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Children’s Centres (Somerset)

Volume 575: debated on Monday 3 February 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Gavin Barwell.)

I have asked for this debate because I have been contacted by parents and carers, contractors, staff and members of the advisory boards connected with three of the children’s centres in my part of Somerset—Cheddar, Wells and Chilcompton.

Sure Start children’s centres are there to protect and help the youngest in our communities, to support and help families, and to invest in the future by providing the very best start for all. In a bid to cut its budgets even further, Somerset county council has acted appallingly, proposing restructuring that will put the most vulnerable at risk and plunge those in rural areas into deeper isolation. It seems to be systematically working to undermine and undervalue the amazing work that children’s centre staff are doing to help and support young families in Somerset. In its flawed consultation exercise, the county council claimed that it needed to review children’s centre provision because

“some Children’s Centres are not performing as well as we would like”.

Rather than being honest and open with the people of Somerset about the fact that it wanted to cut 40% of the children’s centre budget, the council has sought to undermine public perceptions, no doubt seeking to whip the public into demanding the closure of children’s centres.

The mainstay of the county council’s argument is that children’s centres underperform according to Ofsted’s headline data. The council claims that only 37% of Somerset’s children’s centres have received an Ofsted grading of “good” or “outstanding”, whereas the national average is 69%. The council concludes that the 37% Ofsted figure gives it good evidence that children’s centres are not delivering help to the most vulnerable. That is simply not true. Before jumping to any conclusions, I ask the Minister to ask this more fundamental question: why are only 37%, supposedly, of the children’s centres in Somerset getting an Ofsted grade of “good” or “outstanding”? When one asks that question one gets a revealing answer.

Two children’s centres, in Wells and Chilcompton, have recently had an Ofsted inspection. When they received their feedback and report, they were commended on their delivery of support to vulnerable families across a wide and rural reach. Ofsted said that the critical services they delivered to the most vulnerable were deemed as “good”. However, when Ofsted scrutinised the support and data that the children’s centres received from their county council, they were deemed as “requiring improvement”. The county council has failed the children’s centres, not vice versa. The county council’s consistent failures led to an overall Ofsted grading of “needing improvement”, which failed both the children’s centres and the children of Somerset.

Wells and Chilcompton children’s centres are not alone. Shepton Mallet children’s centre had exactly the same outcome last year. Somerset county council is using its own incompetence as a cover for cutting services to the most vulnerable families.

Virtually every improvement suggested by the improvement plan for Chilcompton and Wells children’s centres after the October 2013 Ofsted inspection requires action by the county council, and each of the four action areas for improvement has major implications for it. The first improvement needed reads:

“Sharpen the monitoring of participation rates across all services to ensure the most vulnerable and in particular potentially isolated families can access the full range of services”.

The action required states that the local authority should

“develop and disseminate tracking tools from point of access, to show outcomes and progression”.

The second improvement needed reads:

“Improve the quality of all evaluations”,

and the action required states that the local authority should

“set clear performance indicators”


“implement CAF and Signs of Safety in CC’s and agree protocols with partner agencies”.

The third improvement needed reads:

“Improve the impact of leadership”,

and the action required states that the local authority should

“provide clear, simple and concise data which is more accessible & understandable to staff, to support planning and to improve outcomes”


“develop partnership agreements where county and district boundaries exist”.

The fourth improvement needed reads:

“Improve the role that the cluster advisory board plays in the support and challenge to the cluster”,

and the action required states that the local authority should

“devise and deliver training”

and that the local authority

“demands that Advisory Board Chairs are trained to lead an AB. But as yet there is no training course available”.

Fundamentally, under the Ofsted framework, it is absolutely impossible for a Somerset county council children’s centre to get anything better than “needs improvement”, and that is not a basis for changes to the service. Somerset county council must not be allowed to blame these failures on children’s centre staff, because they are the very people who are working so hard to keep children in Somerset safe.

Under the council’s proposed structure, the village of Chilcompton will sit in a reach from Farley Hungerford to Lydford—a distance of some 30 miles from north to south—and from Shipham to Rudge, which is 35 miles from west to east, with one manager and two deputy managers. That inevitably means that some vulnerable families will fall through the net.

