Among the content erased from the Conservatives’ site last week were David Cameron’s pre-election pledges on Sure Start – and with good reason. The day before the general election, Cameron promised to protect the network of children’s centres founded by Labour, telling one voter who asked “whether these centres will continue to receive funding”: “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 cuts. Indeed, at PMQs on 2 March 2011, Cameron told the House of Commons that Sure Start funding was protected and that “centres do not need to close”. But the truth was otherwise. Shortly after the coalition came to power, the budget for the centres was amalgamated into a new “early intervention grant”, which received a real-terms cut of 22.4 per cent.
The result, as I first revealed in 2011, is that centres soon began to close. Today, as Ed Miliband shifts his attention to childcare in the latest stage of his “cost of living” offensive, Labour is rightly highlighting figures showing that 578 have now closed since the election. The Department for Education has responded by insisting that just 45 have closed (which still represents a breach of Cameron’s promise), but its own figures suggest otherwise.
Miliband said today: “Millions of parents are facing a childcare crunch. The cost of a nursery place is now the highest in history, at more than £100 a week to cover part-time hours. That means a typical parent doing a part time job would have to work from Monday until Thursday just to cover these costs of childcare. And average costs for a full time place are now rising up to £200 or even more.
“Rising prices have been matched only by falling numbers of places. And hundreds of Sure Start centres have been lost, contributing to a total of 35,000 fewer childcare places under David Cameron. All at a time when the number of children under-4s in England has risen by 125,000.
“Before the last election. David Cameron described Labour as a ‘disgrace’ for warning that the Tories would put Sure Start at risk. He added: ‘Not only do we back Sure Start, but we will improve it.’
“This morning they were at it again, boasting that there were more than 3,000 Sure Start Centres across the country.
“But let’s look at the official government statistics: there are, indeed, 3053 Sure Start Centres. But in April 2010 there were 3,631 Sure Start Centres. That is 578 fewer Sure Start Centres than before the election. That is an average of three Sure Start Centres being lost every single week of this government. And too many of those that remain have lower staffing levels and reduced services.”
While the Lib Dems’ failure to keep their pledge to vote against higher tuition fees means they are widely derided for their mendacity, the Conservatives have got off lightly so far. By highlighting the extent to which Cameron misled the public over Sure Start, Labour is rightly seeking to change that.