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3 Jun 2003 : Column 59WH—continued

Early Years Learning (South Somerset)

1.30 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am delighted to have secured this debate on children's centres and early years learning in south Somerset. I am pleased that, for both of us, there is some life outside the Finance Bill proceedings at this time. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), and thank her for her participation in the debate. I hope that it will be enlightening. There is a great deal of common ground between the position of my party and that of the Government, so I hope that it will not be a contentious debate on most issues, although obviously I want to press the Minister about my concerns, particularly as they relate to south Somerset.

I am extremely pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is with us. He represents the other part of south Somerset and is therefore here to ensure that the interests of the whole area are fully represented.

There is a great deal of shared concern on the Government and Liberal Democrat Benches about early years education. That has been a priority for the Liberal Democrats for many years. We are pleased that the Government have not only increased the provision of early years education, particularly for three and four-year-olds, but recognised what is increasingly obvious to me from my experience in my constituency: the need for investment in all aspects of early years education, not only in education itself, but in social skills and health care support, to ensure that every individual has the best start in life.

The commitment to early years education and to some of the Government's measures, such as sure start, underline the Government's commitment and the Liberal Democrat commitment to equality of opportunity. It is increasingly obvious to me from experience in my constituency that many young children arrive in our primary schools having already fallen behind many of their peer group, not just in relation to issues of education, literacy and basic numeracy, but particularly in relation to the social support that they may not have received in their upbringing, and the health and other support that also makes a great deal of difference in the very early years. Many young people who fall behind before they even arrive in our formal education system never catch up. They often end up being the individuals who fall out of the education system and end up in unemployment and poverty and reliant on state benefits.

I therefore very much welcome the fact that the Government are investing additional resources in schemes such as sure start, which are designed to ensure that there is not only additional provision in the early years, but support in areas such as child care, support for families and support for good parenting. In an ideal world, the state would not have to interfere or involve itself in all those matters, but in the real world I fear that a role for the state in that area is inevitable if we do not accept the relative neglect of a large portion of our

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population. Often those children do not receive the support in the early years that many of us benefited from both because they live in families that are in dire poverty and, increasingly, because many children are brought up in homes with only one parent. In some cases, that can mean that they do not enjoy all the advantages that many others in society do.

Two aspects of Government policy on early years learning and child care are particularly welcome. The first is the provision of free places for three and four-year-olds whose parents want to take them up. The second is the Government's sure start initiative, to which I should like to return later, particularly with regard to children's centres.

I pay tribute to the people in south Somerset and the rest of Somerset who have led the work locally to put Government policy into practice and who have worked on initiatives that must be regarded as being locally led rather than Government led. The Minister will be aware of the excellent work of the early years development and childcare partnership in Somerset, which was recognised by the awarding of an MBE to Paddy Macmaster, who leads the partnership. I pay tribute also to the work of John Kirby of the local education authority, who heads up the partnership for Somerset county council, which has a good reputation in the early-years scheme.

The Minister will also be aware—I shall lean on the good news before dealing with those aspects of Government policy about which we are more concerned—that a new neighbourhood nursery early years centre in Chard will open officially on 15 June in what will be called Clare house. The neighbourhood nursery was created by the former Chard pre-school and schools out group. It involves a new building at a cost of more than £600,000.

The building design is innovative, and I hope that the Minister or one of her colleagues will have the chance to see it soon, because it was assembled in an extraordinarily short time. It will provide for 66 children from birth to the age of four, and a total of 100 children if one includes the out-of-school club. Sure start family support services will also operate from the building. I hope that the centre will provide important training in parenting skills and social support, which is so important if children are to succeed in education.

The neighbourhood nurseries initiative in Chard was funded in part from the Government's central pot, some of which comes from the lottery, and about £150,000 was provided by South Somerset district council. I recognise the work done by Councillor Jill Shortland in fighting Chard's corner and lobbying to raise the ambitious target of more than £600,000, a sum that seemed unachievable a couple of years before.

In praising the Government and the county and district councils for their work, we should not lose sight of the fact—it is relevant to many other aspects of early years education—that the scheme was led locally by those who ran the previous early years centre in Chard. In particular, I mention Jeanette O'Dwyer, the manager of Chard neighbourhood nursery.

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The provision of early years education and child centres depends hugely on the good will and voluntary activities of a large number of people such as Jeanette and her team; without them, such initiatives would not get off the ground. Indeed, without their local support, we would not be able successfully to bind together the many services required to make a success of early years learning and sure start initiatives. They require not only money and good will, but a close co-ordination of various local services.

