“As you may have heard in the media, central government funding for Sure Start Children’s Centres nationally has been reduced, which means in Westminster we have to save 17% from our Children’s centre budget”,

meaning a saving of £715,000, including roughly £250,000 off early learning and child support, and £400,000 off outreach and family support. Children’s centres will be bricks and mortar without the staff even to ensure that services can be run safely.

Michael Gove: The hon. Lady is a highly energetic constituency MP—indeed, I was represented by her for a brief period, and I know how passionately she takes up such causes. However, Westminster, like many other

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local authorities, is succeeding not just in keeping the Sure Start children’s centre network open, but in providing an enhanced service for children and young people. The question that she and every Opposition Member must address is this: if they believe, as I do, that Sure Start is a valuable service, and that it is a good thing that the Government have set up an early intervention grant, and that we are devoting resources and intellectual energy to the early years, will they support the coalition in the steps that it is taking, or do they have an alternative plan? Do they believe that money should come from other areas of Government expenditure to spend more on any of those services? If they believe that we should spend more than we are spending, can they explain which services they would cut or which taxes they would increase? I am very happy to give way to any right hon. or hon. Member who can enlighten me on Labour’s economic policy, including the hon. Member for Hammersmith.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Let us deal with the figures. If the Secretary of State has come along simply to give incorrect figures, he does not help the debate at all. Hammersmith and Fulham was spending £3.983 million last year; this year it will spend £2.206 million. Most of the nine Sure Start centres will have their budgets cut. Some will receive £19,000 to be satellites—the £19,000 is for the upkeep of the premises, but services will be delivered on-site by another children’s centre. The Secretary of State must stand by his words if he says that that means he is keeping the centres open. However, his stance in this debate and making such assertions does him no credit. He should at least live with the consequences of his actions.

Michael Gove: The consequence of the Government’s actions is that we have ensured, as both Anne Longfield and Anand Shukla have pointed out, that there is enough money to maintain that network. In addition, under Conservative leadership, Hammersmith and Fulham has been singularly successful in reducing the council tax burden on its ratepayers, and in diversifying the sources of funding it receives to support education and care for children and young people. It is a superb local authority. Instead of continually talking down the service that is provided by public servants in Hammersmith and Fulham, it would be nice to hear from the hon. Gentleman some sunny, uplifting words, rather than grim predictions of disaster, which as we have just heard, turn out never to be true.

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Northamptonshire county council on deciding to go ahead with its plans for 50 children’s centres in the county, and on its support for my proposals to introduce a Northamptonshire parent-infant project in children’s centres, which will provide a parent-infant psychotherapy service for the families most in need who are struggling to bond with their new-born babies?

Michael Gove: I am delighted to congratulate Northamptonshire, where not a single children’s centre is closing. It is also the home of the innovative Pen Green children’s centre. More money is coming from central Government to help that council to develop news ways of providing support for children in their earliest years.

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Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): I have some sunny words for the Secretary of State. Sure Start Palfrey in my constituency was one of the first in the country to get an “outstanding” rating from Ofsted, which it gained because it did a lot of outreach work, including through a fathers’ club—84 fathers came to one session. However, there are rumours, which the Secretary of State might like to quash, that the staff will be replaced by health visitors, which moves the centre into a medical model rather than an educational model. Will he confirm that those specialist workers will not be replaced by health visitors?

Michael Gove: The hon. Lady makes an important point. To be fair to Labour Members, I want to emphasise that Sure Start has been a success in the past, and we hope it will be an even greater success in the future. However, one matter on which it has not been as successful in every part of the country as it should have been is in outreach, particularly to the most disadvantaged. The Government believe that health visitors, as trusted faces of the state, can be one of the most effective ways in which we can increase outreach. We also believe that local authorities that have innovative solutions that succeed in ensuring that children in hard-to-reach communities receive those services should be supported. The coalition Government believe in supporting local authorities that are innovative in their use of resources, which is why we removed the ring fence, created the early intervention grant, and allowed a greater degree of innovation to flourish at local level.

Diana Johnson: The 50% cut is set out clearly in Hull city council’s budget to children’s centres—it is a fact. The centres cannot provide the service that they provided before that 50% cut. They have abandoned the local authority’s early years service team, and no one is doing early years service planning in that authority. The cut means that services are not the same as they were under the previous Government. Surely the Secretary of State must recognise that.

Michael Gove: First, we are entering the financial year in which cuts would have been made if we had stuck to the plan of the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling). However, I have heard not a single word from the hon. Lady or anyone else about where those cuts would have been made. Secondly, she and others—I understand that she is electioneering, which is fair enough—said that children’s centres would close, but in fact they have remained open.

Thirdly—I did not want to repeat this but the hon. Lady compels me to do so—the Audit Commission said that Hull was one of worst local authorities in the country when Labour ran it, and it is now the most improved local authority. I know that those three points are uncomfortable for her to deal with as she tramps the streets of the east riding attempting to drum up Labour votes, but they are undeniably true. That is why she is shaking her head—in anger at Labour’s record.

I specifically wanted to address some of the questions on the importance of outreach raised by the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). The broader question is this: what do we want to achieve in the early years? A consistent theme in constructive questions from Opposition Back-Bench Members has been that

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the bricks and mortar are being preserved—that concession, for which I am grateful, is in stark contrast to the scaremongering that we have heard from Opposition Front Benchers—but what is happening in Sure Start children’s centres? Are we improving the quality of service that is provided to children and young people? That is a tough challenge.

One thing that we are doing—the right hon. Member for Leigh did not refer to this—is increasing resources to ensure that early education and child care are provided not just for three and four-year-olds, which the previous Government introduced. We have already extended the number of hours of free early education and child care from 12.5 to 15 hours for all three and four-year-olds—we implemented that and increased expenditure to do it—but we are also increasing the number of hours for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. The plan under the previous Government was for 30,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds to receive 15 free hours, but we are ensuring that 130,000 do so. That is an investment of up to an additional £300 million in the early years at a time when we have to make uncomfortable budget reductions elsewhere because of the desperate economic mess that we inherited. That is a sign of our determination to do best by the early years. It would only be fitting for the right hon. Gentleman to acknowledge that.

Henry Smith: The state of the country’s finances that was bequeathed to us by Labour was appalling. Is it not remarkable that the amount of interest that we are paying on Labour’s deficit is 39 times the Sure Start budget?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct that the interest we are paying on our debt is 39 times the Sure Start budget under the previous Government. If we really cared about our children’s future, would we have saddled them with a debt at that level? Clearly not. I am afraid, however, that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the last Labour Cabinet were happy to spend, spend, spend without any thought to whether future generations would be saddled with an enormous debt. It is to the great credit of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister that they were prepared to ensure that a coalition Government took the responsible steps necessary to deal with the dire economic mess, and it is to the discredit, I am afraid, of the current shadow Cabinet that not a single constructive suggestion has come forward for how to deal with the deficit. In just a few days’ time, when people think about how to cast their vote, I hope that they will reflect on which parties are acting responsibly in dealing with the national crisis, and which parties prefer posturing, irresponsibility and the emptiness of eternal opposition.

Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab) rose

Michael Gove: I would like to exempt one person from that stricture, however, and it is the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), to whom I am happy to give way.

Mr Field: The whole House welcomes the re-announcement by the Secretary of State that the number of poor two-year-olds who will receive nursery education will rise from 30,000 to 130,000. To ensure that it occurs, will the Government ring-fence the money?

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Michael Gove: I believe that money additional to the early intervention grant has been budgeted for to cover the years 2012-13 to 2013-14, and we are currently discussing with the sector how to ensure that the money is spent most effectively. Rather than having a top-down approach to delivering support for children in the early years, we need to work in partnership, not just with local government, where there are many brilliant leaders, but with those in the voluntary and charitable sector who have a huge amount to add.

I mentioned Anand Shukla and Anne Longfield, but I am also very grateful to people such as Bernadette Duffy, who runs the Thomas Coram children’s centre, which has helped the coalition Government to move forward in developing a framework to ensure that children in the foundation years receive the support that they really need. For example, all of them have worked with us on the response to the report by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and the interim report produced by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). In both reports a compelling case was made—this argument was also made eloquently in the first half of the speech by the right hon. Member for Leigh—that investment and the right interventions in the earliest years can have a dramatic effect in closing the opportunity gap that has grown up in this country.

All of us will have been struck by some of the figures released by the coalition Government and analysed by the Financial Times this week that show that social mobility in this country is still not moving in the right direction. In particular, we see evidence in some of our most deprived areas of children who have not reached an acceptable level of child development by the age of five. In those deprived areas, children who are falling behind continue to do so. I want to ensure that as much as possible we have a cross-party approach to dealing with that problem. Again I have to say that steps were taken by the Deputy Prime Minister, in the launch of his social mobility strategy, to outline exactly what we need to do to tackle these problems. All of his suggestions, particularly the emphasis on intervention at every stage in the life cycle and the prioritisation of early years, would seem to commend themselves to people of good will in every party.

Andy Burnham: I want to make it clear that I welcome some of the steps that the right hon. Gentleman is taking, particularly on two-year-olds, which builds on something that we were talking about. However, I want to ask him a serious question. I am listening carefully to what he is saying, and he is itemising some of the individual things that the Government are dong, but I want to know about the big picture so that I can understand his position on Sure Start. He talked about how Sure Start will develop in the future. A simple question: does he envisage Sure Start as a targeted service or a universal service?

Michael Gove: I envisage Sure Start as a universal service. [Interruption.] Second question? It is an interview. I almost feel like I am on “The Andrew Marr Show”—I will come to him in a moment. I believe that Sure Start is a universal service, but it is also important to recognise that there are children in greater need on whom we should target greater resources. The original Sure Start programme started out targeting areas with the greatest

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need, and subsequently, as it moved to phase 3, it became universal. Even within that, it is an example of what one might call “progressive universalism”. Yes, the service is there for all, and yes we recognise that disadvantages exist, even in some of our apparently wealthier communities. That is why the service should be universal. Nevertheless, we know that there are areas of real deprivation, such as the constituency that the right hon. Gentleman represents, and we need to ensure that our resources and energy are targeted in that area.

Several hon. Members rose

Michael Gove: A number of hon. Members want to intervene. I am happy to give way to the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales).

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): Does the Secretary of State share my regret that last year the National Audit Office found that Sure Start centres had completely failed to address inequality in our disadvantaged communities?

Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman, who represents brilliantly a constituency with real deprivation, is absolutely right. Yes, Sure Start has the potential to make a significant difference, and yes on the ground it was already making a real difference, but we need to build on that by ensuring that we have the targeted interventions that help those children in the most difficult circumstances.

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I note that the shadow Secretary of State spent 45 minutes on quantitative issues, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s emphasis on quality. Does he agree that we should be showcasing the really good interventions and effective use of money across the country? I regret that we have cuts, but surely we must be celebrating and giving confidence to the sector.

Michael Gove: That is the best intervention yet. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I and my departmental colleagues are anxious to point out that there are many committed professionals in the early years sector with a greater level of expertise in developing evidence-based interventions, all of which can help children in difficult circumstances. I have been impressed by how people have worked constructively across the sector, and I have been particularly impressed by the fact that, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North pointed out in his report on early intervention, we now have a better body of evidence that allows us to identify what works. We should celebrate the fact that some of that innovation has been operating at a local level in children’s centres run by exemplary local authorities.

Several hon. Members rose

Michael Gove: I would like to make progress, because I am conscious that Members would like to speak after me. However, I took in vain the name of the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West, so I am happy to give way to his former Parliamentary Private Secretary.

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Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I understand that there are proposals for developing a payment-by-results scheme for children’s centres. I think those proposals have great merit: they will ensure the proper examination of which interventions work, and will lead to better outcomes for children. What is the Secretary of State’s thinking on this, and has any progress been made on developing such a scheme?

Michael Gove: That is a very fair question. The answer is yes. We are examining this matter with the sector to establish which successful interventions we can encourage and incentivise to be spread more widely. Building on the point made by the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), I would add that some children’s centres are hugely successful at outreach. The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) referred to how a children’s centre in her constituency has succeeded in tackling some hard-to-reach families. We know that some families resent and resist what they see as state intervention and coercion in their families’ lives, but actually they desperately need that support, so we must incentivise those children’s centres that are good at outreach.

There is something else that is critically important. There is sometimes an understandable confusion between the provision of child care to ensure a higher level of female participation in the work force, which is a good thing in itself, and child development. Those are allied but separate issues. I would like to see a renewed emphasis on child development. The original Sure Start proposals, which the Treasury developed, had a real focus on child development, and through the work that Dame Claire Tickell has led, we have sought to look at the existing early years foundation stage and build on what is good about it. The focus of the foundation years should be on ensuring that children arrive at school school-ready and effectively socialised. That will sometimes require interventions to support parenting and to raise the quality of staff. However, we can identify and support good practice, and indeed support many of the voluntary organisations, such as 4Children, that are already doing a fantastic job.

I want to stress that the changes we are talking about depend on having in place the staff capable of leading our children’s centres in the right direction. We have provided funding specifically to ensure that the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services can ensure that there is a trained cadre of at least 400 highly qualified individuals with a new depth of training in running children’s centres, and that we move broadly in the direction hinted at by hon. Members towards a vision of children’s centres leaders as people who enjoy the same prestige and esteem as head teachers. We should see what is happening in children’s centres as part of the seamless process of education that should start at the earliest possible age and, in my view, continue for as long as possible, in order to prepare people for the world of work and progression.

At a time when we have to make economies, I recognise that it is difficult to concentrate on some of these areas of debate, but we have made a good start in the last 12 months. The constructive approach taken by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and the hon. Member for Nottingham North, along with those in the sector, is something on which we can all build. It is often tempting to knock local government, but I have been hugely

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impressed by the way in which the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, with its outgoing president Marion Davis and the incoming president Matt Dunkley, has engaged with the coalition Government to operate constructively.

I know that many hon. Members will want to use their speeches to make points in advance of the local elections—that is fair enough; it is that time of year—but I hope that in the remainder of this debate, their speeches will continue in the tone so admirably set by the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole. We all recognise the great work done by professionals in early years. I hope that we will all give some thought in the hours that we have left to how we can build on those successes and ensure that children, who are our first care and concern, can have the best possible start in life.

2.1 pm

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): It does not help the House if the Secretary of State comes here to defend the indefensible or to use what is essentially wrong information to do so. I will therefore correct some of the figures and facts that he got wrong—and, for the record, I will be doing so for the third or fourth time. I should also say that I do not have any local elections in my constituency. Indeed, it is somewhat insulting to say that Members who have supported their networks of children’s centres and been proud of them—that probably goes for Members from all parties in this place—have come to this debate simply to score cheap political points. That is not the case. I do not know whether my words will influence the outcome of the alternative vote referendum—if they lead to a yes vote for AV, then all well and good—but I assure the Secretary of State that that is not my intention today.

Hammersmith and Fulham council began on 10 January this year with a report, passed in full, that said:

“At present H&F has a network of 15 children’s centres…We are looking at options to restructure this provision in line with the likely levels of efficiency and grant reductions expected…However, it is not likely under this scenario that LBHF could continue to directly fund more than 6 Children’s centre teams.”

The cut in grant is about 13%, whereas, as I said in my intervention, the cut in the budget is about 45%. It is therefore no good Hammersmith and Fulham hiding behind the cut in grant. It is right to say, however, that as soon as that announcement was made public—albeit shortly after Christmas—there was, shall we say, a lively reaction in the constituency and the borough. A lot has happened in the three months since, partly because the local authority realised that it might be in breach of its statutory duties, which were quite properly introduced by the previous Government.

Those duties are such that either, first, the council would have had to return the nine centres that it was closing—those whose grants it was cutting entirely—to the Department for Education, or would have been liable to do so; secondly, it had not performed its statutory duty to consult before making the decision; or, thirdly, it was no longer clearly providing a network of children’s centres. The local authority’s response was based on trying to bring itself within the law, not on recognising it had made a mistake about levels of provision. Every one of the minor and incremental changes that it made was more to do with PR than with the service or keeping all the centres open. The general amount

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given to the nine centres that were, in fact, closing was £19,000. The council said that after consideration and consultation—it was a substantial consultation, with many thousands responding in fairly clear terms—it would increase the budget. In some cases, the budget was increased by £1,000 a year, so a budget that was £19,000 became £20,000, where previously it had been £250,000. Clearly the Secretary of State has been briefed in same propagandist way—“Yes, we’re going to open a new centre.” However, the new centre is one of the libraries that the authority is closing, and it will also receive a grant of £19,000, so we will have another empty building.

The third thing that happened was a substantial protest from my constituents. There were many demonstrations, including one attended by my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), the shadow Children’s Minister. We reciprocated by bringing a party of Hammersmith and Fulham parents to the mother’s day protest outside No. 10 Downing street and presenting 2,000 signatures from parents in my constituency against the Sure Start closures. When the inevitable decision was finally made on 18 April to go ahead with the closure programme, 150 parents with buggies again turned up to protest.

I pay tribute to Ruthie Walsh and those involved in Hammersmith and Fulham Parents Unite for organising those protests, not because they are politically motivated, but because they care about their children and they absolutely value the service. Many say it is a lifeline, helping them through relationship break-ups, or loss of job or income, or even helping them to get back into work, providing not just child minding or play services but high quality support, particularly for children with developmental difficulties or special educational needs. That is what Sure Start provides and what, however we dress it up, we are losing when we close nine centres in Hammersmith and Fulham. After all the protests, all the jiggery-pokery and all the propaganda, the net effect is that the budget is indeed being cut by 45%, from almost £4 million to just over £2 million, that the number of Sure Start centres in Hammersmith will now be six, rather than 15, and that the number of children served by those centres will go down by two thirds, to no more than 2,000. That is the reality, with the spin removed, about the services that will be provided.

It is no coincidence that the pattern of Sure Start cuts fits the pattern of cuts in other children’s services. Four of the borough’s seven youth clubs have been closed in my constituency, along with after-school services, of which we are very proud, play services and a complete network of dedicated services. That has all been shut down, and because of Government cuts, the playbuilders scheme and the Building Schools for the Future programme have also been cut. The impact of local government cuts, as well as those directed through local government from central Government, unavoidably bears down overwhelmingly on children and people on low incomes in my constituency.

One of the most shameful things—this might be unique to Hammersmith and Fulham—is that rather than say, “This is regrettable, but it’s to do with finance and matters of that kind,” the local authority has tried to rubbish Sure Start as a programme. In its most recent report on the cuts, the council said that

“no Sure Start Local programme effects emerged in the case of ‘school readiness’ defined in terms of children’s early language, numeracy and social skills needed to succeed in schools.”

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So there we have it: the reason for the almost 50% cuts in children’s centre budgets and the two thirds cuts in provision for children is that they do not work. Is that the Government’s attitude? Despite the protestations, do they actually think that we are talking about a wasteful service that should not be provided, or that pre-school services should be provided only to those who can afford to pay for them? To give the council credit, that is clearly the view of Hammersmith and Fulham, but it is not the view of my constituents, irrespective of income or background.

I do not want to take up too much time, but I want briefly to mention some of the Sure Start centres in my constituency that cater for and care for thousands of children every year in Hammersmith and Fulham. Cathnor Park family centre was the first to open in 1998, and the council now describes it as a “super spoke”—it is much better than a satellite: it is a super spoke. The centre receives £50,000 in funding, as opposed to the £473,000 it received last year. The same goes for Broadway family centre, which also received £473,000 last year, but which will receive £19,000 this year. The funding for Wendell Park, my local Sure Start centre, has been cut from £250,000 to £25,000, and that of the Bayonne family centre has been cut from £250,000 to £19,000. The Normand Croft centre’s funding has been cut by the same amount.

Those centres are popular, well used and well loved by everyone who uses them. They have established themselves and they believed that they would continue because they were told by politicians of all parties that they were providing a wonderful service to the parents and children of the borough. However, they will all be gone. We do not know about closures in children’s services yet, but we know about the closures of youth centres and play centres. Not only are the services being closed, but the buildings are being sold off. The assets are being disposed of, so, if there is another Labour Government, or another Government who are more enlightened than this one, or a local authority able to provide the services, it will not be possible to recreate them. They will be gone for good. That will be the legacy of this Government, and it is the legacy of the Conservatives in local government in London.

These decisions are ideologically driven. If they were driven by the need to save money, we would be seeing what the Minister of State promised us when she responded to debates on the subject—namely, cuts at a level that would allow the networks to survive. I have said this before to the Secretary of State: he should intervene on those local authorities that are choosing to close their children’s centre networks or not to provide such networks. They could be in breach of their statutory duty, and there will certainly be a legal challenge in Hammersmith and Fulham. There has not been proper consultation, and we have heard nothing but spin and disinformation, which, to his discredit, the Secretary of State has repeated today. The Government purport to believe in children’s centres and early years development, yet local authorities are cutting services to the bone and closing them down, to the extent that nothing remains except the shell of the building. The Government should intervene to stop them.

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2.11 pm

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): This Opposition day debate has been billed as one that would land a big blow on the Government on a crucial issue. The shadow Secretary of State gave us a number of examples in his lengthy trip around the country, but they were perhaps not the killer blow that he was hoping to land. He prefaced his remarks by saying that there was a great deal of recognition on both sides of the House of the good that Sure Start has done. I share that view, having seen what Sure Start has achieved in my constituency and elsewhere. Notwithstanding the issues raised in the National Audit Office’s report, to which we might return later in the debate, the programme has great strengths. All things can be worked on and improved, but the programme’s fundamental objectives of reaching and supporting people who need help, and encouraging people to work together to support each other, have been achieved in many children’s centres. Of course we welcome and support that.

Speaking as a rural MP, I believe that delivering such services in places such as North Cornwall is different from delivering them in urban areas. There has always been a hub and spoke approach in rural areas, because of the many village Sure Start children’s centres that we have. I see that as a strength, in that some services travel around all of them. I would caution the shadow Secretary of State against saying that there must be a fully staffed suite of people just hanging around in case someone walks in through the door. Instead, we should be looking at the best way of using resources.

Andy Burnham: I agree; that is a reasonable and fair point. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the examples that I gave. I think that he is the Back-Bench education spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, and I would like him to give us a straight answer today. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) that Lib Dem-controlled Hull city council is cutting the Sure Start budget by 50%. Does the hon. Gentleman support that move?

Dan Rogerson: We are in a period in which people are getting used to a coalition Government, and I am certainly not a Front Bencher here. I am speaking as a Back Bencher, and I am sure that you would be the first to jump on me if I claimed to be a Front Bencher, Mr Deputy Speaker. I and a number of other Liberal Democrats have a Back-Bench group in which we discuss many of these issues with other people inside and outside the party. We are also able to talk to the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), who, as a Minister in the coalition Government, is at the heart of taking these decisions and leading policy forward, along with her other colleagues. My view on what is happening in Hull is that it now has a council that has taken over what was the worst council in the country under Labour and turned it around. It is in challenging financial times—I want to return to that subject later—but it has managed to ensure that all its children’s centres will remain open.

As I said earlier, the hub and spoke model, which is already operating in other parts of the country, can be successfully undertaken. The shadow Secretary of State also referred to a postcode lottery. That is one way of

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saying that locally elected councillors should be able to take decisions that affect their local areas and, having talked to the local community, use the money available in ways that the community believes will be most effective. That is my view of how local democracy should work. Instead of talking about a postcode lottery, we could talk about the young people in my constituency who had £300 less than the national average for their education under the Labour Government. Cornwall is recognised by the European Union as one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of the country. Those are the issues that we should be looking at, rather than at the way in which different councils take decisions about the money at their disposal.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to early years provision. As we have heard, they have involved Opposition Members in the debate, and I am delighted to see the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) in his place today. The Liberal Democrats have always placed a strong emphasis on early intervention, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who is no longer in her place, for the work that she has done over the years, inside and outside the party, and for chairing the all-party parliamentary group on Sure Start children’s centres. She makes a significant contribution to the debate.

