Lib Dems’ Sure Start promise ends in tears
“I cannot tell you how proud I am that not a single Liberal Democrat-led council is closing a single Sure Start children’s centre.”
Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, speech to Liberal Democrat spring conference, March 13, 2011
Cathy Newman checks it out
Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem colleagues have been shouting it from the rooftops: no council controlled by their party will be closing a children’s centre.
It’s thought up to 250 of England’s 3,500 children’s centres are at risk of closing. But the Lib Dem leader insists that while tiny tots will feel the pain in Labour and Conservative local authorities, they’ll be wrapped in cotton wool by the touchy-feely Lib Dems.
It’s part of a strategy by Mr Clegg and his colleagues to put some distance between themselves and the Tories in the run up to the local elections. But does his claim stack up? FactCheck has been investigating just what’s happening to children’s centres where the Lib Dems run the shop.
Sure Start children’s centres offer essential services like childcare and parenting advice, play sessions and more luxurious fare like baby yoga and even aromatherapy.
The coalition government believes funds should be better targeted on the less well-off. But David Cameron has repeatedly insisted that councils have the money to maintain the existing network of centres.
This is something we’ve FactChecked before, and found wanting, largely because the money for Sure Start comes out of the so-called Early Intervention Grant. The government has cut funding for projects covered by that grant by 11 per cent.
Nick Clegg says Lib Dem councils have achieved the impressive feat of protecting children’s centres, despite that cut to the Early Intervention Grant.
FactCheck has done a bit of a ring round to see if he’s right.
I’ve found he’s come a bit unstuck in Kingston-upon-Thames. There are 12 children’s centres in the borough and one of them – in Hook – is shutting down.
From next month, children’s services will be withdrawn there, and parents will have to go elsewhere in the borough. But bizarrely the council denies this was ever a proper children’s centre.
They call it a “satellite” centre, so they say they can’t be accused of breaking their promise. However, I went to the building, and outside there’s a sign in black and white saying “children’s centre”.
Liz Green, deputy leader of the council, told me the Hook Centre only ever offered a few children’s services like messy play. She did however admit that other, larger children’s centres could close down next year.
She said: “I can’t guarantee anything for next year because we’re looking at how we operate the services and it’s about the outcomes and the services that we provide rather than necessarily the details of how we provide them.
“We’re looking at voluntary, shared services, using the social enterprise options. We’re going through that process at the moment but we don’t know what the outcome will be of that.”
Other Lib Dem town halls are making such deep cuts to children’s services, that even if Sure Start centres aren’t actually closing, opening hours could be drastically reduced, charges introduced and volunteers brought in.
All that begs the question – what is Nick Clegg’s promise actually worth?
In Hull, the Lib Dems are slashing the Sure Start budget from £9.9m last year to £4.4m this – a whopping 55 per cent reduction.
In Northumberland, spending will fall from £6.1m to £5.1m – a 16 per cent drop.
Oldham allocated £10m to Sure Start last year, but they’ve set aside 11 per cent less this year.
North East Lincolnshire admits they’re going to cut the opening hours of some of their centres.
Cllr Tony McCabe, cabinet member for children and family services, said: “We are committed to using our available resources in the places that they can be most effective and do the most good.
“This being said, some of the quieter centres will probably continue but with slightly reduced opening hours.”
And Newcastle disclosed that although they’re not closing centres, they are sacking some staff.
A spokesman said: “There are 18 Sure Start children’s centres across the city. We are not planning to close any but we are attempting to save £1.5m in 2011/12 by introducing some charging for services and cutting 15 full-time jobs.”
Portsmouth, meanwhile, like Kingston, hinted at possible closures next year if not this.
Councillor John Ireland, cabinet member for Children’s Services, said: “We’ll be keeping our 16 children’s centres and have no intention of closing any of them in the financial year 2011/12.
“However, we’ll be looking at how we can maintain the quality of children’s centre services, easily accessible across Portsmouth, in future years, mindful that our grant may be cut further from 2012.”
There’s a reason why the Lib Dems are trying so hard not to close the children’s centres, even if they are making deep cuts to services. As the local elections approach, Lib Dem councils are desperate to prove they can cut more kindly than the Tories.
In Eastleigh, Hampshire, the energy secretary Chris Huhne has gone as far as to sign a petition by campaigners calling on the local authority to rethink plans to merge or close up to a third of centres.
He told Channel 4 News the Tory council preferred to spend money on a swanky new building rather than investing in children’s early years.
The leader of the council, Ken Thornber, accused him of being “opportunistic”, and said he expected better of a cabinet minister in a coalition government.
It’s the kind of spat that will be played out up and down the country as the May 5 elections approach.
Cathy Newman’s verdict
As Lib Dem MPs face the music from the mums, they’ll do their best to blame local Tories.
But that doesn’t quite ring true when as part of the coalition government, the Lib Dems helped impose the cuts on local authorities.
The centre being closed by Kingston is admittedly not a large one, but the fact that children’s services are being withdrawn there shows the strains councils are under.
And the coalition cuts are so deep that Lib Dem councils admit that even if they keep most of their children’s centres open this year, they can’t guarantee doing so next year.