By Angela Rayner
Earlier this month, Tory-controlled Hampshire County Council announced the closure of 43 of its 54 Sure Start centres.
It was a record-breaking event, because their decision took the total number of Sure Start centres lost under this Tory Government, and the Coalition before it, to more than 800.
What a record for the Tories.
Hampshire County Council’s own report into the closures said that in 2010 there had been 83 children’s centres provided “across the whole of Hampshire.”
Government cuts have meant that the number of those centres has now fallen from 83 to 11 in just six years.
Thousands of parents will no longer have access to a local children’s centre and the vitally important start in life they provide for the next generation.
I am proud that I was a recipient of wrap-around services such as Sure Start, when I was a young mum. They gave me, and many of my friends, much needed support, a hand-up in difficult times.
So I know how it feels for mums in Hampshire to be denied that help.
Often, Tory closures of Sure Start centres have been justified simply on the basis of money. ‘We cannot afford them anymore’, they say.
Sometimes, closures are justified by claims that children in greatest need will be given priority.
Both are wrong.
Protestors against the latest Hampshire closures were concerned that focussing on those in the greatest need “would lead to families feeling stigmatised and therefore less likely to access the services that would remain available to them.”
When Labour founded Sure Start in 1998 a key objective was to stop parents being stigmatised for seeking help with their families. It worked – by the end of the last Labour Government, there were 3,633 Sure Start centres, which provided services for nearly 3 million children all across the country.
But then came austerity, when short-term Tory thinking was revealed in all its glory. Cut and run. And the devil take the consequences.
By the end of 2015, there were only 2,605 main Sure Start centres. Services and centres shut-down, lost or ‘restructured’ in the name of cost and so-called ‘consolidation’.
Meanwhile, real terms spending, per child, on early education has been consistently falling.
The Government’s own research from earlier this year has shown the impact of funding cuts on children’s centres.
It shows that the cuts have had a direct impact on outcomes for children and their parents who used these services. Children who have been hit by these cuts have the most mental health difficulties and the most dysfunctional relationships. Their life chances are the least.
And, as always, it is the most deprived areas that suffer the most.
The Labour requirement for Sure Starts to be centred in the most disadvantaged 30 per cent of areas was cynically scrapped under the Tories.
It has held back children from poorer areas who already start school almost a year behind their better-off peers. The gap grows as they go through the education system. They are being stunted before they can properly develop.
It is a national scandal that, under the Tories, where you are born and who your parents are, still sows the seeds of disadvantage for too many people in Britain today.
All the evidence shows that a relentless and holistic focus on the early years will improve the life chances, well-being and economic health of the entire nation.
But what about the cost?
The Early Intervention Foundation has found that improving early intervention to help especially vulnerable children much earlier in their lives, could save the Government almost £17 billion.
Increasing female participation in the UK workforce, through improved childcare, could add a rocket-fuelled injection of £170 billion into our economy.
That’s because childcare plays a critical role in supporting the economy and helping more women who want to work to get back into the labour market.
The dozens of children’s centres closing in Hampshire are a tragedy. It will hamper children’s progress, women’s progress, and society’s progress. Those most in need will lose the most.
But Hampshire is only the latest in the long line of such closures by the Tories, who are failing children, families and our communities.