Generally, these are successful universal services. For example, Wells children’s centre had 539 children registered in the past three months and 332 using at least one of the services in the same period. In October alone, 195 children and 304 parents and carers came to the centre. There are eight to 10 open cases with specific interventions in place at that single children’s centre.

There have been repeated promises since November for a new consultation. I hear repeatedly that the council has not yet made a decision about individual children’s centres, but its failure to make a decision about their future means that significant numbers of referrals are falling away. Why would an agency refer parents and carers to children’s centres, possibly for a six-month programme, when the service’s existence past 31 March is under question?

The council has moved on apace with the restructuring of children’s centre services. However, it keeps having to amend and revise its plans, because it finds that its proposals will not work. Fortunately, the council seems to have started to understand the importance of supervision and management, but that adds extra staffing costs to its model, and it cannot explain which budgets will need to be cut to meet the extra costs.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. She is talking about cost, and I wonder whether she will momentarily engage with this thought of mine? Everybody understands that the county council needs to be as cost-efficient as possible and, on the face of it, there may be some short-term savings to be made. If, however she looks at a town such as Wiveliscombe in Taunton Deane, which has a purpose-built children’s centre, with a new doctors’ surgery being built next to it, a whole apparatus of services are available to people in that small town and the surrounding communities, of which the children’s centre is an integral part. There may be some short-term savings, but my suspicion and fear is that, overall, there will be long-term costs that are not just social, but financial, from having buildings empty and services not fully utilised.

I could not agree more. In a number of cases across Somerset, children’s centres are next to surgeries and schools. With a universal service, it is very easy for children and parents to get used to accessing the services that they need on an ongoing basis. Children get used to going into the surgery or the school, and it is an easy move for people to access everything that they might possibly need.

A county council report has revealed that, as many contracts are due to end in March, there is not enough time to investigate any alternative provision. Incompetence and a lack of planning mean that provider agencies are pulling away, and are quite rightly refusing to deliver services on a month-by-month extension. No one can be expected to work with such a level of uncertainty. I understand that the agencies are handing services back to Somerset, which means further costs, because partner agencies pay their family support workers more than the council does and such transfers mean that salary arrangements have to be honoured.

One of the main planks in the argument for change was the promise that there would be 30 more front-line family support workers. However, the proposed job description has added a new line, stating that family support workers are to work with children and young people between the ages of nought and 19. The county council had promised 30 more support workers for children between the ages of nought and four, but it is now watering down that service even further. The council promises one thing, and then once again cuts back on its promises behind closed doors.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for indulging me for a second time. On those promises, it seems extraordinary to me that elections for Somerset county council were held only just over six months ago, and I do not recall that any leaflets came through my door from the party that now runs the county council promising that if it had a majority, it would close children’s centres. That seems to have been sprung on the people of Somerset, after we had the opportunity to vote, when I assume that most people in the county thought that they were voting for a programme for four years, and we are now only six months after the election.

I have to agree again. It is fair to say that from what one can discover, the plans to cut £1.4 million from the children’s centre budget were brought forward in January or February last year, but were suppressed prior to councillors achieving re-election to the county council. It was only—very shortly—after that that the plans became evident. It seems desperately unfair on the electorate, and on the most vulnerable people who need to access the services.

Family support workers need a different skill set when they work with older children and young adults. Although I acknowledge that working with such young people is terribly important, to ask a family support worker who is gifted, skilled and qualified in working with nought to four-year-olds to work across a much larger age range dilutes their expertise and devalues their work.

It has been suggested that the decisions have already been made and that councillors have instructed officers not to work on extending the contracts because the children’s centres are likely to close. I wonder how the county council can say that it is putting £1 million into front-line services, while at the same time it is making a cut in funding of £1.4 million. Savings are being made by cutting senior service managers, children’s centre managers, day-to-day line managers and lead centre officers, as well as by reducing the number of buildings that are used. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) pointed out, many of those buildings were specially designed and are adjacent to schools and doctors’ surgeries so that children are familiar with where they will start their education and become used to popping into the surgery.

