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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.