Today, we seem to live in a society where paying huge amounts for childcare has become commonplace, as if that's just the way things are done here. These costs have strained budgets and kept some people from being able to get into work, and recently things have been getting worse, not better, with average costs up a third over the past five years. These persistent rises are as unsustainable as they are utte- rly ridiculous, and unless this is sorted out it will cost us all more than just money.
One of my passions throughout my time in Parliament has been championing the need to invest in children's early years development. Helping children develop, giving them and their families timely support, and being able to bring people toge- ther to learn and work with each other does incredible amounts of good, and it genuinely boosts the life chances of children no matter where they are from. Investing early helps reduce the risk of problems developing as children grow into teenagers and adults, and the net gains for society as a whole, as well as for the children and families directly, are simply incalculable.
This is why I was so pleased to return to the role of shadow children and families minister, and why I have wasted no time in telling the Government just how badly wrong they are getting this issue.
I have always maintained that one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour Government was the emphasis we put on early years, and especially the creation of Sure Start children's centres. These centres were beacons for communities, somewhere families could go and get the help and support that was so crucial in supporting new parents, and vital in the development of healthy and happy children.
By the time we had left office in 2010 so much great work had been done, but Sure Start was still in its own infancy and needed more time to properly establish itself as a fundamental part of how children grow up in the UK. Sadly, however, despite election promises, it did not take long for the Coalition to change tack, and ever since then Sure Start has been in the firing line.
More than 800 Sure Start centres have closed in five years, and the early intervention grant, which is given to local authorities to pay for things such as children's centres, has seen a 56 per cent cut in funding and the removal of the ringfence from formerly protected services. These figures are even more shocking for families of disabled children, with even higher costs and not nearly enough available provision.
Frustratingly, cutting early years is the ultimate false economy, which makes the current situation even more damaging. Millions if not billions will be spent on dealing with a whole host of issues that could have been dealt with in a timely and supportive way when families needed help the most. The children who would benefit would be able to grow up in greater health and security, with their life chances and possibilities increased. Doing this doesn't just make economic sense - it should be our moral duty, and it should be at the heart of the Government's agenda.
I am pleased that, despite all the damage that has been done, childcare is starting to be taken slightly more seriously by this Government, even if it is clear from the Childcare Bill that very little thought went into this area prior to the General Election.
However, childcare should not be about headlines. It should be something normal, routine and every day, people doing great work all over our country without fanfare, without drama, but with the support of the Government so that the job is done, and done well. This means more qualified staff, breaking the stranglehold of low pay, and boosting availability all across the country.
Children's centres are such a valuable resource, enabling us to do just that. Training, advising, and providing a hub for entire communities. I want to see us use them, not hollow them out and starve them of funding. I want them to be part of the fabric of every child's development, pulling together all the best resources so that every child born is able to get the very best start in life. This will take time, it will take effort, and it will take political will.
That may be too much to ask of this Government, but I will continue to fight for it nevertheless. Improving the lives of young people and families is why many of us got into politics, and I truly believe there can be no greater achievement of any Government than doing just that.