Not even the data quoted by the council are accurate. The council’s report states that the new Mendip east area will have 1,655 children aged nought to four. However, the data provided by the county council to the children’s centre state that there are 2,189 children of that age. Either the county council has lost 534 children in one district or the council is over-reporting the number of children in a district to the children’s centre, making it utterly impossible for the centre to reach its 80% registration target.

The hon. Lady will recall that when there was a statement about flooding in Somerset this afternoon, there were several Members who represent Somerset in the Chamber. However, now that we are debating the scandalous, treacherous cuts that are being made, there is not a single Conservative Member from Somerset in the House.

Yes, exactly. We do have one Conservative Member in the Minister, although she is not from Somerset. I thank the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) for pointing that out.

On the 80% registration target, it seems likely that the county council is aiming to make it appear as though the children’s centres are failing and to thereby make cuts a more attractive outcome.

Questions are being raised about the proposed savings. My personal feeling is that consideration should be given to the fact that the county council is sitting on massive reserves. That is money that we pay in council tax to the county council, among other councils, for it to deliver services, not to become a bank or a savings institution.

Alongside the savings that the county council is proposing, there will be additional costs, such as mileage claims from staff who have to travel across vast rural areas, additional insurance costs and hall hire. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane pointed out, buildings that were designed specifically to be children’s centres will also be wasted. Those elements will far outweigh the money that will be saved on the heating and lighting for 18 modern, purpose-built children’s centres. Closing those buildings is an absolute waste of taxpayers’ money. A better option, which I do not think has been pursued, might be to offset some of the costs of the children’s centre buildings by hiring out rooms to other providers, such as those who provide music lessons.

The county council considers that it can use other venues to deliver children’s centre services. We need to know whether proper risk assessments have been carried out because most community buildings are not fit for that purpose. That is why the children’s centres were built specially in the first place. Most community buildings do not have the levels of security and privacy that are needed for the sensitive work that has to be delivered.

The county council’s consultation was described by some as farcical and its independence has been questioned. The questions were not objective or fairly balanced, but were heavily loaded to make people say yes to cuts and yes to cutting rural centres in particular. There were questions such as, “Should we place resources in places where there are more children?” That will of course produce an answer that favours urban children’s centres. However, users in such areas can often walk to services or take a bus, unlike children who live in rural and isolated places in our county. The consultation was more concerned about ethnicity, sexuality and spirituality than the services delivered by children’s centres themselves. Many participants commented, but their comments have gone unanswered, and were not shown in the text of the report.

Rather than cutting funding and services, Somerset county council needs to engage actively, and to value and support the vital work that children’s services are doing in Somerset to improve the lives of young people. What has worked well locally has been early identification for families in need of universal services when access to those services has no stigma attached. Many of those services will not be available following the proposed changes. In rural areas, that will mean that many families will not have access to any services. With more family support workers and fewer managers to support the care, guidance and support given to targeted families with the greatest need, children could be put us at risk. With so many department leaders at the county level on temporary contracts, there is a lack of stability, the effects of which are felt at all levels.

I would like to quote from three letters I have received. One is from Hayley, who describes herself as

“a mum who’s feeling let down and helpless”.

She described the marvellous service at the Valley children’s centre in Cheddar, which was earmarked for closure by Somerset county council, and wrote:

“I went along to the informal ‘drop-in’ meeting, which I saw at least 40 families attend…When we asked the staff there what was happening, they told us they couldn’t discuss anything as they had been told by their bosses that they couldn’t get involved or share their opinions at all, which I found awful as their jobs are on the line here too…I was told that all services would be diverted to Highbridge as our area apparently ‘doesn’t have enough families in need’…As a non-driver, there is no bus from Cheddar or Axbridge to Highbridge at all. In fact, we’d have to take three buses to get there, and even that wouldn’t work as, like me, many of us need to be back by 3 pm to get our other children from school. I found the Cheddar children’s centre a lifesaver. I live in an isolated, very small town and don’t drive, so the children’s centre was, and still is, the only place I can get to within walking distance, as I cannot afford the buses.”