The shadow Secretary of State attempted to say that the only thing that the Liberal Democrats were worried about was next week’s referendum. It is absolutely clear, however, that the coalition Government will continue, whatever the result of the referendum. I would point to the commitment to investing in child care and early years education for two-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds as something that my party has been arguing for. I also believe that the pupil premium, which the right hon. Gentleman has real problems with, will deliver real change and real investment for disadvantaged young people up and down the country. I would also point to the review by Dame Clare Tickell, and the aspiration to simplify and streamline the bureaucracy around the early years foundation key stage. That was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. I am sure that the Secretary of State and Conservative colleagues will want to emphasise their own credentials when it comes to tackling bureaucracy, but those measures were certainly in our party’s manifesto. I therefore have no problem with running through the Government’s programme and looking at all the Liberal Democrat priorities that are being delivered in it.

The key point that I want to make is that we are in difficult financial circumstances and, yes, the money going to local government has been restricted and efficiencies are having to be made. As other hon. Members have pointed out, a pot of fairy gold seems to exist in the minds of Opposition Members, along with the belief that, were they in charge, all the financial problems would be solved. However, the cuts programme that they set out when they were pretending to be responsible in government has now disappeared. They said that billions of pounds of cuts would be necessary, but they are now not being at all specific about where those cuts would have been made. It is tiresome that, time and again in these Opposition day debates, whatever the subject, all we hear from them is, “Of course we know that cuts have to be made, but we wouldn’t do it there or in that way.” They never tell us what their alternative would be.

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It will become increasingly obvious as this Parliament progresses that that refrain just will not do. When that refrain is tied to a motion such as the one before us, which seeks to scaremonger before a local election about the closure of a service on which people rely, it is even more unfortunate. It is also unfortunate that the “killer statistics” that the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) was hoping to present have not emerged; the picture is different.

Sadly, some jobs will go, which is absolutely to be regretted. I look forward to continued investment in early years education and leadership programmes that might provide something for people wanting to move from one job to another and allow them to carry on using their skills and make a contribution. I also welcome the Government’s Green Paper on special educational needs, particularly the strong aspiration to tie in health spending on matters that perhaps previous were seen as solely the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Education. There are lessons to be learned from Sure Start. In its early days, there were programmes to support breastfeeding, for example, which a primary care trust sometimes struggled to fund, given that supporting children’s centres was not part of the Department’s core area of responsibility. That was a controversial matter at the time.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): I note the hon. Gentleman’s support for early intervention, but I only wish that he had been more enthusiastic in the Education Bill Committee in supporting my proposals for achievement-for-all partnerships. In view of his point about Sure Start, does he share my concern that local authorities such as mine in Waltham Forest are having to make terrible decisions because of the funding cuts? Fantastic projects such as the Hamara family project—provided by Barnado’s for work with children with special educational needs—and the outreach buses on the Attlee Terrace estate are having to be cut in order to keep the centres open. These services are going and we will not have the centres to maintain them.

Dan Rogerson: The hon. Lady has managed to put on the record references to a number of projects in her constituency; as an assiduous local MP, it is absolutely her right to do so. It is for her local authority to consider and to reach a conclusion about what happens to these services. The local electorate will look at those decisions and no doubt respond accordingly—not this year in the hon. Lady’s area, but in other parts of the country. My point was about trying to get health spending brought more closely together with what the Department for Education does; further gains could be made from that approach, which is why I greatly welcome investment in health visitors, for example, during this Parliament. We will have extra professionals on the ground to deliver these key priorities in early intervention and support for people who, without it, might find it difficult to keep the family together. It is important to support young children in those crucial years.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I am pleased to hear from my hon. Friend that, whatever the outcome on 5 May, I can continue to work with him for the greater benefit of the coalition in Cornwall in righting some of the terrible wrongs that have been left, especially the underfunding of education for Cornwall’s

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younger people. Does my hon. Friend agree that health visitors, particularly in remote rural areas such as Cornwall, will play an increasingly important role in supporting families with young children?

Dan Rogerson: It is crucial to ensure that programmes that sometimes seem specifically targeted at urban areas also deliver in more rural areas. Sometimes there is a misunderstanding that all rural areas are prosperous communities and that money should be targeted elsewhere. That is not the main thrust of what I am saying, however, so I do not want to get drawn further down that road. Of course I look forward to working with my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) to ensure that Cornwall gets its fair share of spending and investment.

Sure Start has done a fantastic job of reaching out to people in communities, but there are questions about whether all the money has been spent efficiently. When the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) pointed to projects under threat in her constituency, she specifically referred to a planning team. I am not aware of how much on-the-ground work that planning team does—it might be crucial—but it does not sound to me like a front-line service that is, as her Front-Bench team seek to imply, for the chop.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, will he comment on—and, hopefully, dissociate himself from—his colleague who intervened and quoted one part of the Audit Commission’s report totally out of context, suggesting that the Audit Commission had said that early years intervention through children’s centres was a waste of money?

Dan Rogerson: I do not think it was said to be a waste of money. The argument was that things can always be done better, which is what the National Audit Office said. I hope that all Members agree that where issues have been identified independently and targets and aspirations for a policy have not been met, we can look for ways to do it better. My fundamental point is that, despite the financial situation, good councils up and down the country will prioritise children’s centres and keep them open to ensure that services have a reach—even if there is no insistence on having full-time workers in every specialism in every centre, which is what I would like to see if the money were available to fund it.

Diana Johnson: Of course all Members would agree that if efficiencies can be made, it is all to the good and we should see it happen, but is the hon. Gentleman honestly saying that a 50% cut to the children’s centre budget in Hull can be seen as a good thing and that services will improve because it is an efficiency saving?

Dan Rogerson: Of course I am not saying that spending less on a service is desirable. If we have the money in the first place, I would like it to be spent on front-line services, but I am not in a position to comment on how every single penny has been spent in Hull. I am pleased to note that my Liberal Democrat colleagues running the city council are keeping the children’s centres open and will provide services at them, which will reach across all the communities of Hull.

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I conclude on that note. I hope that the debate will proceed by focusing on the positive aspects that Sure Start has delivered and the opportunities to continue delivering them.

2.27 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): A year ago during the general election campaign, a woman in my constituency asked me what Labour had done for Gorton. We were standing outside the St James Sure Start centre on Stelling street, where she was waiting to collect her child. That lady, like many constituents of mine, will be wondering what is going to happen to that centre, which she took for granted as though it had always been there, archetypally provided by some heavenly intervention. It fact, of course, it was created by the Labour Government and was one of their most successful innovations. Incidentally, when Parliament was considering the Sure Start proposals, the then Conservative Opposition did not support them.

In a city such as Manchester, which has many areas of deprivation, Sure Start made a hugely positive impact. We have 14 major centres, of which several excellent ones are in my constituency. One in Farrer road in Longsight was built anew at a cost of £3.25 million and provides an exceptional environment where parents can take their children and be confident that they will be looked after. Throughout my constituency—from Gorton right through to Whalley Range—my constituents have come to rely on Sure Start and take it for granted. That is true not only of the centres, but the other facilities provided by Sure Start. In several parks, such as Platt Fields, they provide play areas and playgrounds that were not there before.

Sure Start is very well used and enormously valued. That was shown when my constituents, along with those of other Labour Members with Manchester constituencies, came down to London a few days ago to present a petition to 10 Downing street—to which we have so far had no response—asking for Sure Start to be protected.

Some of the petitioners came from the Levenshulme area in my constituency, and a couple of weeks ago we held a special meeting in Levenshulme to discuss with local parents what they wanted to happen now that Sure Start was under threat as a result of the Government’s policies. Mothers listed a number of reasons why Sure Start had made a difference to their lives and the lives of their families. They spoke of a cohesive approach, and said that Sure Start had given them points of contact with other parents. They said that, as well as providing facilities and services, Sure Start had given them an opportunity to make friends and establish links with peer groups. They said that it was particularly valuable to those who did not have much family support, and that it was very important to single-parent families. They also said that it gave parents the power of choice, but that power of choice is now being undermined and placed in jeopardy by the huge cuts being imposed by this joint Liberal Democrat-Conservative Government. The city of Manchester is one of the top four cities in the entire country to have suffered cuts in local government funding from this Government. Next year the cut will be £109 million, and the following year it will be £170 million.

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Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is painting a good picture of the work done by Sure Start in my constituency, but I wonder whether he and his fellow Manchester Labour Members will make representations to the city council about the £95 million cash reserves that it is holding, and about one or two jobs that it is advertising. For instance, it is offering annual salaries of £38,000 for a communications manager and £128,000 for a creative graphic designer. Would that money not be better put towards Sure Start?

Sir Gerald Kaufman: The hon. Gentleman reads out some brief that has been thrust into his hands and talks about Manchester. I can tell him that he knows nothing whatever about life in Manchester and nothing whatever about the lives of my constituents, a huge proportion of whom have already lived in deprivation and are now living in worse deprivation as a result of what is being done by this Conservative Government. The latest unemployment figure is 9.4%. Let the hon. Gentleman not be briefed by his Whips to tell me about Manchester, because my constituents sent me to tell the House about Manchester, and that is what I will continue to do.

Andrew Bingham rose—

Sir Gerald Kaufman: If the quality of the hon. Gentleman’s first intervention is anything to go by, I think that the House will be better off without a second intervention from him.

However, the problem is not simply the cuts in Manchester’s overall funding but the cuts in the early intervention grant, which helps to fund Sure Start. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) said that nationally the cuts amounted to £50 per head. In Manchester, the figure is £80 per head: that is what this Government have done to the city. Manchester city council is utterly determined not to close any of our Sure Start centres, but because of what the Government have done—because of the disproportionately high cuts in the early intervention grant—the service that we have been used to in Manchester, and which the council wants to go on providing, will no longer be available.

The council is examining options, not one of which it would prefer to consider. It will have to withdraw from its current role as a provider of services and become a “commissioner of provision”. That means that it will try to provide services which are of sufficient quality and properly targeted, but because of the Government cuts it will not be able to continue to provide the service that a Labour Government enabled my constituents to take for granted as something that they would always have. When I was electioneering for the local elections—

Michael Gove: Ah!

Sir Gerald Kaufman: Oh yes. I shall say more about the local elections in a minute.

When I was electioneering for the local elections last Friday, a constituent came up to me and asked, “Why are the Government doing this to us in Manchester? We did not want this Government in Manchester, but we are stuck with them, so why are they discriminating against us?”

The best that we can do is not to close any centres and to engage in a consultation process. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh has pointed out, on this as on so many other issues, what was said before the general election by both the parties that

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comprise the present Government bears no relation to what they are doing now to service after service. The present Prime Minister said:

“we back Sure Start, but we will improve it, because at the moment the people who need Sure Start the most—disadvantaged families—are not getting enough of the benefit. So we’ll contract independent organisations that have a proven track record in helping families”.

One of the huge values of Sure Start was that it was socially cohesive. It did not discriminate socially between those who were more affluent and those who were in employment, and those who were less affluent and those who were not able to get jobs—and heaven knows, those who are not able to get jobs constitute an increasingly high proportion of the people I represent. But if the Prime Minister really wanted to approach Sure Start in the right way and to help disadvantaged families more, that is being breached to an even worse extent. The statistics show that constituencies such as mine are being penalised and targeted by the Government, whereas the families who, according to the Prime Minister, do not need Sure Start as much are suffering much less from cuts.

