As Shadow Minister for Children and Families, Sharon wrapped up a 3 hour debate on Sure Start called by HM Opposition.
The debate was on the following motion: That this House believes that improving the life chances of children and young people from all backgrounds should be central to Government policy; recognises that the Sure Start network of 3,600 Children's Centres, introduced by the previous administration, is crucial in delivering high quality early education and early intervention for children, as well as support, advice and specialist services for parents and carers; notes that the funding to local authorities for the Early Intervention Grant in 2011-12 represents a real terms cut of 22.4 per cent. nationally, compared to the 2010-11 allocations before in-year cuts to area based grants; recognises that, in the context of this cut to early intervention funding, the large, front-loaded cuts to other local authority funding streams, and the removal of the ring-fence around Sure Start funding, Sure Start Children's Centres will inevitably be put at risk; notes that before the General Election the Prime Minister promised to protect and strengthen Sure Start; and therefore calls on the Government to protect the Sure Start network of Children's Centres by thinking again about their deep cuts to Sure Start funding, to monitor the evidence and, if local authorities are choosing to disinvest in Sure Start centres, to commit to reinstating the ring-fence for Sure Start funding to ensure that vital and valued services are not lost.
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 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 when 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 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 we 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 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.