have been created over the long term—difficulties that are inter-generational.

Some of the problems that I have come across are caused by the difficulties of establishing sure start in areas that have several levels of local government. That produces disadvantages and they are particularly acute where a shire county council links with a district county council.

Other messages that I have received point to things that need to be worked on as a sure start project develops. Many of them refer to the quality of local people's commitment to sure start; it is important that there is a strong local partnership to enable sure start to get under way, and it is essential that Government and the sure start organisation—and all of us, in fact—ensure that the true partners are working coherently, so that sure start works.

I have heard about some of the difficulties that have been created when partners have not been prepared to take responsibility for crucial issues, such as the insurance of staff. I have also heard about partners who do not face problems and issues together, but pass the buck on to others, and about partners who have felt that they did not need to continue their investment in other

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services, because there is a sure start project in the area. That entirely belies what sure start is trying to achieve. I have also heard about poor communication between partners.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley was talking about several subjects: the sort of information that is needed; the impact of sure start; and the needs of particular communities. Although those are extremely important, politicians might have a different perspective and feel the need to show success, which is not always helpful to people working on the ground. Several problems with which projects are engaged are deep-seated, profound and long-standing. Even with the best will in the world, all the resources in the world and the skills and experience that go into the projects, the problems will not be addressed immediately. Dealing with the problems requires a great deal of confidence and relationship building, in addition to the empowerment of powerless communities and the building of their resources.

My impression of all this is that perhaps too much information is sought and that attempts are made to measure success too early in the process. Given the high standard of quality and commitment of the people working in sure start whom I have met, perhaps we should relax, empower and help those people and trust their professional abilities a little more. The model is good and there is a good way of working that is tried and tested. There are clear ways forward.

My hon. Friend mentioned what happens if some parts of an area have a sure start programme while others do not. As I said, I feel that acutely. Although it might be unrealistic to think that we could have a sure start programme in every community that needs one, the example of sure start should help us to transform our general services. We need services that focus on the needs, wishes and feelings of people in the community. We need services that listen to children and young people. We need services that are not interested in professional boundaries and barriers, but that are prepared to work together throughout disciplines and organisations to focus on individuals in need in our communities. There must be modernisation of the public services that deal with such issues, and projects such as sure start must be involved in early years partnerships, regeneration opportunities and a holistic emphasis on community development.

I want a huge transformation of local government services. I would like children's departments to be re-established and transformed to bring together not only local government services, education and social services, but aspects of health services. The way in which sure start operates is a good model for the future, but we can progress further and build on the success that has been achieved.

11.44 am

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I do not want to repeat the eloquent praise of the concept of sure start that we heard from the previous three speakers. I want to focus instead on the precise selection of communities that would be served by sure start. If my hon. Friend the Minister who is to respond to the debate has a long and detailed memory, she will remember that I raised that matter some years ago. My constituency is mainly rural,

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with small towns. The concentration of deprivation that is usually a sign of a requirement for a sure start programme is difficult to establish. Such deprivation is often concentrated in a corner of a rural ward or in a small village, and the sure start programme is not well adapted to deal with that requirement.

That position has now changed substantially and, last week, I moved ahead of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) because we now have a mini-sure start programme that is funded within south Derbyshire. That is excellent news and we are all delighted about it. It will be located in the area where local councillors, the local infants school, community groups that serve the estates and I lobbied for it initially. We are celebrating.

However, it is extremely difficult to get such schemes off the ground. It was not our first attempt to establish a scheme. We tried earlier and one of the difficulties that we faced was that the mini-sure start scheme offers only two years of guaranteed funding. That is an intimidating barrier for a low-income community. It means that, after two years, the services to be gained from sure start will not necessarily be funded by the public purse; they may have to be funded through a variety of means that will involve payments from the local community or additional well-resourced, fund-raising activity that is targeted through the new opportunities fund or other sources of funding.

Many lottery projects in my constituency face that difficulty. The resources of volunteers who can put together well-organised, fund-raising schemes are scarce, and to be faced with yet another large bill in two years put them off the initial project. They said that they could not proceed on that basis and did not want to land themselves with a liability that they might later regret.

