1 earlier: Andrew Slaughter
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I shall now try to make some progress.
On or about 27 December—a time when we are all assiduously reading Government and council documents—my local authority published a report on family support, indicating what funding would be available over the next financial year. The report addressed Sure Start—not directly, but obliquely—first by rubbishing Sure Start provision, saying that although the centres were
“clearly popular with families, and seem likely to have some preventive impact, we have much less clear evidence about the degree of impact this has—including on the ultimate number of children falling into child protection”,
“early studies showed no clear evidence of impact on early school results”.
That might come as a surprise to Members on both sides of the House, given that we heard my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree earlier quoting the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister—certainly before the election—expressing their strong support for
Sure Start. However, those rather vague and grudging comments were used as the basis for reducing Sure Start funding by over 50%, with the council report saying:
“However, it is not likely under this scenario that LBHF could continue to directly fund more than 6 Children’s centre teams. In any case we would no longer seek to directly run centres”,
adding that it aimed
“to maintain some provision at most centres, through small amounts of pump-priming funding.”
In the financial section of the report, however, no money whatever was provided for such pump priming; money was provided simply to keep the remaining six centres open.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, by the time report came to committee and was due to be dealt with on 10 January, there was what might be called “a row on the town” in that a large number of people were concerned about it and turned up at the meeting. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) was one of them, so she might want to comment further in her own speech. At that meeting, the authority, faced with great popular disapproval, told people that they had misunderstood the position as no centres were going to be closed, and had misunderstood that the decision had already been taken as consultation was about to be launched. That is what we were told. That would have sounded quite good, save for the fact that the report was then passed in its entirety, including the 50% cut to the budget. We were in the peculiar position of being told one thing when a decision had been taken that was entirely contrary to it. The situation became even more complicated when, later in the same week and rushed out in response to public demand and other factors, a consultation paper was published, with an extra £19,000 slipped in, which turned out to be the pump-priming money—the £19,000 that was going to the Sure Start centres under threat of closure.
Leaving aside the fact that this was shambolic, chaotic and no way to run anything, let alone a local authority, we need to reflect on the reasons for this process of decision making. There were three. The first was connected to public relations. By putting £19,000 into centres that previously had no money at all, the authority could say to the general public and the media, who by this time were taking a strong interest in the issue, that it was not closing the Sure Start centres. Secondly, the consultation was done quite successfully, but it confused the parents and users of those centres, who were told that the centres were not closing but staying open as a result of this £19,000. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, somebody had bothered to look at the regulations, so a scrutiny report was published at the same time, making the observation:
“Local authorities have duties under the Childcare Act 2006 to consult before opening, closing or significantly changing children’s centres, and to secure sufficient provision to meet local need”.
The authority realised that it would be subject to judicial review if the consultation process did not happen. I suspect that it will still be subject to judicial review because consulting after the decision has been made is not the best option.