While life rumbles on in the Palace of Westminster, people around the country are revolting. I am not just thinking about rebellions across the Middle East – which are exercising Whitehall wonks a good deal at present, or the Welsh referendum claiming full Assembly powers back from London, or even the “green protests” which have forced a government U-turn on forestry sell-offs.
No, the demonstrations mushrooming right now are over something important to many thousands, but much less headline grabbing – deep reductions in the Sure Start Centre programme aiming to “give children the best possible start in life” through childcare facilities and advice, early education, health and family support, and assistance to disabled parents.
Governments of all complexions like to talk about the importance of the family and the priority society should place on nurturing children. But in a harsh climate where economic hardship is forcing more women and carers to seek additional work just to keep going, the pressure on families is increasing daily.
The Coalition says that it wants to support Sure Start, which has been widely praised, but “target the poorest”. It is succeeding. But not in the way the rhetoric intends. Rather than concentrating resources on those in most need, the effect of central and local government cuts – aided and abetted by the removal of ring-fencing – is that deprived areas will lose more than three times as much money as well-off ones. The poorest are being negatively targeted, therefore.
The bottom line, say campaigners (who include solid middle-class parents and well as what the Prime Minister’s office has dismissed as the “anti-cuts lobby”), is that “early intervention” programmes are being clobbered by around 25 per cent. The average reduction in Sure Start funding will be £100 per child in poorer communities, for example.
This is a sum of money that buys much more through a coordinated programme than the tiny amount of private childcare it could possibly pay for – even if such provision was available. Sure Start has also been commended for breaking down social barriers. In urban centres it encourages a social mix that would otherwise not happen, and aids the development of informal care and support networks, as well as providing locally accessible resources.
“The benefits just seem so obvious”, says Charlotte Ross of the (hardly radical) London Evening Standard. “The childcare is often superior to the private alternatives, and it helps stop poor families falling into crisis with the all costly intervention that goes along with that.”
Among those particularly badly hit and taking to the streets and town halls to protest are Manchester, Hull, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Clayton, Merseyside's Knowsley and London's Hackney. Social networking sites are mushrooming to galvanise the defence campaigns, and one group calls itself “permanent revolution” – reminding people that this is not a one-off complaint but represents a systemic call for social justice.
Meanwhile, Barnet Council, whose leader Brian Coleman came to fame for proposing “no-frills” public services, has announced £29 million-worth of cuts (while keeping his £100,000 salary). The Council will, however, receive its full central government allocation for Sure Start. It just won’t be spending any of it on children’s centres.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from the March 2011 edition of Third Way, the magazine of Christian social and cultural comment, for which he writes the monthly 'Westminster Watch' column. http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/