There were further hurdles this time round. Although many encouraging noises were made about the early years partnership that was sponsoring the project, there was a block on the money coming through. I commend Derbyshire county council for its endorsement of the project. It loaned money to the partnership to purchase the site adjacent to the nursery that was being erected by private funds in Woodville to ensure that the project was kept on track. It also retained the builders working on the nursery, which will be finished in August, to erect the building for the mini-sure start programme in the area. The council played a critical role and provided the sellotape to ensure that the project goes through to its eventual outcome in January of next year for 200 local children and their parents in the Woodville and Hartshorne area of south Derbyshire. It will be of huge benefit.

I am not trying to make out that my constituency is the most deprived in the country. I am pleased to say that it is not. However, Woodville and Hartshorne certainly have a higher concentration of unemployment and poor health indicators than elsewhere in south Derbyshire. They are on the edge of the Swadlincote urban area and that has a higher concentration of young parents, too, which is typical within Derbyshire. Those are all reasons why a mini-sure start programme would benefit the community and I am grateful that one has been established. It has proved hard to obtain. In some ways, those difficulties resulted in a tougher and more resilient process than might have existed in other circumstances.

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An important private sector partnership is involved. Hermitage Day Nurseries is constructing a building that will provide 90 places locally, 48 of which are reserved for the local community. A close relationship is expected with the sure start programme, which will run from the building next door. The early years partnership and its members played a critical part in pulling together the scheme and making it work. As I said, the county council has been critical in trying to ensure that the scheme stays on track in spite of hiccups and difficulties.

The local infant school and the pre-schools are heavily involved in making the scheme a working reality in the community. I am certain that it will be a tremendous success and I shall be delighted to see progress well beyond the two years for which it is guaranteed. However, such projects require a support mechanism to ensure their continuity, provided that they meet our performance targets. In my area, the mechanism that should be considered is support for the early years partnership, to ensure some continuity of funding for the project into the future.

It would be a tragedy if, having won what is a small victory in the greater scheme of things but a large success in such communities, that victory were snatched away in two years' time, when significant progress was obviously being made to meet our goals. That progress involves improving parents' skills and the expected outcomes of children served by the project, and, as has been said, increasing the local community's resilience through witnessing a success in their midst that is brought about and managed by their own efforts. That must not be placed at risk by short-term, pump-priming funding, however well intentioned that model might be. I hope that the Minister will offer some thoughts about how that support can be maintained in future.

11.52 am

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): I am pleased to be taking part in the debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) on having secured it. I have two sure start programmes in my constituency and want to make the case for a further one. I therefore have some way to go to emulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint).

The first programme was in the Camborne area. Shortly after the 1997 election, I visited the Trevu centre—a former school that had become a derelict building—and walked into a school holidays club. Cynthia Watmore and others present said, "What we'd really like, Candy, if your Government is really committed to tackling the problems of the Grenville estate and the Camborne area, is something that starts before the child is born, and goes right the way through, rather than waiting to tackle the problem until the child gets to school. Wouldn't it be great if we took this building and did something really creative with it?" I look at it now, and it is amazing. I wish that my hon. Friend the Minister could come and see it, perhaps on a visit to Cornwall. It is a true inspiration and shows what can be done when public authorities have turned their back on a building, saying that they can do no more with it. We have changed it.

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Just over year ago, when the Trevu site was being regenerated and rehabilitated, it was brought home to me how such a project can impact on people. I went to the Grenville estate in Camborne. Sitting in one of the front gardens was a group of young women, most of whom were pregnant and had children at their feet. I went up to them, as one does in politics, and said, "Hi, I'm Candy. Will you be going out to vote?" They said, "No. Why should we? You never do anything for us." I pointed over to the school site and said, "You go in there in a few months. See what a difference there is and be part of it."

One young woman was quite unpleasant to me, if the truth be known, which is why she sticks in my mind—such people tend to. Amazingly, when I went back to the Trevu centre a few weeks ago to open the toy library, she was helping to run it. She was smarter and brighter and her child was engaged and actively involved. She was also there on a subsequent visit, taking a leading role.

