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15 Oct 2009 : Column 150WH—continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.3 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judy Mallaber: Come and visit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.16 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Perhaps I should start by declaring a similar interest in that I have a granddaughter who, until my daughter returned to a work after a year, engaged in many activities. She still goes along when possible, sometimes with her grandfather.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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