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Sure Start: The Mystery of the Ghost Consultation

I know the Government have been busy recently, what with running down the British steel industry and trying to slash tax credits - but they seem to have completely forgotten one of their own consultations.

I know the Government have been busy recently, what with running down the British steel industry and trying to slash tax credits - but they seem to have completely forgotten one of their own consultations.

In July they promised a consultation on the future of Sure Start. Excellent: a genuinely good idea. Sure Start is under tremendous pressure and we need to talk about how to maintain its great work.

The Government said the consultation would be in Autumn. Fair enough. But nothing has been announced since.

By September the leaves were turning brown and it all felt very autumnal, so I rang the Department for Education. Could they update us on the Sure Start consultation please? The gentleman who answered the phone was very helpful. Sorry, he knew nothing about it:

"If we had more information it would have been announced in the press release"

And furthermore:

"We can only talk about existing policy."

I called again and received a similar response. I suggested that they might transfer me to someone else who knew a bit more? Not possible:

"No, there isn't another number you can call to get more information."

Er, Ok. So we're promised a consultation in Autumn, but so far the Department for Education knows nothing. This begs the question: when is Autumn?

The clocks have gone back. The Christmas lights are up in Oxford Street. But still we don't have a clue about this consultation. No terms of reference, no plan to engage Sure Start users, no timescale.

It's Halloween and this looks to be a ghost consultation.

Joking aside, this really matters because Sure Start is fast approaching a tipping point.

Independent research this month showed that over the coming year 57% of Sure Start Centres will have to cut services due to budget cuts. 34% will lose staff, 32% will not be able to reach as many families as before, 28% will introduce charging for services and 20% will cut opening hours. 130 Centres will close - bringing the total since 2010 to over 1,000 closures.

With Children's Centres under such immense pressure, we urgently need an open public debate on the future of Sure Start.

We need to reach out to the young families who depend upon Sure Start and to ask them their priorities for its future. We need to listen to Sure Start professionals about which interventions they find to be most effective. We need to ask Councils which have been managing Sure Start cuts for years how to maximise the value of every pound.

Sure Start is under the most immense pressure. This consultation is a perfect opportunity for all those passionate about it to come together and to build a consensus on the way forward.

But the Government don't seem to want this. Why haven't they made any public comment on the consultation since July? Why haven't they briefed their own civil servants?

It looks like they are trying to sweep this vital issue under the carpet: to rush through a token consultation over the Christmas period.

At best this long-delayed consultation is looking like a wasted opportunity. At worst it is increasingly looking like cynical window-dressing for a Government which has already made its mind up to run down Sure Start.

It is no coincidence that the sharp decline in the services offered by Children's Centres is happening at the same time that the 1,000th Centre closes. The quality of services is inextricably linked to the quality of the infrastructure through which they are delivered. The Government has comprehensively undermined the infrastructure of Children's Centres, and as a result the quality of service is now declining fast.

It looks like the Government are now trying to legitimise their actions by sneaking out a consultation over Christmas. They will then claim that the poor response shows public ambivalence over Sure Start, enabling them to make further swingeing cuts.

Sure Start is fast approaching a point of no return. This consultation may be the final opportunity to build a consensus on how it can be saved. The Government must ditch their cynical political games, throw open this ghost consultation and listen.

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