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15 Oct 2009 : Column 156WH—continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.40 pm

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

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

Dawn Primarolo: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Miller: Perhaps I can make some progress before-

Dawn Primarolo: No, it is helpful, really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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