We need to celebrate the good aspects of Government policy that have resulted in the development of early years learning in my constituency. However, I want to highlight a number of problems.

First is the slow rolling out in Somerset of free places for three and four-year-olds: Somerset was a long way behind the rest of the country. About a year ago, only 44 per cent. of pupils under the age of five were in nursery and early years learning, compared with almost 60 per cent. in the country at large. The county council says that the Government target will be met by January 2004, which is a few months ahead of the Government's target of April 2004. However, I hope that Somerset and other rural counties will not be left out in future initiatives, particularly because a great deal of the deprivation in our rural areas often seems to be hidden.

The second point—it will be recognised not only by those involved in children's centres, but by those in sure start and all early years learning—is that despite the fact that the Government and others increasingly recognise the importance of early years learning, there is a huge gulf between that recognition and a commitment to deliver the funding. Our early years centres are now inspected by Ofsted, and it is right to ensure high standards; but when pre-schools and early years centres ask what financial support they can expect for things such as capital funding for old buildings that are often falling apart, they often have to rely on discretionary funding and money that is raised locally. That seems unsatisfactory in a sector that is so important. Delivering quality in the early years is just as important as delivering quantity, as I am sure the Minister would recognise. We must ensure that the comprehensive cover for three and four-year-olds is of good quality. We must not simply rely on having delivered numbers; we must support it with the substance of what is achieved.

My third complaint relates to the way in which the Government are rolling out and prioritising the sure start and children's centres across the country, particularly the focus on only the 20 per cent. most deprived wards. The press release issued by the Department in December 2002 to announce changes in Government policy in this area was headed, "A sure start for every child". Even the Minister would be forced to accept that although the idea of a sure start for every child is a welcome aspiration, the Government are nowhere near delivering on it. My constituency would be regarded as, if not relatively affluent, fairly average for the whole country, yet the problem of inadequate early years support, particularly in relation

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to sure start, is experienced in almost every primary school, not simply in the pockets of deprivation that are found across virtually the whole of the country. I hope that the Government will consider rolling out more sure start moneys across the country. I hope that the money that has been allocated up to 2006 will only be a start and that we can set up sure start and children's centres right across the country in places such as Somerset, not only in our most deprived urban centres.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I congratulate my hon. Friend both on securing the debate and on what he has said so far. He mentioned the subject earlier, so I am sure that he would agree that one of the problems is that we represent very rural areas. Often children who are deprived both financially and through lack of opportunities for socialisation do not show up in the allocation formulae simply because the overall status of a ward or division is not such that it would attract the funds. Do we not need a basic change in the Government's formulaic approach to identify those children and provide for them?

Mr. Laws : You will not be surprised to hear me say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that my hon. Friend is exactly right. He also anticipates my next point. Not only do we need more finance from the Government to ensure that sure start initiatives get to all the children who are living in poverty, but we must look closely at the deprivation we find in different parts of the country. The Minister may be aware that Somerset has been able to pioneer its own information about deprivation that relies not only on the index of multiple deprivation used by the Government but on statistics about domestic violence, youth justice referrals, children out of school, the percentage of social housing in an area, the number of referrals to social services and children on the child protection register.

When that information is used by the county council, it often comes up with a different priority ranking for particular wards from that which would be derived from the index of multiple deprivation. Would the Minister consider allowing local areas that develop statistics that are based on a wider range of information than is available in that index to set their own priorities? It might mean that wards were placed in a different order in the roll-out of sure start services. That would affect a large part of my constituency. Yeovil contains three very deprived wards—Yeovil West, Yeovil East and Yeovil Central—which would come high in the list of the county council's priorities, but which fall outside the 20 per cent. threshold set by the index of multiple deprivation. If the Minister is asked by Somerset county council to contemplate approving plans to allocate money from central Government funds to an area such as Yeovil, even though some of its wards may fall outside the Government's own 20 per cent. threshold on the index of multiple deprivation, can she assure us that she will look sympathetically on any such request, if it is

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based on that local council's information on deprivation in its own community? Surely the Government should be able to rely on the superior knowledge of local communities about deprivation in their areas?

Later this year, I hope that Somerset county council will introduce proposals for a children's centre in Yeovil, despite the fact that some of its wards are outside the 20 per cent. most deprived on the index of multiple deprivation. My point about requests for funding is therefore a relevant one, and I would like an assurance from the Minister that such a request would be considered sympathetically.