As I said earlier, the early intervention grant in my city has been cut by £80 per child. In Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Wokingham, it has been cut by £30 per child. The Government have decided to discriminate in favour of the affluent Tory-voting south, and against deprived constituencies like mine which need Sure Start. The Prime Minister himself needs Sure Start. But it is not only the Prime Minister who deceived the country before the general election. The leader of the Liberal Democrat party said:

“My party will protect existing child care entitlements and Sure Start”,


“Sure Start is a really important programme that has made a real difference to millions of parents. Difficult decisions are going to have to be made in public spending but Sure Start is one of the best things the last Government has done and I want all these centres to stay open.”

That is what the leader of the Liberal Democrats says, whose party is conniving at undermining Sure Start and taking its valued facilities away from parents in my constituency who need them.

I have mentioned the local election campaign and what people are seeing happening, and I say this: a week tomorrow we in Manchester will be able to pass our verdict on the Liberal Democrats. There is no point in our passing our verdict on the Conservatives because we do not have any of them on the council, but we will be able to pass our verdict on what they have connived at in the abolition of—[Interruption.] I see a Minister grinning at what the Government have done to the deprived people in my constituency—at what they have done on education maintenance allowance and on Sure Start, at the £100 they have deducted from the winter fuel payment, at the deprived and the poor and those who need money having it taken away from them while the bankers’ bonuses go on soaring and soaring. We will decide in Manchester, and this House has got the right to debate these issues, and we will go on debating them until we have shamed this Government out of existence.

Several hon. Members rose

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Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me say that 11 Members still wish to speak and the wind-ups will start at 3.40 pm.

2.41 pm

Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): I start by addressing the sunny side that we have been aiming to get to today by talking about the benefits of Sure Start. It has been fantastic for many of my constituents. At the age of 17, one of my constituents found herself pregnant with twins as a single mum. She had to deal with the challenges of that without the help of a loving family around her, and the burden of those challenges led her to self-harming. I am pleased to be able to say that she is now the proud mum of healthy, happy five-year-old twins, and she maintains that that is all down to the help and support she received from Sure Start. It led her to gain the right medical help that she needed and to gain the parental skills necessary to cope with the challenge of twins—which, let us face it, we would all struggle with. Sure Start put her on the right track and taught her how to be a responsible parent, giving her the skills required to be self-sufficient—so much so that she now acts as a mentor to young mothers in my constituency. She is a bright, shining example of why Sure Start is a good thing. The fact that people who were previously on the edge of society can come back in that way shows the great value of Sure Start.

My husband is in the military, so I know at first hand the difficulties involved in trying to bring up a family effectively as a single mum while a partner is away on duty. Two weeks after the birth of my second child, my husband was deployed overseas. Fortunately, I had a strong and supportive family around me to help, but I know that others are not so lucky. On my visits to local Sure Start centres throughout my constituency, I have met many mums with partners in the military who are living in married quarters that are miles away from their home town and from the support network of family and friends that those with young children sometimes need. All of them have emphasised the importance to them of Sure Start. It provides support for mothers to come together and gain the help and advice they need, and it provides them with a welcome opportunity to talk to someone over the age of five.

Sure Start centres provide important services for children and families and they must not be undermined. A recent independent review found that 54% of current incidents of depression in women and 58% of female suicide attempts can be attributed to adverse childhood experiences. That hammers home the great importance of the early years of our childhood to our future prospects. Research has shown that a child’s development at 22 months is an accurate indicator of educational outcomes at 26 years of age, while boys deemed to be “at risk” at the age of three have almost three times more criminal convictions in adulthood than their peers. This is why we must support children from the very start.

It is important to remember that Sure Start was initially introduced to provide a haven of support and advice for our most vulnerable families in particular, yet Ofsted reports that, under the last Government, half of Sure Start children’s centres were not reaching out to the most vulnerable. Therefore, it is crucial that these resources are protected in order to help those who are

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most in need of help—from the children, whose health and well-being is improved, to the young parents, who are given the support and parenting skills that may have been lacking in their own lives. I know how much they gain from this lifeline.

Sure Start was one of the few positive legacies we inherited from the previous Labour Government, and it surprises me that it is the Labour-run councils up and down the country who are seeking to save money by closing these valuable centres almost as a first resort.

Andy Burnham: Which ones?

Caroline Dinenage: I will go on to give a couple of examples.

Some of these councils are cutting valuable front-line services to save money, while protecting the pay packets of the council hierarchy. There are some bizarre—and, frankly, ridiculous—job titles, including a creative director at the county council of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), earning £120,000 a year. Labour-run Liverpool city council is closing four Sure Start centres, and its record is a prime example of the wasteful spending that has plagued the effectiveness of our front-line services as, meanwhile, it has an astonishing 23 employees earning over £100,000 a year. Its recently retired chief executive earned more than double what the Prime Minister earns.

Labour-run Manchester city council has put question marks over its Sure Start centres, as the right hon. Gentleman outlined, despite having paid 18 employees over £100,000 a year, having cash reserves of £95 million, as my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) pointed out, and having the highest levels of funding per head in the area. The recent efficiency measures will provide the councils that have been reckless in their spending with an opportunity to reform their strategies and, as a result, function in a more streamlined and effective manner.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady understand that councils whose areas suffer the greatest deprivation, and which are therefore mainly Labour-run, have faced disproportionately large cuts from the Tory Government, and does she accept that the biggest cuts are taking place because they have received less grant from the Government?

Caroline Dinenage: I cannot comment on the councils in the hon. Lady’s area. I can only speak about my own area, which has some of the highest levels of social deprivation in the south of England, and highlight the fact that our country would not be in this situation—spending 39 times the Sure Start budget on the deficit—if the previous Government had not left us in such a pickle.

Andy Burnham: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Caroline Dinenage: Much as I would love to give way to the shadow Secretary of State, he will have plenty of time to say what he wants when summing up.

Hampshire county council has been discussed a lot in the debate. There were plans to keep the number of individually managed centres at 81, but to reduce the number of management hubs to 53. There were never plans to reduce the number of centres. No Sure Start

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centres in Hampshire were ever planned to be cut; it was just the management of them that was considered. I can well understand why the Opposition struggle with the concept of reducing bureaucracy, management and red tape even though not doing so would be at the expense of front-line services.

Hampshire county council is making £6 million-worth of savings while protecting front-line services. It is even planning to increase the number of family support workers but outsourcing some of the IT and admin from the county council in Winchester and merging some of the management structures of the smaller centres that are closer together. No front-line Sure Start services will be cut, nor will any family support worker posts. From speaking to the mums who use the Sure Start centres, I know that the most important thing for them is that the service will continue in the same way. In fact, they have all identified that savings can be made, while front-line services can be protected. I have given them my absolute commitment that I will continue the dialogue with Hampshire county council to ensure that that is what happens to front-line services and that no mums or families suffer in any way. That is why I called on the Prime Minister in a recent Prime Minister’s Question Time to endorse proposals that protect front-line services, and that is why I criticised the mischief-making that has resulted in Sure Start being used as a political football. It is, was, and always will be, far too important for that.

Sure Start transforms lives in areas such as Gosport, and I have been inspired by the work of our local centres in dramatically improving the well-being, educational achievements and health of children.

2.49 pm

Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I wish to pose a question at the beginning of my short contribution: why are we attaching such importance to today’s debate? I say that because Sure Start is part of a wider area of concern, which the Secretary of State rightly called the “foundation years”. There are two reasons why the House is concerned about this area and what is happening to it, how it will be developed and how it might be affected by any cuts programme. The first is that over the past decade or so we have been given a great deal of new knowledge about how brains develop. In the past, we looked to schools and universities to make good class differences, but development in neuroscience suggests that we need to start much earlier and take action as children develop from the womb and until the age of five. So if we are really concerned about widening life chances and ensuring that people can move from their early years into education and into work, we need to prioritise the foundation years.

Much of the concern of Labour Members has been about what has been happening to Sure Start, and I want to pose some questions about that and end with a suggestion. We are not going to persuade the Government to go back on their non-ring-fencing, much as we would like them to, and so I make a plea to them. Other programmes and public expenditure reviews will take place during this Parliament and I hope that before the Government embark on their second, and probably last, public expenditure review for this five-year Parliament, they will question whether, with hindsight, the non-ring-fencing of some of these key services has been a good

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idea. The Secretary of State needed all his skills to avoid answering questions from Labour Members today, because real losses are clearly involved when local authorities with reduced budgets have to make choices on what they think is most important in the area covered by the intervention grant.

If the Government are to make real sense of the foundation years during this Parliament, they will need to change their attitude towards non-ring-fencing. I intervened earlier to ask whether the money for the new initiative of very significantly increasing the number of poor children between two and three who will receive nursery education will be ring-fenced, and the Secretary of State gave us the good news that it would be. So we can conclude that although the Government are not going to say in public that, with hindsight, they were probably wrong not to ring-fence, it is clear that in any future settlement they will prioritise those areas where they believe the greatest gains for taxpayers can be got from spending their money. I suggest that, in the next review, foundation years spending is one area that needs to be ring-fenced.

The second question that I wish to pose applies particularly to Labour Members, but also to those on the Government Benches. We are all anxious to present Sure Start in the best possible light. It is true that it has established itself as a universal service that is non-stigmatising and offers help, but I question whether we have the information at our disposal to be so confident that all Sure Start centre budgets are being spent in the best way possible. When Sure Start began in Birkenhead 10 years ago, I sought in vain to gain from our four local centres information on the number of children in their area, the number of children that they were contacting and whether they were ensuring that the greatest help went to the most-deprived children—I never received answers. Now that Sure Start centres know that things are up for grabs and that, for example, the schools in Birkenhead are probably going to bid for the centres, people are of course anxious to talk about what their services might provide.

In an age in which there is less money in most areas for Sure Start, it is more important that the money is spent on the poorest children, not the richest. Adam Smith’s hidden hand seemed to work at the doors of Sure Start, in that the doors were opened most widely to those bushy-tailed mums who are confident about themselves and who saw what a wonderful service it was and went in—they have benefited fully. I still ponder about the number of mothers in my constituency who are very poor, who are suffering from post-natal depression and with whom nobody makes contact. That is the group that Sure Start needs to be most involved with.

Dan Rogerson: Does the right hon. Gentleman think we could ensure that the more resource-intensive activities that take place in the children’s centres could be targeted while also ensuring that they can still be used in other ways to encourage everybody to come in, to work together and to learn from each other and support each other? Does he think we can get the balance between those two things?

Mr Field: My report tries to suggest how we can keep the service universal while also concentrating help on those in greatest need. That is crucial if in the next

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10 years we are to see not only a development of the Sure Start budgets, but a significant increase in the budgets for foundation years—that is where any new money should go. It would help Sure Start to meet that objective if the Government were to move as quickly as they could to ensure that foundation years provision overall, and Sure Start in particular, was paid by results. In that context, we need to consider whether more children are better ready each year to start school as a result of expenditure in this area. I have asked heads in my constituency, where we have had Sure Start for 10 years, and they have said that that is not so.

The collapse in parenting may be occurring at a greater pace in some areas than it is more generally throughout the country—this problem is not a particular one. One of the great reasons why we support the foundation years is that more children are less well nurtured now than was the case 10, 20 or 30 years ago. One of the great things that Sure Start is about is trying to ensure that those young people who did not have good parents and who did not learn the ropes from them find from somebody else the best way of ensuring that their children are really fit to start their first day of school.

I hope that the Government have learned the lessons about ring-fencing. We will see this in their actions, because I do not expect a Minister to say at the Dispatch Box, “I think our approach was wrong, but next time it will be played differently.” Secondly, I hope that we all agree that whatever our framework for Sure Start, we want to ensure that the most vulnerable children are helped most. I wish to make a brief suggestion about the next stage of this policy. The Government have accepted all the proposals that they could immediately accept from my report, but one proposal relies on the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I suggested that each time the Chancellor considers whether to increase benefit rates for children, he should consider whether in that year it would be more appropriate to spend some or all of that money not on benefit increases, but on building up foundation years provision.