The second person I will quote is Victoria. She was really pleased that, after just three weeks, 400 signatures had been gathered to stop the Valley children’s centre from being closed. She said there had

“been no direct contact from Somerset County Council…nor any further information given about decision making…We have invited Councillor Nicholson”—

the lead member of the council on this—

“to a community cafe on Wednesday 5 February…but the invite has gone unanswered.”

Finally, Sue wrote:

“Children’s Centres give parents the tools for those relational building blocks and many other life changing benefits too, influencing two generations simultaneously, in a way that no other infrastructure organisation is set up to do. In Somerset I suggest that Children’s Centres are being deliberately set up to fail, or at the very least to be subsumed into the nebulous recesses of the ‘Early Help Strategy’ and disappear without trace in a couple of years’ time, without having delivered the promised improvement in services…but it is clear that wholesale reduction of numbers of Children’s Centres and their scope and influence is either planned or already taking place.

If the government is to seriously explore and address big social questions like family and community relationships, it doesn’t need to re-invent the wheel. The infrastructure is broadly there, but it needs to be understood, valued, nurtured and funded. So many people making crucial decisions at the moment really have no idea what Children’s Centres are or what they do, or the long-term cultural changes that they can bring about—but this needs time. If they are abandoned now, the waste of investment over the last 6 and more years will be absurd. They must be provided in the same way as schools, social services or health services, and accessible to all families. The inspection parameters are as stringent as any of the above!”

In Somerset, unfortunately, the county council’s child protection services’ Ofsted rating is the lowest, at inadequate, following an inspection in the middle of 2013. That is a catastrophic fall from the outstanding rating at which Ofsted inspectors judged child protection under the previous Administration in 2009. The whole closure plan is ill-conceived and, frankly, dangerous, so serious questions need to be asked of Somerset county council.

I wish to ask the Minister about how the county council responds to the Government’s assurances on their family, children and young people webpage that finances have not been cut, and that enough funds are available to councils to maintain children’s centre services as they are. Will she intervene and satisfy herself fully that the children of Somerset are best served by the county’s obsession with cutting services and costs, and banking the savings?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) on securing this important debate. I am afraid that Somerset has been in the news rather too much recently—certainly as far as Parliament is concerned —and for all the wrong reasons. The debate ties in with today’s earlier proceedings about the neglect of our drainage systems.

The tragedy of being around for rather too long is that one sees good ideas introduced, nurtured and expanded, but eventually undermined and destroyed. Back in the ’80s, when I represented Frome as a county councillor and was leader of Somerset county council, I recall working with the then National Children’s Home to introduce one of the first children’s centres in Frome. It was a breakthrough in dealing with the huge social need that had expressed itself, particularly among vulnerable families in Frome, and I believe that the development of that essential service set a pattern for a large part of the rest of the country. However, the network that has been built up across the county is now under serious threat.

My hon. Friend is right that the consultation was, frankly, dishonest. In a way she was actually too kind to the county council. She cited the phrase

“some Children’s Centres are not performing…well”,

and said that that was not accurate, but the original consultation did not even say that—it was changed halfway through. The original consultation said, “At the moment children’s centres are not performing well”, and it was pointed out that that was simply inaccurate, wrong and prejudicial to the consultation, and the council was forced to change it. The county council consistently ignored the performance of really good children’s centres, working with outreach into the community and with vulnerable families. One of the best examples of that in my constituency is the Balsam centre in Wincanton, which has a superb range of provision, but is now under threat.

What really concerns me—my hon. Friend touched on this at the end of her comments—is that this issue is of a piece with what the county council has done across the board in its provision for children. I cannot accept that a county council should, under any circumstances, be in a situation where child protection services were outstanding four years ago, but are now so far destroyed—I can use no other word—that they require direct support from Government Ministers under special measures and, I think, will eventually have to be taken in hand by the Government. That is a dereliction of duty by the county council, and it affects the children of some of the most vulnerable families in the county. This situation is part of that same dereliction of duty.