Sure start is about taking and helping a person to emerge almost chrysalis-like from someone who sat in front of the television watching "EastEnders" all the time to someone engaged in the community and taking part in computer training, which is tremendous. The Government should be congratulated. Instead of her child growing up in an environment in which nothing ever changes, both child and mother have an opportunity and expectation for the future. Good on the Government—that is what I say.

The sure start in Camborne links into other programmes introduced by the Government, such as the working families tax credit, the health and education action zones and wider regeneration of the community. I genuinely believe that children's expectations and horizons grow when one's neighbourhood and opportunities are improved.

My second sure start is still at an embryonic stage. It is based in Penryn and the Beacon estate in Falmouth, of which I hope the Minister will be aware. Although Penryn is further down the line, people who know about the subject are aware that Hazel Stukley and others in Falmouth have done some trailblazing work around which sure start and home start have begun. They started their work during the previous Tory Government because they were so frustrated that nothing was happening in one of the poorest wards in the whole country. They said, "Enough is enough. We must start turning this around." As health visitors, they started programmes that built on others, pyramid-like. Dentistry came into the estate for the first time. Eating problems were tackled. Things happened incrementally and grew.

When I look at the Beacon estate now, there has been a remarkable change. I visited a couple of weeks ago and pay tribute to Councillor Gerald Quin Chee, Mary May and Lesley Trenchard, who are doing so much in the community. I used to be a social worker and I do not believe in putting sticking plaster on social problems, which is one reason why I went into politics. We must solve the problems at their foundations and roots. Sure start is all about that. It is not sticking plaster. It says, "Let's tackle deprivation and problems and make a real impact on social and health care, employment and your child's expectations." I am bowled over by what is happening.

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One area of my constituency is not part of the wonderful scheme. As the Minister will know, my constituency is one of the poorest. We "enjoy" objective 1 status—the highest level of structural funding in Europe—because we are among the poorest. It is even mooted that, because the rest of the country is soaring away and Cornwall is doing great things, we are lagging further behind and, despite enlargement, we may qualify for objective 1 in the next round, which is very depressing. There is a feel-good feeling in the county, we are moving forward, but despite that, we still lag behind. In north Kerrier, one of the poorest parts of the poorest county, are the Redruth and Pool areas, which link across to Camborne. Camborne, Pool and Redruth are former tin-mining communities in the lee of the Carn Brea hills. Allegedly, the people of Camborne do not talk to the people of Redruth, and vice versa, although that is changing, but the communities share high unemployment and great social deprivation.

I understand that Redruth is one area being considered for that status in the last round, and I make a plea to the Minister for it to be included, to tackle problems in the foundation way that I have discussed. I strongly urge her to look sympathetically at Redruth's needs. I thank her and the Government enormously for everything else that is going on.

12 noon

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): May I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) on instigating the debate. I hope that the Minister will listen to many of the comments that she and other hon. Members have made. Although the Liberal Democrats have praised the sure start initiative from its inception, problems arise from it and there are issues to be addressed. Many of those have been referred to.

Ensuring that children have the very best start in life has always been a central plank of our policy. My background is in architecture. I know that the foundations of a building have to be down before the superstructure can be put up. What happens in early years is like those foundations, and the best foundations are required. We have always given great prominence to the importance of identifying at the earliest possible age children with particular needs and providing remedies with the potential to meet those needs so that they can move forward with their peers and take the fullest possible advantage of their education and social opportunities.

That should mean that many children who might otherwise face considerable difficulties have the chance to grow up as well-rounded and productive members of society. For as many years as I care to remember, we have argued for the integration of care and education, and multi-agency involvement in the early support of a child and its family.

Another principle dear to us is that decision making should happen at the lowest possible level. Sure start meets all those criteria. It is a well-founded scheme in its planning and delivery and it is making real differences to the lives of many children and families. I hope that it will go on to benefit many more. The Government must be praised for that. For too long, Governments of all colours have tended to tell people what is good for them,

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whether they like it or not. Some parts of the Government still tend to do that, although not in this case. The requirement to involve local people, especially those who will benefit from sure start schemes, in the planning and delivery of services as far as possible departs significantly from that tendency. The extensive consultation required, and the fact that users of the services all over the country are involved, should be a great source of satisfaction to the Government.