We could debate this issue at much greater length, but I suspect that I have exhausted the time that is available to me. I hope that the Government and the Minister will be able to respond to some of the points that I have made. I also hope that they will be able to ensure that the aspiration behind Government policy for every child to have a good start in life can, in time, be delivered.

1.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle) : What a pleasure it is to be here again in Westminster Hall. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) not only on his good fortune in securing the debate, but on the way in which he made his arguments.

I endorse the hon. Gentleman's congratulation of some local people, many of whom he named, who have contributed to the early years development and child care partnership in his area. He is right to highlight the fact that the Government, and all of us, depend on local people to implement such policies. It is helpful, therefore, when hon. Members give specific support to local people who are doing such work. The Government know that, in dealing with such issues, local people must be strongly involved, so it is good that the hon. Gentleman mentioned those people. I am certain that they will have heard what he said, and will be enthused further by his thanks.

I shall first say a little about the Government's approach to sure start, child care and early years education in general. I was pleased to hear from the hon. Gentleman that there is wide-ranging support for those policies on his side of the House. I often find, when discussing such issues, that they receive approval and support from a wide range of people: the sure start programme, in particular, seems to be very popular.

Five years ago the Government launched the first ever national childcare strategy, recognising, perhaps for the first time, the importance of child care to children, families and economic sustainability in some of our poorer communities. We backed it up with financial support for families, and resources for developing services. In parallel with that strategy, we launched the local sure start programme, which was designed to release the creativity of local professionals—the hon. Gentleman mentioned many such people from south Somerset—because we believe that they are the best people to design better local opportunities for children and their families. I cannot do that from Whitehall, and nor can my noble Friend, Baroness Ashton of Upholland.

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We also offered every four-year-old a free part-time nursery education place. I was pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman approved specifically of that policy, although I heard what he said about the speed with which he believed that that had been implemented, and about his regret that that had not happened faster. None the less, by April next year, ahead of schedule, all three-year-olds will also have been offered such a place.

Those are significant achievements, but we want to build on them. Our ambition is to provide the integrated support that families want by bringing together the three strands of the programme. Family support will therefore be provided alongside nursery education, with wrap-around care offered for children. The philosophy will be that which underpins our local sure start programmes, ensuring we involve families and empower them. The programme will be available to local communities to shape, and will not be imposed on them from Whitehall.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is especially interested in children's centres. The idea of children's centres is to join up aspects of education, care, family support and health, and to provide a better all-round service for children, their parents and communities. In essence, each children's centre will offer some sure start local programme services that are linked fully with high-quality early education and full day care. The centres will also have strong links with Jobcentre Plus to enable parents who are working or who want to undergo training to obtain affordable child care.

The Government believe that children's centres are important because we know that investment in high-quality and integrated children's services leads to positive effects for children, families and communities. That is particularly important in the more disadvantaged communities. The hon. Gentleman had something to say about how we define disadvantage. A line always has to be drawn. Whether using the index of multiple deprivation or another method, we must identify the most disadvantaged communities. Setting aside the issue of which areas are most disadvantaged, we know that positive effects can be obtained through such interventions. Educational outcomes for children and for parents are improved, enabling parents to work and study and helping lone parents to access work—often for the first time—or training opportunities. Local crime rates are reduced and health outcomes are improved. All of those effects ultimately reduce child poverty.

Each children's centre will offer a range of services to pre-school children. It will include good-quality early education combined with full day-care provision—by that, I mean a minimum of 10 hours a day, five days a week for 48 weeks a year.

Mr. Laws : I refer to defining the areas of deprivation where children's centres may be established. Does the Minister agree that when counties have collected specific information on deprivation, such as Somerset's own health and social needs analysis, that adds to the Government's statistical database in terms of the indexing of multiple deprivation? It would therefore make sense for the Government to take into account that information and allow local areas to set their own

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priorities for the wards that they consider to be the most deprived. Can the hon. Lady and her officials reflect on that matter and perhaps even write to me about it?

Maria Eagle : I can certainly write to the hon. Gentleman, but I have an answer to his question. Whether he will be satisfied with it remains to be seen. He may have seen the guidance that has been with local authorities. Some of the people to whom he has referred will certainly have seen it. That guidance allows children's centres to be established outside those areas. It does not specify that the centres must be in 20 per cent. of the most disadvantaged wards. There is certainly some room for manoeuvre.

Mr. Laws : I understand that the guidance sensibly gives some latitude, particularly where there are boundaries with problems, such as when an area of deprivation finds itself within an affluent area. There is some flexibility for the local authority to redraw the boundaries. However, the fact that there is not flexibility for the local authorities to use their own measures of deprivation to inform the prioritisation process is a matter on which I want to press the Minister.

