How Labour can come to the rescue of Sure Start

The revolutionary power of early intervention is now comprehensively proven. Labour needs to put Sure Start at the heart of its plans to enthuse a weary electorate.

Sure Start is Labour’s greatest achievement since Attlee. It is an unqualified success story and a historic achievement. Until 1997, Britain had a miserable record in both early years investment and early intervention. Sure Start was the flagship in a programme of initiatives which turned the tide of neglect. It was an act of social reform and political courage comparable with the founding of the NHS. 

But while for decades the Conservative Party was terrified to make a full frontal assault on the NHS, it has got stuck into Sure Start immediately. Over 500 Sure Start Centres have closed since 2010, budgets have been cut by 40 per cent and more than a fifth of Sure Start workers have lost their jobs.

Even worse, the Conservatives have rejected the founding principle of Sure Start: that childcare and family support are inseparable partners in effective early years development. Instead, they have recast the early years in solely utilitarian, economic terms: childcare is little more than a route to parental employment.

If Sure Start is to survive we must reframe this debate. Labour Friends of Sure Start was founded this year to campaign for our children’s centres and to shape the debate about their future. Today we are delighted to be launching an e-pamphlet - Sure Start, Sure Future – as a springboard for this debate. The purpose of the pamphlet is to proudly reaffirm the need for Sure Start and to start outlining what it might look like under a 2015 Labour government. With contributions from Stephen Twigg MP, Polly Toynbee, Fiona Millar, Graham Allen MP, Melissa Benn, Sharon Hodgson MP and others, three key themes emerge from Sure Start, Sure Future.

A vision for Sure Start

Sure Start is still standing, but it has been buffeted and bruised in recent years. We need to rejuvenate the original Sure Start spirit. We need to reinvigorate what Polly Toynbee calls "one of the 1997 Government’s most permanently transformative successes." Labour needs to proudly place the transformative power and the human idealism of Sure Start at the heart of its plans to enthuse a weary electorate.

A universal offer must be at the heart of Sure Start

Universalism is going out of fashion. Faced with the omnipresent "difficult decisions" of austerity, limiting subsidies for the relatively wealthy is understandably attractive. But as Fiona Millar argues, "Families move in and out of risky situations and there are times when all of us need help and support. If there is any service that should be universal and non-stigmatizing, it is this one."

Sure Start centres are the ideal infrastructure for early intervention

The revolutionary power of early intervention is now comprehensively proven. The work of Graham Allen MP and others shows beyond doubt that investing before a child is two-years-old transforms lives and saves money. But early intervention requires a strong infrastructure to be truly effective. Sure Start is trusted by families and its effectiveness in breaking down silos is proven. This makes it the ideal infrastructure through which to channel early intervention investment.

These are the three key themes in Sure Start, Sure Future. In response, Labour Friends of Sure Start is making three broad policy suggestions.

Sure Start as childcare plus

250 Sure Start nurseries have closed – mostly in the deprived areas which desperately need them. This loss of capacity is jeopardising the extension of free nursery places and is condemning disadvantaged families to poor quality provision.

We suggest that Sure Start should have an expanded role in childcare provision. But that this provision must be enriched by integrated family support services. As Cllr. Catherine West puts it: "children thrive, in part, because their family thrives."

Control costs by limiting remits, not closing centres

Sure Start will face acute financial challenges for the foreseeable future. Labour should consider controlling costs by doing less in Sure Start centres – but doing it better. In the words of Claire McCarthy from 4Children, "it is possible to target services at a smaller number of outcomes that the evidence shows can have the biggest difference."

Sure Start centres as community hubs

We strongly support co-locating services such as Citizens Advice Bureaus and JobcentrePlus within children’s centres. This will provide an enhanced service for families, bring more people into the centres and generate financial savings by closing other buildings. We believe this is win:win. In fact, we would go further and encourage Labour to explore models for Sure Start co-operatives to maximise community involvement.

There is a huge amount of work to be done on all these ideas. But for now we are seeking comments from everyone with a passion for Sure Start. Please come along to the launch of Sure Start, Sure Future this evening (2 July) in Portcullis House to share your views.

Sure Start is special. It is trusted and it is loved. Across the country, communities are campaigning to save their Sure Start centres. We must offer them hope that a Labour government will not only protect Sure Start, but will develop and strengthen it. We need to proudly reclaim the Sure Start vision and place it at the very heart of our plans for a One Nation Britain. We hope that this pamphlet is a step towards reviving that vision and giving it renewed relevance for 2015.

Michael Pavey is Director of Labour Friends of Sure Start and Lead Member for Children & Families on Brent Council.

Sure Start, Sure Future is being launched at 6pm today in the Wilson Room, Portcullis House, Westminster. All are very welcome. For more information please visit www.laboursurestart.com or email laboursurestart@gmail.com

A Sure Start centre in Long Stratton in Norfolk.

Michael Pavey is Director of Labour Friends of Sure Start and Lead Member for Children & Families on Brent Council

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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