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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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.