Maria Eagle : Given that local authorities have the discretion to decide where they will place the children's centres, there is a little more latitude than the hon. Gentleman may be assuming. In any event, I assure him that I and my ministerial and official colleagues will be prepared to listen to what his local authority has to say on the matter and to react in the most positive way possible. That is commensurate with the fact that he must remember that we have an overall policy aim in mind, which is to focus initially many of the tremendously important services that can be of great value on those who need them in our most deprived communities. We are not for a moment pretending that rural areas do not suffer deprivation. If we did, there would not be any sure starts in rural areas—and, of course, there are. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some cause for at least writing a few letters to me, if not some cause for optimism more generally.

We envisage children's centres acting as a service hub within the communities that they serve and we are sure they will do so. They can be a base for child minder networks, for example, and a link to local neighbourhood nurseries, out-of-school clubs and extended schools. There is no reason why such centres should not become the hub of a lot more than just the basic services and the core offer—as we call it in the horrible jargon—which we intend the centres to offer.

We also expect children's centres to play an important role in training the child care work force, as there is a great need for that. As the hon. Gentleman said, quality as well as quantity is important. We expect children's centres to be able to identify children with special needs and disabilities and to begin to address their needs; to visit families in the area with new babies in the first two months of their life to provide information about available services and support; to provide information and guidance on issues that matter to new mothers, such as nutrition, hygiene, safety and breastfeeding, thus reducing the number of children under the age of three who are admitted to hospital; to provide antenatal care and support for mothers to be and their families in the

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local area; and to encourage the use of libraries, which might not be at the top of the list of what one might expect a children's centre to do.

The hon. Gentleman asked how many children would be reached by children's centres—would it be everyone in the 20 per cent. poorest wards? He will recall from the spending review that we expect to reach at least 650,000 pre-school children in the 20 per cent most disadvantaged wards by March 2006. That is the target. In this context, "reach"—a word that can mean many things—means the number of children who might potentially use health, family support or parental support services provided by, or through, the children's centre. We anticipate that 350,000 of those children will be served by existing sure start local programmes and the other 300,000 will be children who do not currently have access to sure start-type services. That may give the hon. Gentleman more idea of the scope for going beyond what he sees as the restrictions.

I am often asked how a local area, partnership or facility achieves children's centre status. The majority of children's centres will be developed from an existing sure start local programme, an early excellence centre, or a neighbourhood nursery. However, we also expect local authorities to draw on the skills of other providers in the maintained, voluntary and private sectors in order to create children's centres. It is not a requirement that children's centres be newly built for the purpose, although we expect that some will. Equally, it is not essential that children's centre services are coordinated in the same building. For example, that might not be possible in a rural area such as the hon. Gentleman's; a network of existing providers may supply the services, perhaps on a mobile basis. We want to be as flexible as possible.

The strategic responsibility for developing children's centres rests with local authorities. The hon. Gentleman's local authority has the leeway to take its own decisions; it has the guidance. In recent weeks, authorities have been identifying existing provision, which already offers the required services—the core offer—and which could therefore be designated as children's centres at an early stage. We are already receiving proposals from local authorities and assessing them in the sure start unit, and recommendations will be made to my noble Friend Baroness Ashton of Upholland later this month. Local authorities will continue to work over the summer on their strategic plans, which will need to be submitted by 15 October.

It is therefore possible that the Government's vision of every parent being able to access good-quality, affordable provision will reach beyond the 20 per cent. most disadvantaged wards. We are committed to targeting specific resources on disadvantaged areas but there is no reason why other people and children should not have access to them. We recognise that there are pockets of deprivation in areas of relative affluence to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We will give local authorities the flexibility to locate centres in such areas when there is a case for doing so. We hope that many local authorities will work with local partners to replicate the children's centre model as a means of mainstreaming sure start.

Somerset county council has been notified of its indicative funding allocation of £1,008,600, of which £708,000 is for capital development. With that money it

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has been asked to develop children's centre services to reach almost 2,500 pre-school children within its eight most disadvantaged wards, and to create 105 new child care places. We look forward to seeing its ideas when the returns come in. We hope to ensure that the maximum possible benefit for the hon. Gentleman's constituents and local children and parents is obtained from spending that money. Working together with the people

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to whom the hon. Gentleman referred at the beginning of his speech will make a real difference to those children and parents, and to the whole of his constituency and that of his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath).

I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for Yeovil, but if he wishes to write to me I shall be happy to consider what he has to say.

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