Of course, it is difficult to get such people involved in what may be an intimidating experience for them. It must be very difficult for a layperson to sit on a committee of health care and education professionals, planning the delivery of multimillion-pound schemes. However, on the principle that large oaks from little acorns grow, it is hoped that, once service users get the taste for being able to influence directly what is on offer, many more will wish to be involved.

As an aside, it is worth saying that the Government should pay attention to what is happening in that respect and extend the principle to other areas of their policy. All over the country, Liberal Democrat councillors have found that consulting and involving local people in decision making makes the quality of service provision, as measured by its relevance to the lives of local people, rise considerably. Long may that principle continue at all levels of government.

One criticism of sure start is that it was originally concentrated in urban areas. The Government responded to that criticism, however, and the problem has been tackled. Sure start projects have recently been introduced in rural areas and about 50 schemes are in operation or at the planning stage. We welcome that significant improvement in the extension of sure start ideas, but with one or two reservations. In particular, the level of funding is rather low and the duration of the schemes is rather short.

The Liberal Democrats have often drawn attention to the fact that considerable deprivation exists in many rural areas and we are pleased that the Government have recognised its existence—particularly since the foot and mouth disaster, which has had such an impact in many remote areas. The nature of such areas means, however, that it is often more difficult and expensive to deliver the quality services necessary. Remote areas have transport difficulties and problems of isolation affect precisely those families who are most likely to benefit from sure start. In addition, consulting and helping such people is an order of magnitude more difficult.

That is not to say that innovative schemes have not been devised or that local people have not been involved. Dedicated and creative people have done a great deal of significant work to overcome shortcomings. The sure start unit approved an interesting scheme that was developed in north Allerdale, in north Cumbria—an area that was devastated by foot and mouth disease. In the light of the large and scattered area covered by the project, the local steering group decided that it would be difficult, if not impossible to avoid the stigma of sure start provision to the disadvantaged. It has therefore devised a scheme to seek external funding to make services available to all the children and their families. That has meant raising the same amount of external revenue funding as is provided with sure start and a considerable amount of

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extra capital funding. That will greatly benefit all the children and families in the area and provide extra specialist help for target families. It is a credit to the sure start unit that it recognised the innovative nature of the north Allerdale scheme and gave its approval. I am sure that the scheme will be closely watched and that lessons will be learned from it.

I referred to the problem of funding for small sure start programmes and more needs to be done in that regard. The small schemes are funded for only two years, and there has been no indication of whether funding will continue after that initial period. It makes little sense to devise a programme to support children from birth to three years old, only to end it after two years. That contrasts with the full sure start schemes, which run for 10 years and receive considerably more funding. Funding for small sure start programmes may have been intended to cover the period until the end of the current comprehensive spending review and may be extended in the next review—I certainly hope so. It would be a great shame and a disservice to rural areas if schemes were cut just when they were becoming effective.

Much of the criticism of time scales would disappear if the Government gave a commitment to extend the schemes beyond the current two-year period. Could the Minister give such an undertaking? If so, small sure start schemes would take their place alongside the full schemes as effective and innovative solutions to long-term pressing problems. Without such an undertaking, however, they will be short-term fixes only with a lasting impact on only relatively few children.

12.8 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) on initiating a good debate in what has been a pleasant atmosphere. The concerns and criticisms that have been expressed have been sufficiently benign for the Minister to be quite relaxed when she replies. By and large, she has responsibility for what we all consider to be a good programme. We all want improvements to be made to it, but she will recognise that it is well supported and has great practical effect, judging from the local examples that we have been given.

Sure start is a key part of the Government's anti-poverty strategy, and I shall remark on that as well as on sure start itself. That we seriously consider poverty and recognise the complexity in putting forward solutions and ideas is self-evidently a good thing, but it is fraught with hazards. Among those, is the party political approach that seems to deny that anyone else cares about the subject, or that anything was done before certain key dates, which normally coincide with the election of parties to Government. Another hazard is to become too attached to particular policies as "the answer", although the evidence might be piling to suggest that it is not.

