Matt Foster continues his interview with Louise King, Founder of Sure Start
“The government says, ‘it’s up to your local council’. Our councillors say ‘the government made me do it’,” says King. She argues that for a localism agenda to work, councils have to “opt in” but at present, they are simply “abnegating all responsibility by blaming the coalition cuts for our hardship.” King has been particularly disappointed with her own Labour-controlled council of Southwark, who she alleges have confiscated petitions, “spied on Children’s centre staff” and made threats of immediate redundancy if they “so much as mention” the cuts.
…I’d like to keep a national, government-run scheme…
This goes to the heart of what many campaigning to protect Sure Start fear. They believe that by removing the obligation placed on councils by central government to provide vital services, they will be tempted to make ‘easy’ cuts to provisions like Sure Start that are used predominantly by lower income families. “Until councils can prove themselves able to care for the children and families under their aegis,” King says, “I’d like to keep a national, government-run scheme.”
On Mother’s Day this year, and again on Father’s Day, ‘No Cuts for Kids’ delivered petitions to Downing Street calling for a government rethink, signed by more than 50,000 people. Privately, Education Secretary Michael Gove and Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith are said to be sympathetic, with Gove on record as saying early years support is of “crucial importance”. Labour MP Frank Field, who conducted a review for the coalition into tackling poverty, warned earlier this year that Sure Start risked being “overwhelmed by the incoming tide of local authority cuts” and claimed that the removal of the ring fence demonstrated “just how dangerous localism can be”.
…parents involved in the campaign “don’t want to be affiliated with any political party”…
The wider Labour party is, as might be expected, broadly supportive of the campaign to save one of its pet projects, although only after No Cuts to Kid had spent “months of campaigning” on its own. King is grateful for the support of Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper and Shadow Children’s Minister Sharon Hodgson, who accompanied ‘No Cuts for Kids’ to Downing Street and who King describes as fellow mothers she “greatly admires”. But in spite of this backing from the PLP, she claims that most parents involved in the campaign “don’t want to be affiliated with any political party” as “they feel that detracts from the point”.
Arguably the biggest concern for campaigners, then, is their ability to keep the pressure on both government and local councils. Most of the campaign’s supporters are, King tells me, “[living] in flats, with no garden, no help with the kids, and no spare cash at all” and this makes it difficult for them to give the kind of commitment required for a long campaign. With freedom now granted to councils to cut Sure Start, sustained campaigning will be required to oppose varied local cuts, and while ‘No Cuts for Kids’ is a national operation, King admits to frustration at trying to rally support among those who haven’t personally experienced the Sure Start service.
…there is a lot of animosity towards what is perceived as a middle class luxury…
“I’ve had nothing but support from those who have had involvement with Sure Start. But outside this group, there is a lot of animosity towards what is perceived as a middle class luxury,” she says. “Experience continually shows me that people only fight for what they know… but what parent would fail to make adequate provision for their child, depriving them now and in the future?”
September will be a crucial month for advocates of Sure Start, as many anxious parents find out if the centres they rely on for a helping hand have a future. King is in no doubt about the scale of the loss that will be felt if councils choose to pass on the cuts to early years support. “Those who take action say that Sure Start saved their lives,” she says. “Parenting in today’s fragmented, or nonexistent, communities is lonely and hard. Never before has so much been asked of parents by the state, when we have almost no other source of support.”
Images courtesy of Sharon Hodgson and Michael Gove