HC Deb 24 February 1999 vol 326 cc376-7
5. Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

If she will make a statement regarding the application of the sure start initiative to Northern Ireland. [712021

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. John McFall)

This morning I launched for consultation a Northern Ireland child care strategy entitled "Children First", seeking views on proposals for strengthening and expanding pre-school provision, child care and family support. Views are specifically sought on how best to address the aims of sure start. My discussions with key child care organisations have already identified the need to consider a different approach in Northern Ireland.

Caroline Flint

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I welcome the launch of the "Children First" child care document. Sure start is a UK-wide initiative and plans are already under way in Scotland, Wales and England. With the launch of the document today, I hope that we can be certain that community groups in Northern Ireland, which has the worst child poverty rates, the worst child care provision and the highest number of lone parents in the United Kingdom, will get access to the resources that they need to meet the demands.

Mr. McFall

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I should like to elaborate on the launch of the document this morning. I was in contact with Childcare Northern Ireland and Barnardos to examine child care. The document, which was agreed by the voluntary groups, translates the sure start aims to a Northern Ireland context. That process starts today. There is a different context to sure start in Northern Ireland. We are building on the good work that has already been done by the voluntary and statutory services. Several organisations have told me that there is great merit in not sticking to the proposals that have been outlined for England.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe (South Antrim)

I am sure that the Minister will join the Prime Minister in agreeing that sure start is a vital element in looking after children and families. Will he assure the House that all the money allocated by the Treasury for that programme in Northern Ireland will indeed go towards its implementation?

Mr. McFall

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, and I have very good news for him: today, I announced a £51 million package for child care, £27 million of which is specifically for an extra 7,000 pre-school places, so that, by 2001, more than 85 per cent. of parents in Northern Ireland will have a choice, whereas, before the Government came into office, the figure was less than 50 per cent. I think that he will agree that that is tremendous progress. The money will also provide 2,500 jobs and an extra 26,000 places, and I hope that he will agree that that is good news.