Page last updated at 23:39 GMT, Sunday, 28 March 2010 00:39 UK

Sure Start cuts would be disastrous, MPs warn

Children in sandpit
The MPs say the centres have done "pioneering work"

Cutting funds for a network of children's centres across England would be disastrous, MPs have said.

The Commons' Children, Schools and Families Committee says the Sure Start scheme is doing pioneering work which should be allowed to bear fruit.

But it criticised a lack of data on its effectiveness and value for money.

There is cross-party support for the scheme, but Labour wants to find efficiency savings, and the Tories want to re-focus on the poorest families.

Sure Start centres offer a range of services to families with young children, including help for parents wanting to find work, childcare, healthcare and family support.

The first centres opened in 2004 and there are now 3,500. The government says there is one in "every community in England".

'Pioneering work'

The MPs say it would be a mistake to yield to short-term financial pressure by reducing the number of centres or pruning the range of services they offer.

The entire Sure Start programme was established in 1997, but most of the actual centres have been in place for less than four years.

The committee's chairman, Labour MP Barry Sheerman, said: "To put at risk the pioneering work of the last 12 years would be nothing short of a disaster.

The government must make more effort to work out the totality of funding that is supporting centres
Commons' Children, Schools and Families Committee

"The early years are when the greatest difference can be made to a child's life chances, and it is vital that investment in children's centres is allowed to bear fruit."

The MPs admit to some problems in the scheme, for example saying the integration with health services, and particularly with GPs, is patchy across the country.

And local authorities and children's centres, they say, do not have enough robust data to evaluate how effective the centres are.

The report said: "Nearly all centres can point to real successes with individual families. None of those inspected could provide a convincing analysis of performance based on rigorous analysis of data."

There was also a lack of information about how much money was going into the centres.

"In order to evaluate the cost-effectiveness and value for money of children's centres nationally, the government must make more effort to work out the totality of funding that is supporting centres, including resources from the Departments of Health and for Work and Pensions," they said.

"It is unacceptable that such basic information remains apparently unknown."

'It is working'

Funding for the scheme has been protected and will rise in line with inflation until 2013.

But last week's Budget also said Sure Start would share £150 million in "efficiency savings" with further education and sixth form budgets.

We are fully committed to a universal Sure Start service that better helps families
Maria Miller, shadow minister for families

Details have not yet been set out.

The government says the centres - and investing in children's early years generally - are the key to giving children the best start in life.

Children's Minister Dawn Primarolo said: "In 1997, there were no children's centres.

"Now there are over 3,500 across England, giving all families with young children access to family support, childcare, health services and employment advice, and the emerging evidence is clear that it is working.

"Despite tougher finances, Labour has pledged that Sure Start funding will rise in line with inflation up to 2013."

The Conservatives say they would improve the Sure Start scheme by using some of its funding to help pay for 4,200 more health visitors and focusing more on the less-advantaged.

Maria Miller, shadow minister for families, said: "We are fully committed to a universal Sure Start service that better helps families.

"A Conservative government will ensure that families get more support from properly trained professionals by funding 4,200 additional Sure Start health visitors."

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