Exclusive: Cameron breaks his Sure Start promise

20 centres have been closed since May 2010 despite Cameron's promise to protect funding.

Yes, we back Sure Start. It's a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this.

David Cameron, 5 May 2010

The day before the general election, among other things, David Cameron pledged to protect Sure Start, the network of children's centres founded by the last Labour government.

Asked for a guarantee that the centres would continue to receive funding, he replied: "Yes, we back Sure Start. It's a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this. He's the prime minister of this country but he's been scaring people about something that really matters."

Based on this answer, many reasonably assumed that Sure Start, like the NHS and foreign aid, would be ring-fenced from George Osborne's £83bn spending cuts. Indeed, at Prime Minister's Questions on 2 March 2011, Cameron told the House of Commons that Sure Start funding was protected and that "centres do not need to close".

Freedom of information requests by the New Statesman to the Department for Education, however, have found that 20 of the centres have closed since May 2010, including seven in Redbridge, three in Bromley, and two in Knowsley. The department was unable to tell us how many would close by 2015 but the figures suggest that hundreds will be shut down by the end of this parliament.

The reason for the closures is that, contrary to Cameron's protestations, Sure Start funding is not protected. Shortly after the coalition came to power, the budget for the centres was amalgamated into a new "early intervention grant", which also includes funding for programmes related to teenage pregnancy, mental health and youth crime. These programmes received nearly £2.8bn in 2010-2011 but, this year, they will receive £2.2bn - a real-terms cut of 22.4 per cent.

In an act of reverse redistribution, it is the poorest areas that will be hardest hit. Funding for Sure Start and related programmes is being cut by an average of £50 a child across England this year.

In some of the poorest areas of the country, including Tower Hamlets, Hackney, and Knowsley (where centres have already been closed), it is being cut by £100 a year. By contrast, in wealthier areas, such as Richmond, Buckinghamshire and Surrey, the cuts will amount to just £30 a child.

For a government that is ostensibly committed to social mobility to refuse to protect Sure Start is remarkable. Policymakers have long looked to schools and universities to narrow class differences but neuroscientists have since shown that the early years, when brain development is at its most rapid, offer the best chance to improve the life chances of the poorest.

Scandinavian countries, which have invested heavily in children's services for decades, now enjoy the highest rates of social mobility in the world. Tony Blair's decision to launch Sure Start in 1998 was an enlightened attempt to emulate that success. The current Prime Minister must explain, for the first time, why the coalition government is destroying this legacy.

A version of this article appears in this week's New Statesman.

Update: Labour have responded to the story here. Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary and shadow for women and equality, said: "This is outrageous. David Cameron and education ministers promised us they were protecting Sure Start. But now we know that is rubbish. The 20 per cent cut they imposed on the budget which funds Sure Start is hitting services hard, and they are taking away help for families at the most important time in a child's life.

"Sure Start is one of the best things the Labour government introduced - supporting young families at the very beginning of a child's life so they feel the benefits for decades to come. So much for ministers' rhetoric about early intervention. These facts show a complete betrayal of David Cameron's promise, and a betrayal of parents and toddlers who depend on Sure Start to help their family get on."

 

Update 2: Wandsworth Council, Greenwich Council and Hackney Council have been been in touch to say that they have not closed down any Sure Start centres. The figures were obtained by a freedom of information request to the Department for Education. We are happy to correct the error.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle