Frank Field could never be described as a knee-jerk critic of the coalition. He was memorably denounced as a “collaborator” by John Prescott after he became a poverty adviser to the government. For this reason, his warning that David Cameron needs to “act now” to prevent Sure Start centres being “decimated” by spending cuts is worth listening to.
In an interview in today’s Times (£), Field says:
At some stage they are going to have to grow up, stop being King Canute and realise if they don’t do something about Sure Start they are going to be overwhelmed by the incoming tide of local authority cuts. We are in a difficult phase. They are keeping to their localism commitment, but now there is evidence on just how dangerous localism can be. I see Sure Start as the biggest agent of change for addressing poverty and increasing social mobility in this country, but some local authorities are cutting it in half, even though the cut in their budget is 11 per cent.
A recent survey for two children’s charities found that 250 Sure Start centres (7 per cent) serving 60,000 families are certain or likely to close by the end of this year. In addition, 2,000 (56 per cent) will provide a reduced service and 3,100 (86 per cent) will have a decreased budget.
As in the case of child benefit and the Education Maintenance Allowance, David Cameron said nothing during the election campaign to suggest that there would be dramatic cuts to Sure Start. Asked for a guarantee that the centres would continue to receive funding, he said: “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.”
Since it came to power, the coalition has rightly emphasised the importance of early-years intervention, which all the international evidence suggests is the best long-term cure for poverty. But its disregard for Sure Start – one of the unambiguous success stories of the New Labour years – is the antithesis of this approach. On this issue, it is time for Cameron to listen to his own adviser.