Some Labour Members are slightly apprehensive about that suggestion, because we have been committed to abolishing child poverty, as defined in monetary terms, by 2020. Those on the Government side are also committed to that and I think that Labour Members fear that if the Government decided to move moneys from benefit increases to services, we would lose that goal of abolishing child poverty as we defined it when we were in government. I wish to suggest that that clash does not exist. A couple of years ago, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation supported research examining the most effective ways to ensure that more children live in households with incomes above the target of two thirds of median earnings. It found that that was done not by increasing benefits, but by increasing the amount of child care. In fact, if we attended to that and ensured that child care was of high quality, up to half of those children who are now deemed to be poor would not be poor because their parents would be able to combine the work and tax credits that are available to give them an income that would take them out of our definition of financial poverty. I suggest that the Government consider significant increases in child care and that they finance that by

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holding back on some benefit increases for children in future years. We will not only achieve more quickly the goal of abolishing the numbers of children in financial poverty but, by ensuring that child care is of the highest quality, we will also ensure that many of those children are better prepared to start school and that their lives will be very different from those of their parents.

I chair the new academy in Birkenhead and we have been debating what should be in our contract with the town. I think that one part of our contract will be that we will run an academy that will ensure that children coming to our school will have the opportunity to get better jobs than their parents did when they had to start work. That is what most parents mean by social mobility, and I hope that I have shown today that if we consider the amount and quality of child care, we might not only lessen the amount of financial child poverty in our country but significantly open up the life chances of our poorest children.

3.1 pm

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): I have listened with great interest to the debate. Speeches seem to have fallen into two categories: they have shown Sure Start as a shared success on which today’s debate gives us an opportunity to improve and they have made it a partisan issue and an opportunity to score points. We just heard from the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), a man whose comments are always listened to very attentively by Members on both sides of the House, and his speech was a classic example of the first of those two categories. He made some very good points, one of which I shall comment on—that is, improving and taking Sure Start to the next level. Of course, we have heard other speeches, most notably that made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), that are more partisan and point-scoring.

I felt that the shadow Secretary of State’s speech was uncharacteristically ineffectual today. I always look forward to listening to his speeches, but I felt that it fell somewhere in the middle, as though his brief told him to make some electioneering, rallying, partisan points but his heart told him that Sure Start was far too important to be brought down to that level.

I want to try to address some of the points and try to avoid some of the partisan claims. My first point concerns the closure of Sure Start centres. I know that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends went through the general election confronted by Labour party smear stories about our intentions for Sure Start. It was a disgraceful smear then and it is a disgraceful smear when we hear it repeated, albeit in a muted way, today.

I am glad to have heard Members on both sides of the House talk about those councils that, even in very difficult times, are showing their commitment by maintaining Sure Start centres and to have heard the commitment on that point from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. When we hear that councils such as Harlow and Kent, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) mentioned, and, I understand, Liberal Democrat Councils and Labour councils such as Tameside have committed to maintaining Sure Start centres, surely that shows that this is truly a shared commitment for all parties. Why are other councils closing Sure Start centres? What have

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they done to find other savings? What sorts of overpaid jobs are they protecting? How analytical have they been about their budgets? Are we sure that they are not playing politics with children’s futures? I do not care what their political stripe is—I ask the Minister whether, through this process, he will pay close attention to the reasons why those councils are closing or threatening to close Sure Start centres.

Julie Hilling: Can the hon. Gentleman explain how a local authority such as Bolton can cut 25% of its budget without harming any of the services it provides?

Richard Fuller: That will definitely be a challenge. I know that the hon. Lady has deep experience in youth affairs and youth matters from her previous role, but people in Bolton have a higher level of public expenditure per head than we have in Bedford, where the deprivation level is about the same. When there are sharp reductions, that will cause some issues. That is an issue for her council to consider and it is crucial that services should come first for her council and for other councils. The methodology for delivering those services is where resources need to brought back into the budget.

Sarah Newton: Cornwall council is keeping all 40 of its Sure Start centres by using innovative methods involving consulting parents or federating the centres under the advisory boards or school boards. That will lead to reductions in management costs without reducing services. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a good example of a council that is not cutting front-line Sure Start services?

Richard Fuller: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I do not want to get too distracted by the issue of public expenditure, which I shall come to a little later. I am not sure that we want to tie our views about the future of Sure Start specifically to this period of deficit reduction measures and their consequences for local councils.

One benefit of being smeared by the Labour party about our intentions on Sure Start during the general election—a smear that has been proven to be completely without foundation—was that I got the great opportunity to visit a number of children’s centres in my community of Bedford. I must reinforce some of the points made by Members on both sides of the House about what a tremendous venue they are for networking and experience sharing between young mothers and fathers. In my home community, which is marked by a tremendous amount of ethnic diversity, when one goes to a community centre such as the neighbourhood centre in Queens Park and sees the Sure Start centre and the children’s services offered there, one really sees people from different communities mixing. That would not have happened without Sure Start—or, at least, not in such a great way—and we all want it to be maintained.

Many comments have been made about ring-fencing and about its role. In response to a question from the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) we heard that neither the Conservative party nor the Labour party continued to commit in their manifesto specifically to ring-fencing this budget. It is important, however, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead just said, to see what the consequences of getting rid of the ring fence will be on our budget. I am not sure that I would come

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to such a definitive conclusion as he would, if there are examples of where the loss of ring-fencing has led to closures. This period of reduction is quite exceptional and considerable benefits can be found by putting the responsibility for determining the budgets for Sure Start centres down into the local communities. As councils reinforce their commitment to Sure Start centres in difficult times, that opens up more opportunities for examples of best practice to come to the fore and broadens the service offerings that local councils will seek to put in their centres.

Let me return to the issue of the overlap between cuts to public expenditure and the commitment to Sure Start. This is not good territory for the debate. As I mentioned, it is incredibly difficult for councils to match their budgets in difficult times but the issues about the future of Sure Start need to go beyond the short-term deficit reduction measures that councils are having to take. Importantly, we should remember when we hear speeches about committing more money to something that we lead ourselves down a false path if we think that that always leads to better outcomes. Commitment is not shown by how much money is spent. That kind of thinking leads to profligacy, waste and ultimately to a complete mess of the finances, as we have seen with the situation of general government. Thinking that money is our indication of commitment is more sinister because it sets up expectations of what will be provided far beyond what it might be possible to commit to. It stifles innovation, creativity and opportunities to make more out of less and it also withdraws a commitment to volunteering.

Volunteering is an area in which we are already seeing, in many of the Sure Start centres in Bedford, a significant number of volunteers coming forward to expand the role of the services offered. That should surely be most welcome in all areas and communities. Volunteering reinforces the networking value that we get from our centres and enables us to do more effective outreach into our communities, particularly hard-to-reach communities, in all our towns and constituencies.

Today has been a good opportunity for us to identify ways in which Sure Start centres can be improved beyond the measures already identified by the Government in terms of expanding early-years provision. However, progress must be based on a recognition by all parties that there is now a shared commitment to Sure Start, which is being reinforced and not threatened in these tough times. I hope that all Members on both sides of the House will support the Government’s endeavours in that regard.

3.11 pm

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): It has been a good debate. I have been interested in early years for a long time. When I became the Chair of the then Select Committee on Education and Skills, the very first report I did was into early years. Some Members who were on the Committee during that inquiry are still in the House. We thought it was pretty groundbreaking of us to hire at the beginning of the inquiry someone with a PhD who was expert in the development of the child’s brain. We had the benefit of wonderful research people such as Professor Kathy Sylva, who was a significant influence in understanding that a child’s life chances are

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largely determined by early-years stimulation before 22 months. That is quite startling and was very new thinking 10 years ago.

I have always been absolutely committed to the idea that what we do for children in their early years is of the utmost importance. It sometimes irritated me, as the years went on, when we did inquiries about every other bit of education right through to higher education, that we seem to live in a strange world in which we take things for granted and spend less on early years and more as children get older. I heard a small voice constantly telling me—you will remember sharing this view in your former role, Madam Deputy Speaker—that we should be spending more money on the earlier years and tailing off spending in later years. The amount of resources we put in does matter, but I agree with the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) that what is important is how that money is spent and the quality of the spend.

Interestingly, the very last inquiry I did as the Chair of the Committee was also on Sure Start and early years. In parallel to that last inquiry we did another into NEETs—those not in education, employment or training. There is a very strong relationship between what happens to a child in their first months and years and whether they are likely to end up as a NEET. That link is vital. Stimulation is important and it is sad to go into a school or other setting and be told by people there that they can identify pretty accurately very early in the life of a child whether that child is a potential NEET. That is depressing. I am sure that everyone in the House would agree that, although we came into politics for all sorts of strange reasons, most of us share the belief that all human beings ought to get the chance to develop the potential and the skills that they were born with. For me, that is what the Sure Start and early-years stimulation debate is about. I am sure that we all want to ensure that potential is developed to the full and that we do not want talent to be wasted. We live in a competitive world and I am unashamed to say that I want our country and our economy to be successful. I want it to grow and do wonderful things. If I were to speak in the next debate, I would say that there is a clear link between what happens in a child’s early years and their potential to go to university and make the most of their life.

This issue is partly about resources and partly about spend, but it is also about quality and how it is monitored. It is very difficult to find really good experience and then to spread it fast. That is even more difficult given that the nature of poverty is changing. I know that I am in danger of boring the House on this point because I keep coming back to it. For so many people in the House and outside it, their idea of poverty is a concept from 30 or 50 years ago—a kind of static poverty. When I go to early-years settings and schools up and down the country I find a dynamic poverty. I am talking about children not being in the same school for very long and moving on as their parents move. I am talking about a dynamic in which people come from other countries and do not have the English language at home, perhaps having a foreign language on their televisions. I am talking about children who get very little support from the home environment. The nature of poverty has changed and, like all human beings, we tend to live a little in the

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past. We have to recognise the nature of poverty today, the challenges of deprivation that a child in poverty has today and the fact that they are different from the past.

One inspiring thing about the work on early years is the fact that the quality of research is better than any educational research I have come across. I have often criticised the quality of educational research in some of our universities. There are complex reasons for that, such as a lack of good salaries and a lack of attraction to those areas of research, perhaps because there are much better salaries for those who stay on and become successful head teachers or principals. The quality of early-years research has been outstanding and we have to build on that.

We also have to be able to evaluate success. It is not good enough to go along anecdotally and say, “I saw this wonderful example of a Sure Start centre” in Southampton, Huddersfield or anywhere else and think that it is easy to replicate. So many of the successful systems that one looks at are difficult to replicate because they involve excellent people who have shown leadership and built successful teams. That is not impossible to clone—it is not impossible to have a system—but we have to realise that it is difficult. When the concept of Sure Start was originally introduced, we decided that we would go to the 500-most deprived communities in the land, but there was a big flaw in that approach because most poor children do not live in those 500 poorest communities. That is a dilemma for us all. It is more difficult than asking where the 500 poorest communities in Britain are. That does not work and there have to be more centres than that, which is why we moved to a figure of 3,500.

I think there are some ideological—no, not ideological, but intellectual—differences between us. When we looked into this issue in the final report, a couple of members of the Select Committee would have liked to have gone back to a smaller number of centres. I do not think that that was callous or because they wanted fewer centres; I think it was because they thought that we could probably do better over a period of time with 500 centres and that dissipating talent as a resource was dangerous. I disagreed with that, as did the majority of the Committee, on an all-party basis, because we thought that 3,500 was the number necessary to reach those poor children wherever they were in our country. There is a lot to learn and my worry is that the methods for assessing quality are not refined enough. I do not think that Ofsted has been good enough in the past; it has been improving but still more needs to be done in terms of assessing and spreading good practice.

