Will Sure Start face £200m cuts?
“The Tories have said they would cut £200m each year from the Sure Start budget – which could see one in five children’s centres being forced to close.”
Labour Party press release, 16 March 2010
Cathy Newman checks it out
In its headlong pursuit of the women’s vote, Labour has repeatedly claimed that the Conservatives would cut £200m a year from the Sure Start budget. This has been a widely-quoted figure, uttered with such confidence that it’s started to acquire the ring of truth.
The Tories deny it, yet still Labour repeat it. It’s one of those ding-dongs that will become the soundtrack of the election campaign. But who’s right? Time to call in the FactCheck team.
Over to the team for the analysis
Labour claims the Tories would slash £200m a year from Sure Start – a fifth of its total budget. This isn’t a one-off claim; the party included it in a chunky dossier on Tory policies released earlier this year and Gordon Brown has raised it in parliament.
The origin of the claim goes back to a March 2008 Tory policy document which says the Conservatives will hire 4,200 new health visitors – funded from “£200m per year, with which the government are intending to pay for a new cadre of ‘outreach’ workers from children’s centres”.
The Tories said they would prefer to spend the money on qualified health visitors rather than outreach workers. So is it a straight reprioritisation of funds, rather than a cut?
Not so, according to Labour, who say only £79m is earmarked for those extra outreach workers resulting in a gap of £121m meaning something has to give elsewhere in the Sure Start budget.
However, the Conservatives pointed us back to a more recent document – their draft health manifesto (apologies if this is starting to feel like a game of claim ping-pong).
According to this, the bill would not land solely on the doorstep of Sure Start, which is funded through the Department of Children, Schools and Families. Instead, the new health visitors would be paid for both by “refocusing the outreach services in the Sure Start budget and from the Department of Health budget, where we have pledged real increases”.
But even if Labour is wrong to pick on the £200m there’s no guarantee the Tories would preserve the current Sure Start budget levels.
Remember, the Conservatives have only agreed to ringfence spending on health and international development.
Cathy Newman’s verdict
Most of the £200m is not, as Labour claims, coming from cuts to Sure Start, but from the health budget. So the inflammatory headline on Labour’s scare story is, strictly, wrong.
But it may be there’s no smoke without fire. The Tories have not promised to protect Sure Start from the swingeing budget cuts we know are coming across the board, and they won’t commit to keeping all 3,500 centres open.
A senior Conservative source told me the party did want to get “better value for money” from the service. That may well be code for cuts in the future – but Labour is misleading voters by seizing on a specific figure.