Sharon was invited to address the Children's Centres in Crisis Symposium, organised by the Pen Green Children's Centre and Research Base in Corby, Northamptonshire.
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Thank you Polly,
I should thank you actually, both for giving up your time to be here today as well as being such a good advocate for Children's Centres through your column.
I must admit, I have been quite disappointed by the lack of interest shown by the national press in the sheer scale of the problems Sure Start is facing, and you have been one of the leading exceptions to that.
Giving a speech in front of journalists is sometimes a risky business - especially when you're a relatively new front-bencher - but I know the reason that Polly is here today is because she is a passionate believer in the value of Sure Start and early education, and she, as much as any of us, wants to try to get the government to row back on their frankly destructive policies.
I would also like to thank all of you for coming along today too.
It's really great to see so many early years professionals and leaders come together to discuss the future of the services you provide, and in turn to the people you provide them to, and in many cases, in co-operation with.
Thank you also to Margy for inviting me to speak to you at this symposium today - and especially for allowing me to stay for lunch.
I don't think I've ever been to a symposium - I looked it up and apparently it's the name Ancient Greeks used for wild drinking parties.
I'm not sure if that's part of the buffet lunch, Margy? I've got to go campaign in Barnsley later on so I might have to skip that part.
Apparently at these symposia they used to pour some wine on the ground out of respect for departed relatives - perhaps we can do that for every children's centre that's under threat.
Although that would be a bit of a waste, I suppose.
Now, I'm sure you all know Margy, but it would be remiss of me to come here and not pay tribute to her work.
Over the past forty years, Margy has made an outstanding contribution to childcare development, not only here in England, but in far-flung reaches of the globe too.
Margy founded this place in 1983, and has developed it into the most well-respected and pioneering children's centre in England - a model for others to follow but also an incubator for best practice, research and innovation.
She has rightly been called on to advise government on numerous policies and initiatives, and
I hope that that is continuing or will continue under this new government, however much she may disagree with what the present Ministers are doing.
I'll stop now because you obviously know all this, but I just wanted to put on record my gratitude for her past contribution and for helping me in my first months in this job, and I'm sure we'll continue to work together going forward.
I'd also like to thank Margy for coming to and speaking at an event that I organised in Parliament yesterday.
She brought along a couple of the fathers who use Pen Green too, one of whom - Willy - sat on the panel and was the star of the show for my money.
He told the assembled MPs and Peers about the impact that this centre has had on his life, the lives of his children, and the lives of his friends and their children.
I'm not sure if he's here today, but one of the things he said really stuck with me: "Everything good in my life in the last 5 years has been down to Pen Green Children's Centre" - an incredibly powerful comment.
That is the business you are in, though - genuinely changing lives, making them better for the families of today, and in turn the adults of tomorrow.
I was able to put Willy's comment to Sarah Teather in a debate we had on Children's Centres in the Commons later on.
Unfortunately I don't think she was listening at the time - or for most of what I and other MPs were saying.
Without wanting to be too personal and political - this issue concerns people of all political colours and none - it is galling to see how glib and flippant and downright ignorant she can be when debating such important matters, and when MPs are telling her their genuine concerns about the families in their constituencies.
At one point she told a colleague of mine who is the MP for Sefton to calm down and not get over excited when he was trying to make a point, to which he replied that he had every reason to be vocal and passionate about such an important matter.
We didn't hear anything new from the Minister unfortunately, who seemed to spend most of her time yesterday complaining about how she didn't have enough time to say what she had to say.
Well I didn't have as much time as I could have used either - given the chance I'd have been on my feet for however long it would have taken me to list the cuts to every local authority, and reading out all the reports of the implications of those cuts, and listing all the reasons why this is such a bad idea.
But whatever we say, and however forcefully we make these points, we get nothing from them apart from blank looks - and I really think that isn't good enough.
Instead of me being here today it should really be the Minister, although the title of the event may have scared her off a little!
She might even be frightened of Margy - in fact, I'm sure she probably is. I would be if I was in her shoes.
Value of sure start
I've met enough early years professionals to know that I don't need to talk you through all the research that backs that up - I know that you have an almost unparalleled appetite for reading up on and keeping on top of new research, new techniques and developments.
