A report advocating a reprise of the original Sure Start vision is heart-warming but seems unreal as the coalition cuts and cuts
‘I have a belief I am right,” says Iain Duncan Smith. What can you do if ministers defy facts, despite an official reprimand from the Office for National Statistics? Using figures his own pollsters say are “a correlation, not causal”, he keeps saying that thousands are moving into work as a result of his benefit cap – ignoring the huge churn of people in and out of marginal jobs and on and off benefits.
His “belief” is founded on one undeniable truth: 76% of people support his benefit cap, including 71% of Labour voters. So who needs evidence? With equal effrontery he denies claims of any increase in homelessness, when the figures show a 23% rise in two years, with rough sleeping in London up 62%. Worst of all, he says: “We believe that in London there is plenty of accommodation and the vast majority of accommodation is available.” The facts? The Resolution Foundation shows how his benefit cuts and caps have rendered the south-east a no-go zone for private renters on middle to low incomes.
This government may prove Abraham Lincoln wrong: you can fool enough of the people enough of the time. Whether it’s Jeremy Hunt on health, Michael Gove on education, Eric Pickles on council finance or Duncan Smith on benefits, all that matters in the Lynton Crosby playbook is what will fly, not what’s true. This new political rulebook keeps catching Labour off guard, unable to quite comprehend how a government dares disregard all evidence to construct its own facts.
Labour’s habit of finessing figures and re-announcing the same spending as new was always greeted with a wall of Tory press outrage about “spin”. But this government is in another league. It has presented misleading accounts in the budget itself, spotted by the LSE’s Tony Travers. In the spending review for 2015-16, George Osborne shifted funds from health into social care but he double-counted, so it appears in both columns, a creative total adding up to more than 100%.
That’s not “spin” but a new realm, where reality is whatever the government says it is – Newspeak joined by Newstats. Who has the objective credibility to call them out? The BBC’s coverage on these issues has been craven, its online report of the benefit cap virtually reprinting government press releases. Having worked for seven years in a BBC newsroom during a Conservative government, I know it operates not on bias but largely on fear. It tends to lean towards whoever frightens it most – and that’s not Labour. When all the noise is from the Conservative-dominated press and the Lynton Crosby war room, it loses its bearings without the balancing bullying that once came from Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson.
Housing benefit cuts are causing an exodus of the young and the middle to low paid from the south-east. Social housing continues to shrink as soaring property values and the government’s more generous terms prompt more council house sales. Forced out by housing benefit cuts, and leaving family, schools, jobs and communities to travel far away, many families won’t move just once but every few years, as house prices catch up with benefit caps. Families on the edge will be knocked into a life of insecurity, moved to cheap places with no jobs.
No wonder David Cameron no longer talks of the “big society” or of his general wellbeing index. The ONS warns that cuts mean it may not collect figures on embarrassing wellbeing indicators – infant mortality, the crime survey, smoking, drinking, teen pregnancy and inequality itself. No stats may suit the government even better than Newstats.
Today an excellent report from an all-party parliamentary group calls for a great revitalisation of Sure Start children centres, shifting money towards early intervention for the under-twos before it’s too late. Tory MP Andrea Leadsom and Labour’s Sharon Hodgson present all the evidence – yet again – that babies at risk of falling behind need early help. Families need children’s centres that join up local services under one roof, pooling the budgets of health visitors, midwives, speech and language therapists, mental health, childcare, nursery education, job-training and drop-in playgroups where isolated parents can meet. Here is a heart-warming reprise of the original Sure Start vision with children’s centres as the social hub of every community. Their new good idea is that every new baby should be registered here, so none vanish.
I read the report with sadness, as it seems to belong in a reality far removed from the one inhabited by a government that uproots families, pulling children recklessly from their communities and schools. Sure Start’s 3,500 centres are Labour’s proudest boast, the missing cradle in the 1945 cradle-to-grave welfare state. But since 2010, 558 have been shut. Only 500 of the remaining still offer any childcare after Sarah Teather, as children’s minister, removed that obligation. Since councils lost 40% of the funding, more are closing: Kent is shutting 23. Current children’s minister Liz Truss wants to deregulate childcare so a childminder can warehouse six two-year-olds. Nurseries are closing fastest in poorest places, where Ofsted finds them of lower quality, so the promise to offer 296,3000 deprived two-year-olds free nursery places can’t be delivered, says the Family and Daycare Trust.
There is a vision in this report of a better society in which babies are welcomed, families nurtured, problems caught early, and the one in 10 mothers of all classes who suffer postnatal depression are helped. Services work together, communities bond and no parent needs to struggle alone. Labour got halfway there. The birth rate rose across all classes in the decade when Sure Start arrived, with better childcare and the Child Trust Fund. Causal or maybe just a correlation? Either way, there was a social welcome where now babies are a burden. (Except royal ones.)
• This article was amended on 16 July 2013. An earlier version said that 39 children’s centres were to close in Warwickshire. That is not the case. Warwickshire has 39 children’s centres in total and of the three proposals the county council has put out for consultation, one involves no closures and the other two involve six.
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