One of the wonderful things about our Sure Start and children’s centres—I hope that people agree—is that they represent the end of looking at children in bits. Previously, we would look separately at a child’s health, stimulation and so on. In a Sure Start centre, for the first time, the assessment of all sorts of bits of their needs were brought together in one place, so that a child, for whom there might be a lot of pressures and challenges, was looked at holistically. That children’s centre was a one-stop shop where the child was evaluated and got the proper help. That is not always in a building. It is a matter of outreach, finding out which child needs the help, and giving it. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) that that is difficult, but it can be done.

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I disagree with the hon. Member for Bedford about resources. No one wants to waste resources, but we all know what will happen if Sure Start is cut by a significant percentage. I do not care so much about buildings, although having a building near a community which people can identify and get to is pretty important. If, as is the case in the constituencies of some of my colleagues, a children’s centre that used to have a substantial budget now has £25,000, not much can be done with that. It is all about resource.

I make a plea to the Secretary of State. He always says that cuts are necessary because of the economy and the dreadful things that the Labour Government did in connection with debt. He would say that, as we would probably do in his place. Those of us who care about children and about education want him to go into Cabinet as a bruiser and a thug, to bash the table and say, “I want a budget for my children and for the future of children in our country,” and to be much more physical about it. Sometimes I think he is a little too polite when he gets round that table.

3.21 pm

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman).

I oppose the motion moved by the shadow Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), and his assertion that local authorities are disinvesting in Sure Start centres. My local authority, Medway, has 19 Sure Start centres and all 19 are being kept open. Seven of them are in my constituency. There is a seven-year age gap between the centres in the two parts of the constituency. Medway, an excellent Conservative-run local authority, recognised that the centres were a valuable lifeline. It is always right for such decisions to be made by local authorities, because they know what goes on on the ground.

The seven Sure Start centres in my constituency include one at Burnt Oak school in Gillingham, which I attended back in 1984. It is a tough area where there are real social and economic problems. The Sure Start centre deals with those.

The shadow Secretary of State accepted that Sure Start centres were being kept open by local authorities across the country, but he asserted that they were only bricks and mortar, and that there was nothing substantive about them. He is wrong about that. If he comes to Medway, I will take him around our Sure Start centres, show him what they do, and show him that they are not just bricks and mortar. They hold drop-in sessions for parents and children, play activities with music and stories, ante-natal classes and baby clinics. The centres offer encouragement and support for parents thinking about training and finding new jobs. They have links with local schools and voluntary agencies. They provide information and advice on breast feeding, speech and language therapy, and parenting classes. That is what goes on.

The shadow Secretary of State may acknowledge that Conservative authorities show no inclination to close Sure Start centres and that it would be wrong to assert otherwise, but he asserts that they are just bricks and mortar. They are not. The Government and

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Conservative authorities such as mine in Medway are committed to keeping those Sure Start centres and helping the most vulnerable to get the best start in life.

The role of central Government is crucial, in partnership with local authorities. We are discussing the extra funding and resources that may be made available in future for two-year-olds, but it is not something that will happen only in the future. I have a letter from the Department for Education dated 31 March—[Interruption.] Maybe the shadow Secretary of State is not putting his questions properly or succinctly, and that is why he is not getting answers. The letter is addressed to the authority to which I referred, Medway, and it states:

“I would like to thank you for the bid that you submitted to test out effective approaches to the expansion of free early education for two year olds and to improve provision for three and four year olds. We are pleased to confirm that your bid has been successful.”

So it is not just about the future. It is about this Government. Within the first 12 months they have expanded facilities for two, three and four-year-olds. That is why I say that in partnership with local authorities, which do an excellent job, the Government are committed to supporting early years provision for our young children in the most difficult and deprived areas, which I certainly represent in Gillingham and Rainham.

The hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) spoke about deprivation up north. She may have her experiences of deprivation, but in my constituency there is a seven-year difference in life expectancy between one part of the constituency and another. I grew up in that constituency and in that deprived area, and still live there. We in the south have high levels of deprivation. The discussion should not be about north or south. Wherever there is deprivation, help must be provided. I will work with the hon. Lady on that.

Of course Sure Start centres are crucial to help early years development, but the role of the voluntary sector should not be forgotten. For example, Contact a Family helps to support 300,000 families with disabled children. It is right and proper that we recognise the excellent work that it does. The state, local government and the voluntary sector each have a role, and should work together in partnership.

I recognise that brevity is a virtue, not a vice, so I shall be brief. Many of those who work at Sure Start centres or who want to work with the voluntary sector are hindered by bureaucracy. For example, those who work with children in the early years must have qualified teacher and early years professional status. There are not many in the voluntary sector who have such qualifications. I welcome the Government’s commitment to review that requirement. There are many people out there who want to work with our young ones through the big society and the voluntary sector to give them the best start in life.

I welcome the support given by central and local government. I pay tribute to the excellent workers in our Sure Start centres. They are dedicated and committed, and they need that support. They also need freedom from bureaucracy. It is right that the Government should review the requirement for Sure Start centres to be open for 40 hours a week, although there may not be a need for that and those resources could be used elsewhere on the front line. I support the Government’s provisions and proposals, and disagree with the shadow Secretary of State’s motion and assertions.

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3.28 pm

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): I want to talk briefly about the cumulative effect of cuts to the organisations that make up the sum of Sure Start provision, because Sure Start is not just about child care; the best centres provide so much more.

Meadowbank in my constituency provides support for families in one of the most deprived wards in Wigan. It provides not only the usual support for parenting and child care, but all sorts of educational provision for mums and dads, encouraging them to improve their basic literacy and numeracy and to get back into formal learning. Those courses are at risk, however, because of cuts to further education funding.

The centre works in partnership with the Connexions service to support young people into employment, and Connexions is not—or perhaps I should say, was not—just about careers advice; it was also about providing opportunities for young people to build their confidence and skills and to undertake different work experience. Money was available to provide bespoke opportunities to help the hardest to reach into employment, training or education, but Connexions funding is part of the early intervention grant, so it is disappearing as we speak. Thousands of Connexions workers were made redundant on 31 March, and many thousands more have received letters to say that they are at risk of redundancy.

Meadowbank also provides sexual health services to young people and to their parents, services that are at risk due to the cuts in teenage pregnancy and health service funding. Teenage pregnancy funding was also put into the early intervention grant pot. Meadowbank has worked with the youth service to provide informal education to children and young people, but guess what? Youth service funding is also part of the early intervention grant and faces savage cuts. I truly hope that Meadowbank stays open, but it will not be able to provide the services that it did 12 months ago.

Sure Start centres in other parts of my constituency have run out of libraries—libraries that are at risk of closure because of the disproportionate cuts that the Tory-led Government have made to local authorities in the north-west. That in turn puts Sure Start services at risk.

I was always taught that you cannot get a quart into a pint pot, or indeed a quart out of a pint pot, but the Secretary of State seems to think that you can. He has put a range of funding streams into the early intervention grants, and forgive me but I am going to list them. They are Sure Start children’s centres; early years sustainability; the two-year-old offer; the disabled children short breaks programme; the January guarantee; Connexions; the child trust fund; Think Family; the youth opportunity fund; the youth crime action plan; the challenge and support project; the children’s fund; positive activities for young people; the youth taskforce; the young people’s substance misuse service; the teenage pregnancy service; key stage 4 foundation learning; the targeted mental health in schools programme; ContactPoint; the children’s social care work force; and the intensive intervention fund. I think that I have listed them all, but I may well have missed some.

The Secretary of State says that Sure Start funding has been increased, and I suppose that we could say that—if we agreed to get rid of every other programme

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funded by the early intervention grant. That is impossible, of course, because of the statutory duty to provide many of those services, but it is also unwise, because of the work that service providers actually do.

It is time for honesty in this debate. Funding to all the areas now covered by the early intervention grant has been cut, so funding for Sure Start has also been reduced.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that this is all about political will? In Nottinghamshire, where we too have had great cuts in Government money, not only have we ensured that we do not need to close a single one of our 58 Sure Start centres, but in Awsworth in my constituency we have actually opened one. It is about political will—balancing the budget, cutting bureaucracy and getting into the reserves. Does she not agree?

Julie Hilling: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I do not know how Nottingham manages to get a quart out of a pint pot, but when we look at a £50 per head cut and, in Wigan, a £60 per head cut in funding, we find that it is impossible to keep all the services open. We only have to look at the faces of councillors and council leaders in Bolton and Wigan to see the difficulty that they have in trying to support existing services. Bolton has to find £42 million of cuts this year. How on earth is it supposed to do that? Over two years, one quarter of its budget will be cut.

Anna Soubry: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Julie Hilling: No, let me finish my point.

Bolton and Wigan will not—I hope—close any of their Sure Start centres. They are at risk because of the cuts to libraries and other services, but my overall point is that the other services which make up the Sure Start project will be cut: youth services will be cut, Connexions will be cut and teenage pregnancy funding will be cut. All those services will be cut because the Tory-led Government have savagely cut their grants to local authorities.

Anna Soubry: And those cuts would have been made if the hon. Lady’s party had been elected, because her party would have had to make cuts of at least 20%. So will she answer me this, please? How would her local council have implemented the budget had there been a Labour Government with 20%-plus cuts?

Julie Hilling: I am absolutely delighted to answer that question, because Bolton council prepared for £15 million of cuts this year—the amount that the Labour Government told the authority that it was likely to face. It was therefore facing £60 million of cuts over four years. No doubt, that money was difficult to find, but the council now has to find £60 million of cuts over two years, and potentially another £30 million after that. With £15 million of cuts, would life have been hard? Yes, life would have been difficult, but instead of that it has to find £42 million of cuts.

Andy Burnham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because I can, I hope, give the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) an answer and support what my hon. Friend is saying. Let us look at the range of the per-child cuts under the early intervention grant this year. In a number of authorities, such as Kingston

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upon Thames and Hampshire, they start from £30 per head for every person under 20. Let us turn to some of the authorities that my hon. Friend mentioned. The cut for Wigan is £60 per head, while for Liverpool—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. The right hon. Gentleman is supposed to be making an intervention, and we are coming towards the end of the debate.

Julie Hilling: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I look forward to my right hon. Friend giving more of that information.

It is utterly unacceptable that the Government should be playing a game that says that local authorities have the funding and are therefore making the choice. The Government have cut funding to local authorities and have cut the pot of money that is funding Sure Start. They are wrong to do so and they should reconsider their decisions to harm families, children and young people struggling for survival in the dark days of high unemployment and ever-rising costs of living.

Finally, it is not enough to say that Sure Start centres will remain open. The question must be about what services remain and whether they are of the quality and quantity that prevailed previously. The answer, too often, is a resounding no. The Government should rethink their decision and truly look at how they can support children and families, without saying that the money exists within local authorities to do that, when patently it does not.

3.36 pm

Ben Gummer (Ipswich) (Con): I have to profess that I am underwhelmed by the motion. It asks, in the end, for the Secretary of State to monitor the evidence. The Opposition do not ask for the closures of half the Sure Start centres in the country to be reversed, but that was the threat put before the electorate at the last election.

As I mentioned earlier, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) was in my constituency during the last election. I confronted her at the entrance to the Tree House Sure Start centre. She shouted at me that centres in Ipswich would be closed within months of the general election. What has happened? Not only has every centre stayed open, but two new ones have opened. The services have been protected because of the decisions of the Conservative county council, which faces £90 million-worth of cuts over the next two years, and because of the strength of will of Councillor Graham Newman, who leads the children’s and young people’s services there.

Suffolk shows how it can be done. The shadow Secretary of State suggests that the centres are hollowed out. Last week I was at the Tree House centre, on the anniversary of that altercation with the right hon. and learned Lady. I went inside with Claire Ball, the manager of the centre. It is true that parts of the organisation of Sure Start centres are having to be remodelled, but Claire Ball is introducing new services and the county council is excited about the possibilities in the Health and Social Care Bill, which will allow it to integrate social services yet further within Sure Start centres.

