The Dingle Sure Start Centre in Liverpool.
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Big reform, not big spending, will save Sure Start

When funding is tight, we need a shift away from sticking plaster services to radical early intervention. 

Sure Start children’s centres are one of Labour’s proudest achievements in government. The ethos and spirit of Sure Start are at the heart of Labour’s vision for a society where no child is forgotten and every family has the support they need to succeed. Valued by parents, children and communities alike, this transformational service has given a generation a better start.

Before the 2010 election, David Cameron promised to protect Sure Start. Yet at best they have withered on the vine. Analysis of responses to Labour Party FOI requests I’ve unveiled today show that there ae 628 fewer centres since 2010. In addition, one in ten children’s centres provides fewer services, one in six has seen a reduction in hours and one in five has fewer staff than 2010. 

Sure Start is intrinsic to Labour values of giving every child the best start and for putting early intervention at the heart of public service reform. Children’s centres are part of the fabric of family life for so many. Yet under the Tories their future is precarious and under threat. That’s why we will renew our commitment to Sure Start through reforming how services are delivered and prioritised.

This vision will enhance the Sure Start mission to support all families whilst focusing specialist services on the individual needs of families and children. We will develop new guiding principles which will instil this vision.

When funding is tight, we need a shift away from sticking plaster services to radical early intervention which allows local areas to tackle the root causes of problems in their communities, freeing families from disadvantage and giving them the tools to build strong families and fulfil the aspirations they have for their children. This shift in culture and policy requires leadership at the centre and locally, however, and this is something the current government are failing to provide. It’s clear from their lack of policy and focus on Sure Start that ministers are content to let the programme wither away.

So the choice on Sure Start is clear - if Sure Start is to continue providing quality support and services to families across the country, we need a government that will make it a policy priority and provide direction. This means working closely with local areas and learning the lessons from places that are managing to reshape what they offer when money is tight.

Places like Manchester are undertaking this radical reform and delivering results. Through their innovation we know that the future of Sure Start can be about big reform, not big spending – but this will only happen if we work together to deliver this step-change in services. Allowing for local variation, building in flexibility to meet the very different needs of different local authority areas, but working under a shared objective of strengthening Sure Start so future generations can benefit from this unique, progressive and invaluable service.  

Data sharing, joint working, assertive outreach and robust interventions based on strong local leadership are all key to delivering a better start for children. Building on the work of Labour’s local government innovation taskforce we will work with local areas to build a stronger Sure Start. This work will be based on key principles to underpin a renewed and reinvigorated offer for parents and children which will focus on:

- Getting more from our Sure Start centres: centres up and down the country are sitting idle because their services have been hollowed out. We should require them to open up to other local family services such as health and childcare. By asking services to cooperate in this way and "co-locating" them in one place we’ll ensure family services are more joined-up and we maximise the resource of Sure Start centre buildings, helping them to stay viable.

- New Family Hubs: by co-locating family services in centres we can create family hubs in the community, giving parents a convenient single point of access, reaching more families and strengthening the role of centres locally. 

- Effective early intervention: centres will focus on ensuring effective early help and outreach so problems can be spotted early and families and children can receive the support they need to overcome material, physical and emotional problems. This will help save funding on "sticking plaster" services down the line.

Sure Start will be at the heart of our efforts to reform public services to shift from crisis intervention to early intervention. Children’s Centres are vital to Labour’s mission to reduce inequality, boost social mobility and narrow the gap between the most vulnerable and the rest. Under this government Sure Start is in danger of failing. Labour in office will reinvigorate it for families now and in the future. 

Lucy Powell is MP for Manchester Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education. 

Photo: Getty Images
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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.