What depresses all of us, whenever the issue is addressed, is to recognise that the map of areas of relative deprivation throughout the United Kingdom shows little change over a century. In a country that has become progressively wealthier, material poverty is

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markedly different from that of previous generations, but the poverty of hope, aspiration and achievement is perhaps more acute now than ever before; that so much of it seems to be concentrated in children and young people is doubly hard to bear.

There have never been such opportunities—and many people grasp them—but what is it that prevents some from even dreaming of the heights to which they could aspire, let alone achieving the steps along the way? My background in the subject is that I was a Minister in the Department of Social Security with responsibility for low-income benefits and poverty issues between 1992 and 1995. Between 1994 and 1997, I had responsibility for city challenge projects in Hulme in Manchester, in Bolton, in Blackburn and in Wigan. I was therefore able to make judgments at the time, and to have made them since, on which national and local policies have been successful. Nothing has yet convinced me that there is one simple answer, as others who have described the long-term nature of the problem have confirmed this morning.

Sure start has always struck me as a sensible initiative. To bring together a variety of bodies that are concerned with the welfare of the child at the earliest stage, in places associated with poor expectations and outcomes, has obvious merits. I look forward to hearing further about the evaluations when completed. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley gave graphic examples of why the scheme was necessary in her area. She described family breakdown, those in difficulty with their children, parents who find the most basic things difficult, and the lack of knowledge about what to do in every possible circumstance. She also spoke about delinquency. All in all, sure start has made a difference to her, and the way in which she described that suggests that she wants the lessons learned to be accepted elsewhere.

The hon. Lady was followed by the hon. Members for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) and for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross). In various ways, they described how the scheme could be reformed or how some schemes could be introduced to particular places. I was pleased that a couple of hon. Members mentioned the problem of trying to deal with indices of poverty in areas that are generally well off, but which have poorer pockets. I suffered from that, as you will recall, Mr. Winterton—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton): Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but in this place I have a particular title that has been hard-earned over many years—additional Deputy Speaker.

Alistair Burt : Mr. additional Deputy Speaker, I shall place both knees on my chair to address you so that I strike the right pose. You will recognise, as you are from the north-west, that one can represent an affluent constituency, but still find pockets of deprivation within it. We would all be pleased if better targeting dealt with that.

The sure start initiative seems to pick up one of the key lessons learned from initiatives such as city challenge: attending to the bricks and mortar of environmental improvements is only one part of a

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complex jigsaw. The more difficult part is to affect hearts and minds, to change attitudes and expectations, and—with sympathy and great effort—to work on changing people.

The initiative must also take note of the second most important lesson, which, as the hon. Member for Teignbridge said, is one that the Government sometimes find hard to take in: control must be relinquished to allow people as much power as possible to effect the most important changes in their lives. It was noticeable that hon. Members who spoke of successful schemes thanked those who were involved locally and gave credit to people who were the inspiration behind several of the initiatives.

We also need to be honest about the time scale. It is unfashionable for politicians to admit that anything they want to achieve will take longer than the term of a Parliament; hon. Members referred to that. Let me be doubly courageous. First, the Prime Minister was courageous and right to break the rule when he talked about ending child poverty over a 20-year period. Secondly, even that time scale is not long enough. It will take longer than that for certain changes really to take root, and they have to last more than one generation.

I am reminded of the need to work for a longer period by an article that appeared in The Times today about Bob Holman, whose name is familiar to many of us who deal with poverty issues. I first went to see Bob on his estate in 1992, when I had responsibility for benefits, and saw some of his work. Ten years later, he is still doing essentially the same work and demonstrating the benefit of continuity. The newspaper article includes a quote from him:

I get the glimmer of a sense that dealing with poverty issues is not a short-term game. All hon. Members can agree on that, and that is welcome.

However, may I briefly flag up two areas of concern, both of which might undermine the child poverty reduction initiatives, of which sure start is such an important part. I alluded to the first earlier; namely, the danger of being overly attached to certain policies, despite the evidence. Last week, the Government published data on child poverty that revealed that they had failed to meet their claim to have taken 1.2 million children out of poverty in their first term. I refer to a press release from the Child Poverty Action Group:

Without dwelling too much on that, may I suggest that one reason for that is the myriad changes to low-income benefits, particularly an over-reliance on tax credits.