I assure the shadow Secretary of State that every centre is staying open. Perhaps he will tell that to the right hon. and learned Lady. I have written to her and

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confirmed that she has not apologised for the smear that she made. Every centre has stayed open and the services are being improved and increased.

That bears testament to the passion that Government Members feel for Sure Start. It is telling that more Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members are attending this Opposition day debate than Labour Members. I exempt the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) from that criticism. I do not want to embarrass him once again by mentioning him, but he has driven many people on both sides of the Chamber into politics. Having been discouraged from this vocation from perhaps too close a connection with it, he was the one person who saved it in my mind.

The genesis of the right hon. Gentleman’s idea is to have a broader universal service, with funding targeted at those who need it most, to repair the damage of decades of failure—not dreamt of or created by anyone deliberately—in communities across the country. The failure has been of a structural welfare state that does not support families and does not, at times, support communities. That failure was not designed, but it has happened. We are in the process of re-stitching together communities, and Sure Start is part of that.

May I ask the Secretary of State and Ministers to address two things that could be improved? We need proper longitudinal studies through Sure Start into primary education so that we can understand the evidence, but there are blocks in data protection which prevent that from happening. Primary school teachers would very much welcome better co-ordination with Sure Start managers and assistants, and they could do that better if data protection rules were relaxed. It would also be useful to be able to encourage a greater diversity of providers so that we can share best practice across the country.

Conservative Members are passionately in favour of Sure Start, and that is why it is such a pleasure to see it flourishing in my constituency under this Government.

3.40 pm

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): This debate, like others before it, has shown the strength of feeling in this House that the children of this country deserve the very best.

Let us be clear about why we are here today. The Government’s mandate was to protect and improve the Sure Start network; instead, they have done the opposite and put centres up and down the country at risk of cutback and closure. There is no way in which Ministers can hide behind the favourite line we hear of late that this is a coalition and manifestos do not count. It is not the case that the Tories wanted to abolish Sure Start and the Lib Dems heroically stood their ground with the Business Secretary wielding his secret weapon menacingly, because the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and every single Member sat opposite me today were elected on a promise to protect and build on the Sure Start centre network. The fact that they have done the opposite represents yet another broken promise to the British people.

I was always brought up to think that when someone breaks a promise, the least one can expect is an apology. This debate gave the Secretary of State a chance not only to apologise to the parents, carers and children who will suffer because of his broken promise but to

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make amends for it. Our motion gives Ministers an opportunity to say to all the parents who are fighting tooth and nail up and down the country to save their children’s centres, “We are sorry; we will keep our promise.” Ministers have said in this Chamber that there is enough money in the early intervention grant to maintain and improve Sure Start. In the comprehensive spending review, the Chancellor told us that there is £1.135 billion every year throughout this Parliament. If that were true, they would have no problem in voting for the motion, but they will not do so. The Minister will no doubt cite the localism agenda. Decisions should be taken locally, he will say—but these should be decisions about how to improve outcomes for children rather than where to cut inputs. In this case, localism is not about who makes the decisions but about who takes the blame.

Reinstating the ring fence is not a panacea, but it would bring back the stability and security that the Sure Start network needs. It would let managers and staff concentrate on how to deliver the improvements that we all want in children’s centres rather than forcing them to focus on financial fire-fighting year in, year out. Parents would have the sense of security, which they do not have at the moment, that their local centre would be there from the moment their child is born right up until they started school. We would have a sign that the Government are listening to all the advice that they have sought—not least from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), whose excellent speech we heard earlier, and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen)—and that they are taking early education and early intervention seriously. It would also mean that we would not be left with situations such as those in Tory-controlled Hampshire, which is facing 35% budget cuts; Liberal Democrat-led Hull, with its smoke and mirrors and 50% cuts; and Tory-led Hammersmith and Fulham, which has a strange hub-and-spoke model where the spokes are buildings with a caretaker and a bottle of bleach. A building running on £25,000 a year or less is not a Sure Start children’s centre—it is just a building.

We are giving Ministers a chance to increase their popularity with parents—and not just the Toby Youngs of this world, either: parents such as those I met on mother’s day outside Downing street, who were handing in petitions from all over the country that, on that day alone, contained 52,000 signatures; parents such as the ones who came to the Sure Start seminar in Parliament, which was hosted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham); parents such as those I met recently with my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), who are fighting Tory-controlled Derby city council over its plans to close or cut centres; and parents such as those I have met on doorsteps over the past few weeks in Sheffield, York, Peterborough, Gravesham, Newcastle and Sunderland in my own constituency. No matter where one goes, the view is the same: the Government are letting down families and attacking social mobility at every stage of a child’s life.

We have heard a lot today about Hampshire. The debate has done a real service in exposing the cynicism of some Conservative councils. We heard the surprise news that a last-minute extraordinary meeting was called in Hampshire yesterday, although a final decision is not

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due until 24 May. That is a blatantly cynical move to get through the local election period. The council is still cutting £6 million from the budget, which will cut right to the heart of the service. One of the petitions handed into Downing street on mother’s day was from Hampshire, and another petition signed by 22,000 parents was handed in on 18 April by 50 mums from Hampshire. That may well have led to yesterday’s U-turn. Twenty-eight centres were earmarked for closure or serious cuts, and there was a legal challenge to the rushed consultation.

Caroline Dinenage: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs Hodgson: You have already spoken, thank you.

We announced the subject of this Opposition day debate last week, just before the bank holiday weekend. The fact that an extraordinary meeting was called over a bank holiday weekend and hastily arranged for the other side of the weekend is very telling. I am sure that the tens of thousands of parents in Hampshire who signed the two petitions were happy when they heard the news, as we were when we heard it today. However, the news is bitter-sweet. Although we are told that no centres will close, they face a 35% budget cut: going from £17 million to £11 million is a £6 million cut, which is huge. A £6 million cut is much more than just the streamlining of services, and parents know that. They use the services, and will notice if they are taken away or diminished. Indeed, on the Facebook page for the Hampshire children’s centres campaign, this is not seen as a U-turn or a great victory. The group is still campaigning, because it is deeply worried about the £6 million cut and the effect it will have on children’s centres. It says that the campaign goes on.

The Secretary of State loves playing to the gallery, so why will he not give the people what they want and say that he will consider bringing back the ring fence? After all, it would be a nice boost for all those Tory and Lib Dem candidates who are struggling on the doorstep. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, who is one of the most knowledgeable people in this area, challenged the non-ring-fencing of this vital area of expenditure and said that the Government should change their attitude to non-ring-fencing. That is strong stuff from a highly respected expert in the area. I hope that the Government pay heed to that.

It is not as if the Secretary of State has not had practice at backing down. In fact, he is probably the most qualified person in the Cabinet when it comes to U-turns, and that Cabinet includes the Deputy Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh laid bare at the beginning of the debate the reasons the Secretary of State probably will not back down and support the motion. He repeated the claims of Ministers that Sure Start funding is protected and showed that that simply is not true. There is not enough money to maintain the current network of children’s centres if Ministers expect councils to deliver all the other important programmes that the grant pays for, such as short breaks for disabled children. How can there be enough, when there has been a real-terms cut of 22% in the pot?

If I am wrong, why are centres closing or effectively being mothballed, and why are services being cut? If I am wrong, why would Ministers have a problem with the motion? But I am not wrong: they are, just as they have been wrong on Bookstart, on EMA, on the English

27 Apr 2011 : Column 231

baccalaureate and on Building Schools for the Future. They are the most incompetent Department in a shambolic Government, and the worst thing is that children’s lives are at stake.

I know that some Government Members do see the value of Sure Start and recognise the importance of protecting it, and we have heard from some of them today. My plea to those Members is simple: support the motion and show their constituents that they understand the priorities and concerns of ordinary, hard-working families, even if their Front-Bench colleagues do not.

3.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): What a debate we eventually had. I have to say that in almost 14 years in the House, I have never known such an anticlimax at the opening of an Opposition day debate as when the shadow Secretary of State spoke today, following his top billing in the press and his frenetic tweeting about this important motion and debate.

We were promised a grand tour d’horizon of local authorities taking the axe to children’s centres. After the shadow Secretary of State stated the blindingly obvious about Sure Start centres featuring in the top five most popular policies—and after reminding us of how former Prime Ministers had constantly scaremongered about Conservative policy on Sure Start—he tantalised us with the prospect of “getting to the bottom of the facts on the ground”. He started tentatively with the mention of Derby, where, allegedly, some six Sure Start centres could be threatened. That went unchallenged.

We then heard about Hammersmith and Fulham, where, in fact, a new Sure Start centre has been opened. We briefly heard mention of Barnet and Bromley, and then we went on to Hampshire, where we were told no fewer than 28 Sure Start children’s centres were going to be closed—until it was pointed out that in fact not a single one is going to be closed or ever was going to be. Yet when challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), the shadow Secretary of State said that he did not read the Hampshire daily press.

The right hon. Gentleman then came up with the absurd claim that Hampshire council had deliberately performed a U-turn because it felt so threatened and intimidated by the prospect of today’s Opposition day debate that it had to climb down. Then we heard that it was all about electioneering in Hampshire, despite the fact that Hampshire county council, which runs the Sure Start centres, does not have any elections this year. If any local authority was so fickle as to base its policy on the prospect of a 46-minute, lacklustre, misinformed, misfired and opportunistic speech by the shadow Secretary of State, I would want my money back if I was a council tax payer in that authority’s area.

Even when the right hon. Gentleman had been well and truly rumbled, was there a word of apology, a hint of retraction, a whimper of humility? Not a murmur. Indeed, he went on to repeat his calumny later in his speech. And that was it—that was the tour d’horizon around the United Kingdom. He then quickly shunted off into the sidings with an attack on the right hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) on EMA, tuition fees and AV, none of which features in the motion. It was 46 minutes of gloomy and mostly unfounded predictions—what a dead loss of an opportunity.

27 Apr 2011 : Column 232

Perhaps we can see the reason for that lost opportunity. Although the shadow Secretary of State is not a reader of local media in Hampshire or elsewhere, as we have found out, he is certainly an enthusiast for Twitter. The basis for today’s debate was his tweet of 25 April, when he proudly announced:

“Labour has called debate on Sure Start & Tory/Lib Dem broken promises this Weds. Tell me which local egs you think we should highlight.”

I looked, and not many people tweeted back. There was a tweet from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) about Sure Start centres, but that was it. From what I can make out, answers came there none, although the right hon. Gentleman does appear to have had at least one fan.

What an anticlimax from the mover of the motion. However, his scaremongering was soon eclipsed by the news from the Government Back Benches about yet more local authorities pledging to keep their children’s centres open, even over and above those on the list recently surveyed by 4Children and the Daycare Trust. Northamptonshire is adding an early attachment expertise centre, West Sussex is not closing any Sure Start centres and Ipswich is adding two, despite the scandalous observations and scaremongering of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) that half of them would disappear if we won the election. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) that a centre opened recently in her constituency.

This is an important debate on an important subject. Clearly, there is all-party support for retaining a network of children’s centres, which has never been in doubt, as every Back-Bench contribution made clear. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) went on about the importance of children’s centres, but as usual got his figures wrong—he completely ignored the revenue streams for children’s centres apart from the local authority stream.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) rightly said that there were no killer statistics in the motion. What is the Opposition’s alternative? What would they cut?

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), who has returned to the Chamber, made a rather arrogant speech. He thinks that Manchester, and he as a Manchester representative, have a monopoly on deprivation. However, I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), who said that multiple deprivation is the same whether it is in the north, the south or any other part of England. If wards with multiple deprivation in my constituency had a fraction of the funding that wards in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, had, they would be much happier than they are now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport, having skilfully rumbled the shadow Secretary of State, showed how Sure Start centres can transform the lives of our constituents. As usual, that skilful, well-informed paragon of reasonableness—the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field)—made a very important point about ring-fencing and payment by results. His point on the latter was absolutely right. The question we should ask is this: are more children being made school-ready as a result of spending on children’s centres? He is right that payment should flow on that basis.

