HC Deb 04 May 2000 vol 349 cc287-9
10. Mr. Phil Sawford (Kettering)

If he will make a statement on progress in implementing the sure start programme. [119628]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

Of the 60 original trailblazers, we now have 57 up and running and another three are about to start. They benefit 237,000 children and their families. A further 69 sure start programmes have been invited to submit their final plans. As I found when I visited the sure start programme at Accrington and Church in the Hyndburn borough last week, there is enormous enthusiasm among the families, the community and those who are playing their part as partners to make that new foundation for overcoming inequality a reality in those areas.

Mr. Sawford

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that although a measure of the sure start programme's success will be the readiness of young children to start school—it will also help their social skills and their personal development—there is another aspect to the equation, namely the help that parents need? How will sure start support new parents as they embark on the important task of nurturing the next generation?

Mr. Blunkett

I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the sure start programme is intended to help, support and develop parents' skills from the moment the child is born. We are considering the development of work in the antenatal phase so that we can develop, with parents, the capability to cope from the moment of birth to ensure that the child development and educational skills are available and that they link with the community health services as effectively and quickly as possible. We believe that development during the early years will make an enormous difference in narrowing the gap between the haves and have-nots and will enable our schools to take those children on in a way that would not otherwise be possible.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

I am glad that you called me just in time, Madam Speaker. I have to pick up my two-and-a-half-year-old from his nursery school at 12.30. Many of us have been under huge constituency pressure about pre-schools, which are under threat. The Pre-School Learning Alliance calculates that up to 3,000 pre-schools may close because of the drive to get children into ordinary schools. I am sure that the Secretary of State believes that pre-schools do excellent work, so how can we nurture that movement?

Mr. Blunkett

Playgroups do excellent work, which is why we are putting more public funding into them than ever before and why we have provided an additional £500,000 this year to protect them, but, as the hon. Gentleman himself shows, parents choose whether their child goes to a nursery or a playgroup. He has chosen, and is about to pick up his child from, a nursery. I would be the last person to force him to take his child out of the nursery and place it in a play group.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

The way in which the Government are tackling child poverty—they are making a real impact—is one of their great achievements, and we should loudly celebrate it. The sure start programme tackles inequality and is often focused on inner cities, but will my right hon. Friend assure me that we will also consider the poverty that exists in small areas of deprivation outside cities, and that applications for sure start schemes will be accepted from them so that we tackle inequality in all our communities?

Mr. Blunkett

The answer to the second part of the question is an unequivocal yes. There is a real need to be able to tailor future programmes to meet the needs of small pockets of deprivation, and we shall do so. On the first part of the question, yes, the programme is designed specifically as a positive, self-help, self-determining method to overcome poverty—not a handout, but a hand up. The 20 per cent. of children in poverty who will benefit from the first programme of sure start investment will be the beneficiaries of what I hope will be long-term investment that will show fruit not merely in terms of the children's development and entry to school, but their life chances throughout the rest of their lives.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

We strongly support the sure start programme and compliment the Government on what they are trying to achieve, but does the Secretary of State agree that it is a small part of the overall provision of places for four-year-olds in early years and child care development plans and that an uneven playing field is being developed? Only maintained nursery schools received any additional money in the Budget. Everyone else received nothing, even though they are part of those plans.

Moreover, in January the Secretary of State told the National Day Nurseries Association: Nurseries have raised with us the issue of rates they pay on their premises and their wish for a level playing field … These rates should reflect the fact that childcare providers in the private sector who offer nursery education in similar premises to those in the public sector should not be disadvantaged. When will the Secretary of State deliver on the promise that he made in January?

Mr. Blunkett

All nurseries receive £1,170, so the playing field is level in terms of input. The long-standing issue that has been raised with us relates to whether private nurseries are treated in the same way as other nurseries in terms of council tax. I said in January that we would sort that out, and we will, but it will take time to prepare and deliver the necessary regulations. That is one of the frustrations that accompany the joys of being in government.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

I think that fairly soon we shall be experiencing those joys ourselves.

Does the Secretary of State not realise that all his claims about the success of sure start—and, indeed, about the Government's overall child care strategy—are wearing a bit thin in the view of parents who are suffering from the impact of his policies? He has presided over a fall in the number of child care places with child minders and pre-schools and the closure of 2,000 pre-schools, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) pointed out, more than 3,000 pre-schools are threatened with closure.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), told parents who were worried about the closure of their local nursery schools that they were being elitist. Parents want choice, but they fear that their children are being forced into primary school classes too early as a result of the Government's policies. When will the Secretary of State recognise that parents do, in fact, want choice and do not want to be bossed about constantly by this increasingly interfering Government?

Mr. Blunkett

So parents do not want to be bossed about, except when the Opposition want to boss them into accepting a particular type of provision. We cannot order parents to choose a particular type of provision. It was, after all, the nursery voucher scheme that encouraged parents and schools to adopt the option of reception classes and "rising fives". The sheer hypocrisy of it all is breathtaking. With child care and early years places, we have in just 18 months created three times as many places as were created throughout the 18 years of Tory government.

Perhaps the battle that is taking place today between Tory and Liberal Democrat candidates for control of Windsor and Maidenhead council has misled the hon. Lady into believing that gaining control of that council is the same as returning to government. As he may be the only Labour candidate who wins, let me take this opportunity to wish my old school friend Tony Randall every success in the hon. Lady's constituency.