The Minister will be aware of criticisms that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who is particularly concerned about the way in which tax credits have been used. They have not

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fulfilled the objectives that we would all like to achieve of relieving child poverty and contributing to anti-poverty measures.

For example, between 1999 and 2003, the Government will have successively abolished family credit, introduced working families tax credit, introduced disabled persons tax credit, introduced child care tax credit, introduced employment credit, abolished married couples allowance, introduced children's tax credit, introduced baby tax credit, abolished working families tax credit, abolished disabled persons tax credit, abolished children's tax credit, abolished baby tax credit, introduced child tax credit, abolished employment credit and introduced working tax credit. In all, between those years, the Government will have introduced five new tax credits for families, scrapped four of them and then introduced two new ones in April 2003.

It is no wonder that, A, people are confused, B, the take-up has not been as good as it should be, C, some of the benefits are not going to the most needy and, D, there is a worry about introducing more tax credits, because they are not actually doing the job that they are designed to do. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed the issue and explained where it fits in with the present anti-poverty strategy. Perhaps it is time to review it.

My last point is even more difficult. I introduce it gently, but it is very important. At some stage, any serious attempt to lift children out of poverty will have to examine the damage caused by broken relationships and reconsider the promotion of marriage. No one doubts the emotional and financial damage done to children and families through the breakdown of relationships. However, strong evidence is emerging from a series of studies that points to the advantage of marriage over all other forms of relationship for positive outcomes for children in relation to health, achievement, propensity to crime and so on.

Let me be very clear about what I am and am not saying. We have moved on from taking the side of marriage from a moral-authoritarian point of view that one ought to marry because it is right, and one should be condemned if one does not do so. I do not advocate that attitude. Those who advocate marriage are not simply putting forward a rosy, starry-eyed view. Marriages are rarely perfect, but successful ones weather the sort of storms in which other relationships may break down, in which case the most vulnerable are left more vulnerable still.

Can people have successful relationships outside marriage? Yes, of course they can, and that is their choice. Can children be brought up successfully in relationships outside marriage? Yes, of course they can. There is, however, growing evidence that the best outcomes for children come from married relationships. If we are really serious about the issue, it is time not for a particular political party to claim that idea, but for all of us to recognise that strong families, which can exist with good values from any class or background, need support and advocacy.

Bearing that in mind, will the Minister say why the Government have withdrawn their support for national marriage week, which the Lord Chancellor's Department has previously supported? It could easily be

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supported within the Government's existing policy of not distinguishing between different forms of stable relationship. If we are looking at what works and what works best, the evidence is growing in favour of marriage as the most secure base for children. It is time that we all re-examined our attitude to that in a non-pejorative, rational, straightforward manner. With that, and the continuing successful work being done by sure start, the future for anti-child poverty measures in this country is quite bright.

12.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Yvette Cooper) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) on securing this debate and choosing to raise an issue that is immensely important to young children and their families, and will continue to be important to them for many years to come.

It is a great privilege to work on the sure start programme because it has immense support throughout the country, and it is clearly supported by Members of Parliament of all parties. It is unusual when the most hostile question that one gets from MPs is, "Can we have one in my area, please?" That is a tribute to the immense amount of work that is being done throughout the country by the sure start programmes. I also pay tribute to Naomi Eisenstadt, the head of the sure start unit, and her team, which does an immense amount of work on a new programme that is difficult because it requires a new way of working. We sometimes overestimate how easy it is to do things such as sure start that have so much support because everybody wants to do them and thinks that they are valuable.

Sure start produces a lot of challenges in local areas and it requires many changes in the way in which things are traditionally done. It is an immense tribute to the huge amount of work that is being done in those areas that the sure start programme is gaining so much support. Some of the most powerful evidence is the anecdotal information that one hears when one visits sure start programmes. I was given a scrapbook that had a series of pictures and images that local children and parents had collected. It included the phrase, "Please, please keep our sure start going because it has changed my life."