You know about the educational advantages, you know about the improvements in parenting and parent-child relationships, you know about the improvements in health and lifestyles.
You know about all that because you see these children and these parents every day, and you deliver those improvements.
I'd probably be here all day if I was to go through all the reports and research out there, so I won't.
Suffice to say, some of the most compelling things I have heard have been from parents and staff, such as Willy who I mentioned earlier.
Above all else, it is parents that the government should be listening to, because it is parents who fully understand what goes on in Centres
They could even tell government how Children's Centres could be improved.
I'm proud of the achievements that we have made with Children's Centres, but I don't think anybody would say that the job has been done.
I'm sure if Margy was standing up now she could speak for a good few hours about what more could and should be done.
So what is the situation we are facing?
Well, it's certainly much worse than the government would have you believe.
They're constantly parroting this line that there's enough money in the early intervention grant to maintain the network of Children's Centres.
Well maybe, yes. But if councils were to maintain spending on Sure Start out of the new EIG funding they're getting, they'd have to cut the 20-odd other things that's supposed to pay for by up to 40%.
That could be breaks for disabled children, or programmes to combat teen pregnancy, or Family Intervention, or Targeted Mental Health in Schools - all of which, as is common across early intervention projects, save money in the long term.
We all know the old adage about a stitch in time - well, it appears that the Minister doesn't.
Council's maintaining their previous levels of funding into Children's Centres just isn't possible - a point I think I actually got Michael Gove to admit to yesterday.
We asked the House of Commons Library to do some calculations for us, and the average real terms cut to the EIG facing councils across England - over this year and the next two - is more than 18%.
That's more than £1.5bn that has been taken away from early intervention.
It's just so short-sighted - Children's Centres and the other programmes that will be paid for by the grant will pay for themselves many times over in the future - they should be seen as a vital investment in the future.
One of the really interesting things this research showed too was that the places suffering the biggest cuts - of over 21% - were places like Knowsley, Sefton, Wirral, and Sunderland.
When you then look and see places like Cambridgeshire, Richmond on Thames and Hampshire getting some of the smallest cuts, you start to wonder whether there wasn't an ulterior motive behind that.
The per head figures, which we put out yesterday, show that places like Islington, which I believe Polly will have a particular interest in have cuts of more than £100 per young person, compared to places like Buckinghamshire where they get away with cuts of £30 per young person.
The figures show a big difference to the rhetoric we keep hearing from the Government, which was repeated again yesterday in the debate in the Commons.
So how are councils going to deal with these cuts?
One of the most ridiculous stories I have heard is that of Hammersmith and Fulham, who have said that they're going to keep all of their centres open.
It sounds good, and it allows them to look good in the papers, or at least avoid the big headlines.
What they don't tell you though, and what you don't find out unless you have some kind of connection to what happens on the front line, is that more than half of their centres will be expected to operate on a budget of less than £20,000 a year.
£20,000 a year in one of London's priciest boroughs is barely enough to pay for the caretaker and their materials, let alone qualified, experienced early years staff who can devise and run programmes and make a real contribution to the lives of the children in those areas.
As was said in the seminar yesterday, it's a church hall service, and one which will put the children for whom those are their local centres at a significant disadvantage.
Although Hammersmith and Fulham are wealthy areas, there are pockets of real poverty.
Across the country, many of the poorest families live in areas you wouldn't associate with poverty - a lot of whom are within rural areas.
If the decision is taken by a local authority that Centres in better off areas should close, or be reduced to mere shells, to consolidate services in poorer areas, we risk missing those hidden families who need those same services just as much.
But it's not just Tory councils who are making cuts.
The few Labour-controlled authorities left are having to make exceptionally difficult decisions too, and in some cases, I'm sure they will take decisions that I wouldn't agree with.
The fact remains that if the Government had stuck by their word to protect Children's Centres;
if they had kept the ringfence;
if they kept up the funding, these councils wouldn't be faced with having to take such painful action.
We keep hearing from Ministers that local authorities have to consult before making any significant adjustment to Children's Centres in their area.
This is true, they do.
But what use is that consultation to anybody when the funding decisions are being made now, and are coming into effect in a month's time.
A consultation isn't going to produce any more money.
