Middle-class parents face being charged to use their local Sure Start centres amid claims they are hijacking resources meant for the disadvantaged.
Ministers are to write to councils urging them to charge for services they currently offer free such as play sessions for toddlers.
Children’s Minister Sarah Teather insisted the flagship childcare programme would remain open to all.
But she said there was ‘no reason’ why operators should not charge wealthier parents for some activities.
The move is the latest in a series of assaults on benefits enjoyed by the middle-classes who are bearing the brunt of the Coalition’s austerity measures.
It follows the removal of child benefit for 1.5million families with a higher-rate taxpayer and the curbing of child tax credits for middle-income households.
The multi-billion pound Sure Start scheme was introduced by the last Labour Government in a bid to combat child poverty.
Some 3,500 centres have opened around the country offering daycare, mother and toddler groups, parenting support, access to health advice and other services.
They tend to established in deprived areas but any parent in the locality can use them.
Parents will continue to pay for daycare unless it is part of the 15 hours’ free entitlement for three or four-year-olds or they are eligible for state help with the costs.
But Miss Teather revealed yesterday she will tell councils and charities which run Sure Start centres to better target resources towards the ‘neediest’ families and consider charging wealthier parents for ‘fun’ activities such as baby yoga.
She said the centres would retain their ‘universal front door’.
‘I’m not saying that Sure Start children’s services will be closed to some families in the area. We want it to be a non-stigmatising service. But within that service, we want it to be much better at targeting the resources,’ she said.
Miss Teather said providers should continue to offer activities such as baby yoga.
‘But there is no reason they should not be able to charge for those services,’ she told the Observer.
Some centres already charge better-off parents a fee to access some services but the practice is set to become far more widespread, with potentially higher fees.
It is as yet unknown when the charging will come into effect or how eligibility for free activities will be determined.
Miss Teather also suggested that operators could in future restrict extra services to certain targeted groups. They ‘won’t necessarily be open to everybody’, she said.
The initiative follows a suggestion by David Cameron that the ‘sharp-elbowed’ middle-class families should stop using Sure Start altogether.
Speaking earlier this year, the Prime Minister said: ‘There is a criticism sometimes with Sure Start that a great new centre is established and the “sharp-elbowed” middle classes, like my wife and me, get in there and get all the services.
‘We need to make sure the money will be helping the people whose disadvantage is the greatest.
It can’t just be a service that everyone can jump into and get advantage out of. It is really there for those who are suffering the greatest disadvantage.’
However Chancellor George Osborne’s comprehensive spending review last month revealed that Sure Start will remain a ‘universal’ service, open to all parents.
But its funding will be reduced by nine per cent and providers will be encouraged to target their declining resources on the neediest.
The charging plan was already being condemned last night as a ‘disaster’.
Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan, said: ‘The beauty of Sure Start is that it brings together families from different backgrounds – the entire community buys into it.’
Even charging for a few services would change the whole ethos, she said.
Miss Teather also revealed that the Government is considering a ‘payment by results’ scheme which would entail withholding cash from Sure Start operators until they prove they have turned around the life chances of the poorest children.
She said that she wanted centres to think less about the number of people they get through the door, and more about success rates.
‘”Did it help, did it make a difference, did it change lives?” are the questions that should be asked,’ she said.
Meanwhile voluntary groups are set to win the right to challenge to run children’s centres. If they express an interest, councils would be forced to put the contracts out to tender.
Source: Daily Mail