Labour has an excellent childcare policy. Taxing the banks to offer working parents an extra ten hours support per week will make a real difference to employability.
But an Early Years policy can’t just be about getting parents back to work. It also needs to support families, nurture little ones and provide high quality interventions to help those facing the biggest hardships. This is the role of Sure Start and Sure Start’s success makes it the jewel in Labour’s crown.
So it was great to see Shadow Children’s Minister Lucy Powell’s blog about Sure Start last weekend. She outlined a clear, and very positive, vision of Big Reform: “Sure Start will be at the heart of our efforts to reform public services to shift from crisis intervention to early intervention.” Furthermore “we need a Government that will make it a policy priority.” More work is needed, but this unequivocal commitment contrasts with the silence from the Government benches. Labour is now the only party with a vision for Sure Start.
But the carnage continues. There are 628 fewer Children’s Centres than in 2010 and many hundreds more have been stripped to the bone. It will only be possible to implement Labour’s vision if enough of the Sure Start infrastructure survives this Government’s terrible assault.
Lucy Powell’s vision of Big Reform is spot-on. But the immediate battleground is local government. Central government is squarely to blame for 50% cuts to Sure Start funding, but each of the 628 Centre closures was signed-off in a town hall. Sadly, not all of these councils were Tory.
Local government has been brutalised by cuts like no other part of the public sector. Meanwhile social care costs balloon for both adults and children. It is getting harder and harder to protect any service. But Sure Start is not just any service: it fundamentally transforms lives and it permanently dismantles inequality.
Every council in the country must have trotted out the line that “budget cuts force us to transform services/think the unthinkable/fundamentally change the way we do business.” Sure Start offers a real opportunity to do just that.
Children’s Centres are ideal venues for co-located services. Centres can be outsourced to proven Voluntary Sector providers. Public health money can be used for a huge range of interventions for young families. Children’s Centres lend themselves naturally to mutualisation.
Sure Start is the perfect arena for creative, innovative solutions to seemingly impossible budgetary challenges. It is rooted in the community, based on partnerships – and above all, it is trusted.
As budgets are being drafted in Town Halls across the country, Labour councils should proudly declare a moratorium on Children’s Centre closures and embrace the many positive ways to revitalise Sure Start whilst delivering savings.
Labour nationally has now set an exciting agenda to place Sure Start at the heart of an enhanced early intervention agenda. Big Reform is in the air – Labour councils should seize the moment.
Michael Pavey is Director of Labour Friends of Sure Start and Deputy Leader of Brent Council.