I have heard very strong statements from parents. I visited the Nottingham sure start, where one woman said that she had been on the housing transfer list for a long time. She had been waiting for many years and had just been offered a house in another area. She had been desperate to get off her estate for a long time, but because sure start had arrived she rejected the move because she wanted to stay. Having sure start facilities and sure start support on her doorstep was making a huge difference to her family life, and a huge difference to her wanting to stay in that area. That is powerful testimony to what sure start is doing. Of course, it is not all that easy. There are real challenges, and many hon. Members raised issues that we need to address. However, sure start is working and making a real difference to family lives.

Sure start was established in April 1999 after work in the comprehensive spending review showed that there were alarming disparities between the life chances of

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children in poverty and those living in more affluent circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley described many of the problems that sure start aims to address. One key issue is the difference in life chances for those growing up on a low income compared with everyone else, which can be observed in children when they are as young as 22 months. One can see the differences in what is happening to children very early in their lives, and then see those differences widening as they grow up. It is also about recognising that universal mainstream services often do not do well enough at supporting those in poverty in the lowest income areas, who often do not receive the same services as everyone else. We must recognise that it is part of a broader strategy, as many hon. Members suggested, to abolish child poverty altogether.

Abolishing child poverty is about not just raising family income, but addressing and raising opportunities. The key elements of sure start are: focusing on the under-fours for the first time, focusing on parents and communities, and what parents want in their local areas, focusing mainstream services on deprivation and integrating services, while ensuring that they are universal and non-stigmatising. We have set clear targets for sure start for social and emotional development, health, the ability to learn, and strengthening families and communities. During the first five-year period, £1.4 billion is going into sure start. That will set up 500 sure start programmes—437 have been announced already and 259 of those programmes have been approved. We expect to reach about a third of children under four who are living in poverty.

I accept the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) in favour of a further sure start for Redruth. I also understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) was seeking more sure start support for his constituency. Hon. Members will understand that the way in which the sure start programmes are targeted is to recognise areas of deprivation and concentrate on them. The sure start programmes that are already up and running are having an impact on the increasing number of child care places and other related issues.

It takes a long time for sure start to have an impact. Ultimately, we are concerned with making an impact on children in 10, 20 or 30 years. We have a substantial research programme to monitor and evaluate sure start programmes—not just what they are doing during the next couple of years, but what they will do for the long term. We will need to learn those lessons.

I particularly want to deal with the points that many hon. Members have made about where sure start goes next. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) said that there were problems about sure start that had to be addressed. They are not necessarily problems; I think that they are limitations of the existing sure start programme. We must recognise that the programme cannot do all of the things that we want it to do. The question is, what are the next steps for the programme?

We must recognise the issues identified by my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) as regards areas where there are smaller pockets of deprivation. What can one do about the situation in Doncaster, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member

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for Don Valley (Caroline Flint)? There are four sure start programmes there already. How do we link them up to cover all of the areas in between? How do we reach children living on low income who do not live in areas of concentrated deprivation, which are the most suitable areas for the current model of sure start?

We have already examined how one might build on the model of sure start by considering the rural pilots, for example. We are taking sure start into 13 rural areas, and four more are being developed. Those areas face different types of problems, which are not about simply taking parents and children to sure start services. We need to take sure start and mainstream services to parents and children in those rural areas. I accept the points that hon. Members have made about the mini-sure starts. Those must consider the long-term issues, not just a two-year period. The programme that we have set up so far is not the solution to the problem of small pockets of deprivation. It is a £22 million limited-pilot programme, from which we will learn lessons.

We know that there are people who live in small pockets of deprivation that we cannot reach through the existing sure start programme. We must learn how to reach them. Our long-term aim should be to provide sure start support for all children who are living on low income, wherever they may be. The challenge for us is to establish how to do that. One method is the mainstreaming programme, which is relevant to the situation in Doncaster. Pilot areas in Birmingham, Manchester, Leicester, Sunderland, Southampton, North Tyneside and Rochdale are looking at trying to mainstream the lessons from their sure start programmes and spread them across the whole area. They will pick them up in the mainstream services. I can certainly send my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley more information about those because she rightly raises some complicated issues.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) raised a series of tangential issues concerning child poverty and marriage. He should take those up with the relevant Ministers. Sure start should support all families, whatever their background and status. We must learn from what sure start is doing at present. A lot of progress is being made. We have many lessons for the future too.

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