Clive Lewis: We must save our children’s centres

Clive Lewis is joined by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow early years minister Tracy Brabin (f

Clive Lewis is joined by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow early years minister Tracy Brabin (far left) at North City Children's CentrePhoto: Contributed - Credit: Archant

In his monthly column, Norwich South MP CLIVE LEWIS argues against the proposed closures of children's centres.

I was alarmed and concerned at the proposal by the Conservative-led Norfolk County Council to close 46 out of 53 children's centres in Norfolk, leaving only one open as a hub in Norwich, as part of proposals to cut £5 million from the early years budget.

As a father with a new-born baby myself I am very aware of the invaluable service these centres provide. I have been surveying local residents in Norwich over the past month on their views. An overwhelming 97pc of survey respondents are against the proposed closures, with 3pc saying they don't know, and no one in favour of the proposals.

In total 72pc of respondents to my survey are former/current parent users of the children's centres, and hence have first-hand experience of the excellent service their hard-working staff provide.

I am very anxious about the County Council's proposals to replace activities currently led by highly-skilled and trained early years practitioners in children's centres, with services delivered by volunteer parent peer mentors in their own homes. Staff employed at centres are qualified to assist parents with the positive physical, social and emotional development of our children. While there may well be well-intentioned parents willing to take on some of this work voluntarily, there are a range of safeguarding and professional concerns being ignored. Of the parents who responded 91pc said they would not personally use services delivered in such a manner.

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During this consultation period, I visited North City Children's Centre with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, shadow early years minister Tracy Brabin, and Norwich North Labour PPC Karen Davis. It was very emotional to listen to parents telling us powerful stories of the help and support they had received from the staff. I also visited Bowthorpe Children's Centre where likewise I heard many moving accounts from parents of how the centre, its staff and services had been of great assistance.

Many survey respondents and parents I met at the centres praised both the midwife clinics providing antenatal care and support, and the outreach health visitors providing advice and support with breastfeeding, feeding and weaning, and weighing of babies at development reviews. Many parents also praised the various stay and play activities on offer, with one mother describing these services as 'a lifeline' at a time she felt 'isolated and lonely'.

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The centres also provide many parents with a route back into employment, assisting them in accessing the early-years provision they are entitled to and also gaining vital qualifications they may lack such as GCSE English or GCSE maths. The centres also play a key role in teaching important life skills such as managing a budget, and cooking and preparing cheap and nutritious food.

Children's centres also provide access to essential services to parents and children with additional needs, providing where necessary speech and language therapy, portage, and support workers, among other services.

I am concerned about the loss of many of these public services currently available through the centres, or a need for parents to pay to access some of these services. Many families will simply be unable to pay for access, particularly with many parents of young children currently experiencing low pay, insecure work, and the rollout of Universal Credit full service to replace child tax credits among other benefits.

In contrast to the cuts being pursued by the Conservatives, Labour has made clear that when we get into government we will reverse these measures by spending £5.3 billion on early years as part of a drive to create a National Education Service. All research conducted suggests what happens in a child's early years has a defining impact on their life chances, having a significant impact on their educational attainment, economic security and health. I hence argue that it is short-sighted to seek to save money by wielding the axe to early years provision. Prevention and early intervention are always cheaper than cure, and I fear the cost to both families and the public purse of these children's centres closures in Norfolk will be immeasurable. A Labour government will restore social justice as a key policy goal, ensuring we have a society that succeeds for the many, not the few.

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