Karen Buck

Working hard for Westminster North

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An ‘unsure’ start: Conservative cuts hit children

Although there is a cross-party agreement in principle about the importance of early intervention measures - support for Labour's Sure Start programme, Children's Centres, and childcare is high - it is now clear that that agreement is more rhetorical than substantial.

In a Parliamentary vote last week, both Conservative and Liberal MPs opposed a motion seeking to protect Children's centres from central Government cuts. Sure Start services across the country are being taken away from communities who rely on them.

A year ago, David Cameron said he would protect and improve Sure Start Children's Centres, yet despite this promise to voters, the budget for children's centres has not been protected. The Early Intervention Grant (EIG) through which these services are provided has been cut, in real terms, by about a quarter.

Sure Start children centres, widely recognised as groundbreaking and highly effective, provide a crucial service for communities. Yet, at a time when families are already being hardest hit by this, the loss of these services will make life event more difficult.

To compound this criticism, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in a report last week warned that child poverty reduction in the UK has stalled. The report called on the Government to protect family services and welfare, echoing the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

Locally, government cuts to the Early Intervention grant have hit Westminster harder than in most other areas. The Council has lost the equivalent of £80 for every child, despite having greater challenges - including higher child poverty - than almost anywhere else. Extraordinarily, places like Wiltshire, rural Hampshire and South Gloucestershire have lost far less, at £30 a week!

Partly as a consequence of this funding withdrawal, Westminster council is now cutting services for families and children operating out of Children's Centres, with outreach services being particularly hard hit. The network of Children's Centres, including brand new building such as the Bayswater centre in Westbourne Park Road, will continue to exist but with far less funding to make sure that they are able to contact and support isolated and vulnerable families.

Fewer places are being provided for vulnerable children in council run nurseries, down over the last few years from 130 full-time equivalent places in 2006 to 20 by later this year, and the number of parents being able to afford holiday provision for their children at the Council's play centres has already tumbled by 40% since higher charges were introduced last month. Meanwhile early intervention projects such as Newpin, and childcare organisations like the Westminster Pre-School Learning Alliance are in limbo waiting to hear if, now grant funding has vanished, Westminster will commission any services from them in future and if so, at what level.

So much of what has been painstakingly built up for families and children in recent years is fast disappearing. And the consequence? Less affordable childcare to enable parents to take up work. Fewer resources to contact and draw in vulnerable parents who may need help with parenting. Less support for children in need.

Yet we know that what we invest in early intervention and support for children in the early years pays off in multiples later in a child's life - in better educational outcomes, better behavioural outcomes and more. How short-sighted to slash at the roots of the next generation. How hypocritical to mouth support for early intervention whilst actually removing the means to make it possible.

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