27 Apr 2011 : Column 233

I hope that we do not need to ring-fence money. Rather, I hope that local authorities spend money and do the right thing in the interests of their constituents. They are best placed to decide on that, and I do not want to ring-fence money if their decisions produce the right results.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) spoke of our shared commitment to children’s centres, but why do only some councils choose to close children’s centres while others manage not to do so? Why are some councils adding to their reserves rather than trimming back on overheads before they look to trim spending on Sure Start?

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who as we all know has form on early intervention, made an important point about the strong correlation with those not in education, employment or training. He said that much of the thinking on early intervention and Sure Start is backed by empirical research, which is what we want. The Government are interested in qualitative research on the outcomes of children’s centres. The entire Opposition argument is based on quantitative analysis and figures. The Government want better Sure Start centres, producing better services for better effects on the children who desperately need them, particularly those from the most deprived communities.

Let me be clear yet again that this coalition Government are 100% committed to Sure Start. We always have been. Early years is a priority, and Sure Start has proven itself as a programme that has the capacity to be life changing. We have no intention of forgetting that; on the contrary, we want to build on the success of Sure Start and to put it at the heart of our approach to early intervention. We want to narrow gaps in achievement and improve social mobility, which the previous Government singularly failed to do as they presided over an unprecedented widening of the poverty gap.

However, this Government believe that the best way to do that is through greater local decision making and accountability, greater involvement of organisations that have proven expertise in service delivery, and the greater use of evidence-based intervention. We want children’s centres to provide the foundation for stronger earlier support, retaining a network of children’s centres that offers universal services that are accessible to all families, but with targeted support for those families who are in greatest need.

This coalition Government are 100% committed to Sure Start children’s centres, but reform is needed to make them more effective in providing a universal service that is focused more effectively on families in greatest need. This Government, however, have an approach to reform that is radically different from that of the previous Government. Children’s centres need to have more flexibility to do more to help the families in the greatest need, to involve a greater diversity of providers and to be more accountable to local communities. There are no easy solutions or quick fixes, but it is time we trusted local authorities to make the right decisions for local people—we do, but Labour does not, and that is why I urge the House to vote against this opportunistic motion.

Question put.

27 Apr 2011 : Column 234

The House divided:

Ayes 207, Noes 312.

Division No. 259]

[4 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Anderson, Mr David

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Balls, rh Ed

Barron, rh Mr Kevin

Bayley, Hugh

Beckett, rh Margaret

Begg, Dame Anne

Bell, Sir Stuart

Benn, rh Hilary

Benton, Mr Joe

Berger, Luciana

Betts, Mr Clive

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Blunkett, rh Mr David

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, rh Mr Gordon

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Bryant, Chris

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burnham, rh Andy

Byrne, rh Mr Liam

Campbell, Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Caton, Martin

Chapman, Mrs Jenny

Clarke, rh Mr Tom

Clwyd, rh Ann

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Connarty, Michael

Cooper, rh Yvette

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crausby, Mr David

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Cunningham, Tony

Curran, Margaret

Dakin, Nic

Danczuk, Simon

Darling, rh Mr Alistair

David, Mr Wayne

Davidson, Mr Ian

De Piero, Gloria

Denham, rh Mr John

Dobbin, Jim

Dobson, rh Frank

Docherty, Thomas

Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M.

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Doran, Mr Frank

Dowd, Jim

Dromey, Jack

Eagle, Ms Angela

Eagle, Maria

Edwards, Jonathan

Efford, Clive

Elliott, Julie

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Engel, Natascha

Esterson, Bill

Field, rh Mr Frank

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flynn, Paul

Fovargue, Yvonne

Gapes, Mike

Gardiner, Barry

Gilmore, Sheila

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Godsiff, Mr Roger

Goggins, rh Paul

Goodman, Helen

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Hamilton, Fabian

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harris, Mr Tom

Havard, Mr Dai

Healey, rh John

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Hermon, Lady

Heyes, David

Hillier, Meg

Hilling, Julie

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hoey, Kate

Hood, Mr Jim

Hopkins, Kelvin

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jackson, Glenda

Jarvis, Dan

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Jones, Mr Kevan

Jones, Susan Elan

Joyce, Eric

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lammy, rh Mr David

Lavery, Ian

Lazarowicz, Mark

Leslie, Chris

Lloyd, Tony

Llwyd, rh Mr Elfyn

Love, Mr Andrew

Lucas, Caroline

Lucas, Ian

MacShane, rh Mr Denis

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Mr Khalid

Mahmood, Shabana

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCann, Mr Michael

McCarthy, Kerry

McClymont, Gregg

McDonagh, Siobhain

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGovern, Alison

McGovern, Jim

McKinnell, Catherine

Meale, Mr Alan

Mearns, Ian

Michael, rh Alun

Miliband, rh Edward

Miller, Andrew

Mitchell, Austin

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morris, Grahame M.


Mudie, Mr George

Murphy, rh Mr Jim

Murphy, rh Paul

Onwurah, Chi

Owen, Albert

Pearce, Teresa

Phillipson, Bridget

Pound, Stephen

Qureshi, Yasmin

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reeves, Rachel

Reynolds, Emma

Riordan, Mrs Linda

Robertson, John

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Mr Frank

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Joan

Sarwar, Anas

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Shuker, Gavin

Singh, Mr Marsha

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Angela

Spellar, rh Mr John

Straw, rh Mr Jack

Stringer, Graham

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Thornberry, Emily

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Derek

Twigg, Stephen

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, Valerie

Walley, Joan

Watson, Mr Tom

Watts, Mr Dave

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Wicks, rh Malcolm

Wilson, Phil

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wood, Mike

Woodcock, John

Woodward, rh Mr Shaun

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mark Hendrick and

Mr David Hamilton


Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Amess, Mr David

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Bacon, Mr Richard

Bagshawe, Ms Louise

Baker, Norman

Baker, Steve

Baldry, Tony

Baldwin, Harriett

Barclay, Stephen

Barker, Gregory

Baron, Mr John

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Benyon, Richard

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Blackman, Bob

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Brake, Tom

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Mr Steve

Brokenshire, James

Brooke, Annette

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, Fiona

Bruce, rh Malcolm

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burley, Mr Aidan

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burstow, Paul

Burt, Lorely

Byles, Dan

Cable, rh Vince

Campbell, rh Sir Menzies

Carmichael, Neil

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Cash, Mr William

Chishti, Rehman

Clappison, Mr James

Clark, rh Greg

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Crabb, Stephen

Crouch, Tracey

Davey, Mr Edward

Davies, David T. C.


Davies, Philip

Davis, rh Mr David

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dorrell, rh Mr Stephen

Dorries, Nadine

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duncan, rh Mr Alan

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Dunne, Mr Philip

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evans, Jonathan

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Fallon, Michael

Farron, Tim

Featherstone, Lynne

Field, Mr Mark

Foster, rh Mr Don

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freer, Mike

Fuller, Richard

Gale, Mr Roger

Garnier, Mr Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gilbert, Stephen

Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Gove, rh Michael

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Green, Damian

Greening, Justine

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Hague, rh Mr William

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hammond, rh Mr Philip

Hammond, Stephen

Hands, Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Harvey, Nick

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Hayes, Mr John

Heald, Mr Oliver

Heath, Mr David

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Howell, John

Hughes, rh Simon

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Hunter, Mark

Huppert, Dr Julian

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Javid, Sajid

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Mr Greg

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Laing, Mrs Eleanor

Lancaster, Mark

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Latham, Pauline

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Leech, Mr John

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leigh, Mr Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian

Lidington, rh Mr David

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lloyd, Stephen

Lopresti, Jack

Loughton, Tim

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Main, Mrs Anne

Maude, rh Mr Francis

May, rh Mrs Theresa

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Karl

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McPartland, Stephen

McVey, Esther

Menzies, Mark

Mercer, Patrick

Metcalfe, Stephen

Miller, Maria

Mills, Nigel

Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew

Moore, rh Michael

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, Nicky

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mulholland, Greg

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Neill, Robert

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

O'Brien, Mr Stephen

Offord, Mr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Ottaway, Richard

Paice, rh Mr James

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Pawsey, Mark

Penning, Mike

Penrose, John

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pugh, John

Raab, Mr Dominic

Randall, rh Mr John

Reckless, Mark

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reevell, Simon

Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, Hugh

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rogerson, Dan

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Russell, Bob

Rutley, David

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Shepherd, Mr Richard

Simmonds, Mark

Simpson, Mr Keith

Smith, Miss Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Smith, Sir Robert

Soames, Nicholas

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Stuart, Mr Graham

Sturdy, Julian

Swales, Ian

Swayne, Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Swire, rh Mr Hugo

Syms, Mr Robert

Tapsell, Sir Peter

Thurso, John

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Tredinnick, David

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vickers, Martin

Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa

Walker, Mr Charles

Ward, Mr David

Watkinson, Angela

Weatherley, Mike

Webb, Steve

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Willetts, rh Mr David

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Gavin

Willott, Jenny

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, Simon

Yeo, Mr Tim

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr Shailesh Vara and

Jeremy Wright

Question accordingly negatived.

27 Apr 2011 : Column 235

27 Apr 2011 : Column 236

27 Apr 2011 : Column 237

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): I now have to announce the results of the deferred Division on the question relating to short selling. The Ayes were 287 and the Noes were 20, so the Ayes have it.

[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]

27 Apr 2011 : Column 238

Higher Education Policy

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): I remind the House that because of the large number of Members wanting to participate in this debate, there is an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

4.15 pm

Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House condemns the failure of the Government to deliver the commitment made to Parliament that £9,000 a year student fees would be ‘exceptional’; further notes that the Office of Fair Access (OFFA) has said that it has no powers to set university fees or determine university admissions policies; notes with alarm the warning of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills that average fees higher than £7,500 would mean reducing student numbers or further cutting university teaching funding; condemns the failure of Ministers to explain their policies by publishing a Higher Education White Paper; believes that Ministers are putting at risk the success of universities and the future of generations of students; further believes that current policies are unfair, unnecessary and unsustainable; and therefore calls on Ministers, as soon as practicable, to set out to Parliament how they will meet the promise that fees of £9,000 will only be in exceptional circumstances, to guarantee that there will be no fall in the number of university places or further cuts to university teaching budgets, and to outline what powers, if any, they propose for OFFA on determining fee levels and enforcing access arrangements.

I am glad to see the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in his place, although I understand that he is not following the usual courtesy of responding to my opening remarks. I am nevertheless grateful to him for attending the debate.

I make no apology for raising for the third time in an Opposition day debate the dismal record of this Secretary of State and the Minister for Universities and Science on university fees. Nothing is more important to this country’s future than the rising generation of young people, including all those who are working hard as we speak on their GCSEs and A-levels. We owe it to them to give them the best opportunities, to make the most of their talents, the most of their abilities, the most of their willingness to work hard and do the best for themselves. All of us depend on them to ensure that, through their innovation and creativity, this country can pay its way in the world and create jobs in the future. Despite fashionable sneers, we need more people, not fewer, educated at a higher level. That is what is happening in every country with which we compete. Young people will benefit from their higher education, but so will the rest of us. That is why our young people deserve a fair deal and good opportunities.

Under the last Labour Government, the number of students in English universities increased by almost 380,000, and 51% of young women now go to university. Now, however, the ladders of opportunity are being kicked away. The education maintenance allowance has been scrapped, and Aimhigher, which persuaded countless young people that they could go to university, has been scrapped. Sir Peter Lampl of the renowned Sutton Trust said:

“I think these fees are going to put a lot of children from lower and middle-income homes off universities.”

A poll today shows that more than half of final-year students at 14 Russell group universities in England would not have enrolled if annual fees had been £9,000.