This was my contribution to the Labour Friends of Sure Start brochure, launched on 14 July 2015.
“A Labour Government set up Sure Start Children’s Centres because we understood that public spending needs to be focussed on preventing social problems in the first place not managing the consequences. There can be no better investment in our society than protecting and enhancing the network of Sure Start centres”.
I wrote those words two years ago as I set out why I consider Sure Start Children’s Centres to be one of the last Labour Government’s finest legacies. When I agreed to write this follow-up I’d hoped it would be in different circumstances. Instead, we have a majority Tory Government and face another five years of brutal cuts. The axe is set to fall hard on local government once more and disproportionately hard in the most deprived areas. Our Children’s Centres are hanging on for their very survival.
Since 2010, over 700 have closed their doors and many of those remaining have been forced to rely more heavily on volunteers or cut back on the services they offer. In my own constituency of Hornsey & Wood Green, three children’s centres closed initially as the council struggled with massive government cuts of over £117 million. With a further £70 million of cuts over the coming three years, local authorities are being placed in impossible situations. I fear that across the country the next generation of parents won’t have access to the decent and affordable childcare and support that was a lifeline to me when I had my daughter 12 years ago.
It’s desperately sad to see this great legacy hollowed out. It’s also foolish because they are a good investment for the taxpayer. Early intervention works. For every £148 spent on later childhood (12-17 years) and every £135 spent on middle childhood (6-11 years), the same impact can be achieved by spending £100 on early childhood (0-5 years). It is in these early years when children’s lives can be dramatically improved.
So what can we do to defend our children’s centres against this government’s attack?
First we have to keep them at the top of our agenda and use every opportunity to argue the positive benefits of early intervention and joined-up services – with children’s centres as community hubs at the heart of dedicated support to families. For some families that might be antenatal support, advice on breast feeding and stay and play. For vulnerable families, it could be more targeted one-on-one services to meet specific needs, support for post-natal depression, and outreach. There is much talk about the need for joined up health and social care in later life – children’s centres are a real example of this agenda already in practice. As a party we need to be vocal passionate advocates for the value of children’s centres to families’ lives.
Second we need to be innovative in a time of scarce resources. When I was Leader of Islington Council, we took out a layer of management and got our centres to work together in clusters to organise their outreach. It was tough, because some good staff lost their jobs, but at the time it meant we could keep our centres open and services running. Five years of brutal cuts on, savings will be even harder to find and councils will have to be ever more imaginative to avoid closure. We need to work together, share knowledge and ideas countrywide across our network of children’s centres.
Third we need to keep making the economic case. Investing in early years has a huge impact on children’s life chances and reduces the money that needs to be spent later on health, social services or education. At a time when resources are scarce, prioritising early intervention makes sound economic sense. It’s also economically foolish for childcare to be so expensive, particularly in London, that huge numbers of, mostly, women can’t return to work and pay taxes. Children’s centres have the capacity to provide decent, affordable childcare – and the ones that do tend to be heavily oversubscribed. In the election campaign, David Cameron rushed out an unfunded promise of 30 hours childcare for 3 and 4 year olds with no thought on how it could be delivered. How about restoring the duty for children’s centres to provide childcare and providing the much-needed funding to accompany it?
The situation is critical. If we continue to see closures or reduction of services on the scale of the last five years then this proud Labour legacy will be lost for the next generation. We need to use the opportunity of a new Labour Leader and hopefully a new Labour London Mayor next year to push Sure Start right back up the political agenda.”