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Westminster Hall

Thursday 15 October 2009

[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

Sure Start

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

2.30 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): I am sorry that I was unable to be here at the start of the debate. I have visitors from Bangladesh.

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Miller: The Minister misunderstood the policy.

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

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

Mrs. Miller: Will the Minister give way?

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

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

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

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

2.55 pm

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

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

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

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