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. 

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.