A consultation isn't going to produce a plan to deliver the same services for less money.
They're not a referendum on a decision, in many cases they're just a box-ticking exercise.
Hammersmith and Fulham is a case in point; I was at their budget approval meeting because I'd been campaigning against the closures with the local MP there.
They passed the massive cuts and job losses, but said they'd consult about it before April.
To be honest, I really wish my colleagues when we were in government had been able to foresee what a future Tory administration might do, and legislate in some way to make it harder for them to do it.
I think they tried to with the 2006 legislation, which provided the statutory duty for councils to consult on any changes.
But we are seeing decisions being taken before those consultations, so unless there is a test judicial review, councils will be able to get away with sidestepping that safeguard anyway.
So I think it's beyond any doubt that Children's Centres are in crisis at the moment, but what about the future?
The government have only published EIG allocations for the next two years, so we have no idea what's going to happen beyond that.
The electoral cycle might mean that we see increases in future years - who knows?
One thing's for sure, when centres close, that's pretty much it for them.
You can't just mothball them and break them out again a couple of years later close to the election.
Besides, without those ringfences coming back there's still no guarantee that councils will be able to pass on any increases to centres, or what is left of them.
So what will we in the Labour Party do?
Well, without knowing how the land will lie in 5 years time, or whenever an election is called, it's difficult to give too many promises for the future.
We are calling for the reinstatement of the ringfence to the Children's Centre budget, which we believe would solve the problem of closures.
However, that on its own will cause difficulties for the rest of the early intervention projects, as I said earlier.
So we need to decide within the party, in consultation with the sector and people like Margy, what we can responsibly commit to.
Unlike the present Government, my colleagues and I don't want to tell the public one thing before an election and do the opposite when we get in.
I will be fighting for as much commitment as possible, because, as I said earlier, I see investment in early years as a direct investment in the future of the country, which will pay for itself in the long run many times over.
In terms of the wider policy beyond spending, we are going through that consultation process at the moment.
We've got policy review groups being set up, which will be taking submissions from experts and interested parties, and we're running a series of public consultation events across the country so that the genuine concerns and needs of ordinary people can be reflected in the arguments we take to the Government.
The idea is to get things settled within a year or so, so if Margy wants to invite me back to talk to you again at some point in 2012, I'll probably be able to give you a better idea.
We've also got the recent reports by Frank Field and Graham Allen to draw on, and I'm meeting with them to discuss how their work might help us develop our offering.
But what I can say is that I will continue to fight them on this, and I will help local campaigners where I can.
We're working hard on trying to force Gove into a u-turn on the ringfencing issue - we've had a fair bit of success with other things like school sports and Bookstart so far, but with those we've had a groundswell of activism behind us.
We are seeing activism around individual centres by the parents involved, but what we want and need to see is a really galvanised public campaign against what's going on.
As I think Polly said in a tweet a few weeks ago, it's a bit perverse that a campaign to save the forests can get more supporters than saving Children's Centres.
I couldn't agree more - as much as their plans for the forests were wrong, I personally think that their policy on Children's Centres and early years is among the worst they are imposing on the public, who didn't give them the mandate to do so.
If anything, they are mandated to keep the ringfence, as both David Cameron and Nick Clegg pledge to protect Sure Start before the election.
Well I think the public knows just how much those promises count for by now.
To be effective in our campaign in Parliament we need you guys to help keep us up to date on what is actually going on in local communities - what are the challenges you are facing, what services you're having to scale back, what professionals you're having to let go.
Ed scored a big hit on Cameron yesterday by quoting the facts of closures in Bromley, where the council is closing 13 of its 16 Centres.
I can talk all I like about funding streams and ringfences and so on, but it is the reality of the impact on local areas that most stirs people into action, and I hope that's something we can achieve together.
Hopefully I'll have the chance to hear from a few of you today, but if I don't, please just email me and let me know.
To be honest, I'm more interested in what you've got to say than what I've got to say, so I'll finish my speech here so we can get as many questions or comments as possible.
Suffice to say, I will carry on doing my best to hold the government to account for this, and I know many of my colleagues will do too.
I'll be pushing this up the agenda in Parliament and in public as best I can, and I hope that you, and the parents you work with, will do the same.