The Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham spoke in the House of Commons yesterday attacking my Counciil of Hammersmith and Fulham over our plans for Sure Start Children's Centres.
Then we heard the news that six would become hubs and 10 would remain as spokes. Only when we dig a little deeper do we find that nine of those so-called spokes will receive £25,000 a year. What is that enough to pay for-a receptionist, a caretaker, a bottle of bleach? Is there much more that it would pay for? I do not know, but it could not be very much. At the last Education questions, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) recalled the hospital without patients in "Yes Minister". This coalition may be remembered for a more modern equivalent -a children's centre without any children in it. That could be the Secretary of State's legacy. I do not know about hubs and spokes, but there are certainly plenty of mirrors and smoke when it comes to presenting the facts about Sure Start.
In fact the total number of Sure Start children's centres in my borough is being increased from 15 to 16. Although spending will fall overall, there will be six centres that will have extra money to provide more specialist professional help for the vulnerable children. In our consultation a majority of those who expressed a view agreed that support should be targeted at the most vulnerable families.
Along with council funding of between £19,000 and £50,000 a year, the ‘satelitte’ centres will be supported to secure funding from new sources and to bring in new services requested by parents, such as the National Childbirth Trust or private yoga teachers.
As well as receiving direct children’s centres funding, each centre will offer services funded from other sources, such as the NHS, adult education and Job Centre Plus. The host schools or voluntary groups will also be able to raise funds themselves by working with other local groups, combining with schools’ extended day provision; and expanding the centres’ activities into the evening and weekends, for example for use by parents who wish to hire out space for children’s parties; for use by supplementary schools or for family classes.
Parents are also being given more choice. The requirement that parents have to use their local centre will be removed which will mean families can continue to benefit from the full range of services provided at any children’s centre of their choice in the borough.
I am prepared for us to be judged on the outcome. Andy Burnham predicts we will have Children's Centres without children. I predict that they will thrive. Our plans combine expanded universal provision with more specialist help for the vulnerable. I hope that when this transpires that Burnham will apologise to those who make a success of them.
Burnham might like to reflect on the alternative approach of Labour councils which is to close Sure Start Centres. They include our neighbouring borough of Brent. Or there is Wigan, another Labour council which last month "refused to rule out" closing centres. Andy Burnham should be aware of this – he is one of the local Labour MPs.
We have had similar hypocrisy from Sharon Hodgson, the Shadow Children's Minister.