THOUSANDS of deprived families targeted by a multi-million pound government initiative to eradicate child poverty have yet to feel the benefit.
Less than 6 per cent of the cash allocated to the Sure Start scheme last year has been spent, The TES can reveal.
Susan Brighouse, head of policy for the Child Poverty Action Group, said: "The Government insists it is helping these families but people are not feeling helped."
Sure Start, launched last April, aims to give children better social, health and education opportunities by targeting parents of children under four years on some of the country's worst estates.
The much-heralded scheme was described by Education Secretary David Blunkett as central to the Government's drive to end child poverty.
A total of pound;542 million (pound;452m in England) is due to be spent over three years to establish at least 250 local schemes.
But only pound;4.8m of the pound;81m set aside for the first year (19992000) has been spent. This figure is far worse than MPs have previously been led to believe.
Of the 60 groups invited to submit programmes last January, only 15 were given full approval and allocated funds of between pound;2m and pound;3m over three years. The others were sent back to the drawing board and told to refine their programmes, consult more with the community and re-bid.
The 15 successful schemes include plans to build centres housing health, education and early-years services, targeting between 400 and 1,000 children.
Many are in the early stages of development, with buildings as yet uncompleted in North Tyneside and Cumbria. National shortages of educational psychologists, midwives, social workrs, speech and language therapists are thought to be a further stumbling block.
A total of 59 programmes have now been agreed. Bids from another 69 areas are being considered.
Steve Webb, Liberal Democrat social security spokesman, claimed the delay called into question the Government's commitment to tackle child poverty. "This is an urgent problem, but these figures suggest there is no urgency in the Government's response."
Naomi Elsenstadt, head of Sure Start, was confident that the target of 250 would be met.
"The delay has been disappointing but we feel we have acted prudently, not conservatively. We may have been too optimistic about community consultation."
She said local expertise in setting up schemes had improved, making further delays less likely.
Only 6 per cent of funds to end child poverty has been spent so far ON THE ROAD: CASE STUDY
THE Whitehaven Sure Start bus seeks out the most isolated families in deprived areas of Cumbria. It will be on the road in August offering on-board sessions with speech therapists, health visitors, midwives and psychologists.
Also available will be stress management, baby massage, exercise classes, advisory services, parent and toddler sessions, a library, play sessions, workshops and information technology. Its help is targeted on four wards where three decades of economic decline and emerging third-generation unemployment has given rise to poor health and education and high crime levels.
Operations manager Ann Chambers said: "These are the parents who rarely go further than the
cornershop and many will not be seen until their child arrives at school."