New clash over Suffolk Children’s Centres

Jack Abbott has hit out over the Children's Centres consultation. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Jack Abbott has hit out over the Children's Centres consultation. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

The opposition Labour group at Suffolk County Council has claimed its consultation into the closure of children’s centres is “a sham” as it prepares to press ahead with the reorganisation.

Mary Evans defended the consultation process. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Mary Evans defended the consultation process. Picture: GREGG BROWN

And the proposals have also come under fire from public service union UNISON, which represents staff at children's Centres.

Labour's spokesman for young people, Jack Abbott, said papers giving information for people wanting to take part in the consultation dated from last July - and the council said the policy had changed since then.

He said the proposals would see 11 out of 38 children's centres close entirely and the hours of a further 11 cut. Only 16 children's centres would remain open full time.

He said: "The evidence presented by the Tories is shockingly out of date, the decision-making process unclear and the consultation itself one- sided and leading. We must call it out for what it is - a sham."

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The consultation page directs members of the public to a cabinet paper from July 2019 for further information. This paper does not include the plans in their current form, with a number of changes having been made since they were first published. Therefore, anyone responding to the consultation will have responded based on inaccurate and out of date information.

Mr Abbott added: "It is mystifying that when looking for the details of the proposals, the public are being told to read a lightweight Cabinet report from July last year. It doesn't even have the final proposals in it.

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Meanwhile UNISON said the council was proposing to end universal childcare provision for 0-5s and use the already stretched resources to target other children up to the age of 19. It said it was also unclear what level of central government funding would be available if the changes go ahead.

UNISON Suffolk County branch secretary Neil Bland said: "The Council doesn't seem to have put much thought into how this will affect staff, but we're not confident they've even thought about this affects the children and families that rely on the services.

"Scores of staff have told us how vital children's centres are to families and how essential the services they provide are to children's development. We've seen no evidence that the Family Hubs model works, where the funding the will come from or how vulnerable families will be supported.

"The Council is spreading its existing resources thinner and thinner and it will inevitably have a devastating effect on vulnerable youngsters and their families. The Council can claim it's improving services but there's a real danger this shake up is just a sugar-coated closure programme.

"We urge the Council not to take away this lifeline for Suffolk's families."

Mary Evans, Suffolk County Council cabinet member for children's services, said: "These comments are negative and misleading and do nothing to contribute constructively to this sensible and measured review.

"I am very pleased by the feedback we have received during this consultation and hope that Mr Abbott and UNISON can find it in themselves to also offer constructive feedback and suggestions on helping to improve the service, rather than simply trying to score political points with provocative language.

"To clarify the misleading information being provided here, the consultation website and questionnaire present the full proposal front and centre. To support further reading, we felt it was right to provide the original Cabinet report and site by site analysis.

"Absolutely no decisions have yet been made, other than the commitment that any changes would not see a reduction of funding for the service.

"This review is about broadening the service to the most vulnerable families and increasing the service for early years. These are both fundamental aspects behind our proposals which echoes national guidance and reflects the feedback we have received from service users.

"Both Mr Abbott and UNISON have had nearly two months to speak up as part of this consultation, as well as several opportunities to raise questions at Cabinet or Council meetings and attend the public drop in sessions. They've chosen not to take these opportunities, and it's a real shame that they are now behaving in this way."

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