Government policy on supporting children’s centres has been clear. It has been said time and again by Ministers of the most senior level from the Dispatch Box that the Government are providing funding and encouragement for children’s centres across the country, so why is it that we in Somerset have a county council that is so myopic that it cannot see that the closure programme and its proposed changes will be enormously damaging to not just the fabric of support in my county, but the reputation of the Government? It is making Ministers appear duplicitous, and I do not believe that that is the case. I believe that the Government are absolutely genuine in their support for this sector. I implore the Minister to tell her colleagues on Somerset county council where to get off, and to tell them that this is important not just to us, but to the Government, and that the council needs to change its mind.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) on securing the debate. I agree with her about the vital work that professionals in children’s centres do.

Across the country, we are seeing a record number of parents and carers using children’s centres: more than 1 million last year. That shows the Government’s commitment to children’s centres and their important work. They provide crucial support for children and families: pre-natal and post-natal care, parenting classes, stay and play, and networks for parents. The Government are clear that they should be for everybody in the community, not just for some. In our guidance that we put out last year, we made it clear that local authorities have a responsibility to ensure that children’s centres are accessible to all parents.

There has been a debate on whether children’s centres should be targeted or universal. I believe that unless they are universal, we will not find the parents who need them most, and they may not come to them. It is therefore important that centres are accessible and within easy reach of parents so that all parents feel that they can use them and become part of that network. That is why, in our guidance, there is a presumption against the closure of children’s centres.

I agree, too, with my hon. Friend’s comments about integration with other services. There is clearly a lot of opportunity for better integration with health and education services in the locality. Some children’s centres—for example, one I visited recently in Watford—have a midwifery service for antenatal care. Other children’s centres provide birth registration and post-natal care. That is helpful for parents, because it provides one place for them to go to for help and advice—everybody goes through the door to register a birth, and they then become part of a parental network. That can extend to help on all kinds of issues: employment, finding a nursery place for their child and a place in local schools. All those can be accessed via children’s centres.

We are looking to councils to think of better ways to provide services that are local to parents and that integrate well with health services. With the Department of Health devolving health and wellbeing boards, there will be more opportunities for local authorities to integrate those services better, to get better value for money and to put more services on the front line, rather than spending money on bureaucracy. There is an opportunity —we have seen this across the country—for health services and children’s centres to work more as networks, in hub and spoke models, so that they are accessible to parents, while we gain efficiencies in management and the services they provide. Our guidance was clear that the key focus has to be on improving outcomes for children and families, and that is what the aim of children’s centres should be. However, we want them to achieve that in a universal fashion.

It is clear that the county council has not supported children’s centres in Somerset with the right data and information, and that therefore they have had catastrophic inspections results from Ofsted, but how can anyone judge how good a service is when it is downgraded because of the administration, yet the service delivered by staff is superb?

I want to come to the point about Ofsted. Last week, I spoke at a meeting of the all-party group on Sure Start children’s centres. At the moment, there is an issue with Ofsted inspections—not with their quality, but with how children’s centres are inspected. I am in discussions with Ofsted, but I think it would be more sensible to look at the overall early years support services provided by local councils through children’s centres, rather than at centres individually. A lot of councils are moving towards more of a network model, but the important thing is that parents and children can access centres and good services, and that centres reach as many people as possible. The current model—where statutory children’s centres, but not branch centres, are inspected by Ofsted—is probably not as effective as a council-based model, and I think that that is pertinent to my hon. Friend’s point. We are working on a slightly different inspection model for precisely the reasons she outlined.

I was asked where budgets were coming from. We have increased funding for early intervention from £2.1 billion to £2.5 billion in this Parliament, while the Department for Communities and Local Government has a fund for which local authorities can bid to reconfigure services in a way that suits local communities, although I have been told by Ministers that not many applications have been received from children’s services looking to reconfigure. This is an opportunity for forward-looking councils to think about how they can do things in a way that suits families, including though better co-location with GP surgeries, schools and local community facilities.

Will the Minister clarify that point? I accept that councils across the country need to find financial efficiencies—everybody is realistic about that—but is she saying that there is no financial necessity on Somerset county council to close any children’s centres? Is she saying that, because more money is available to them, the decision to close a centre is a political decision, not a financial requirement?

I know that my hon. Friend is a voice of reform and that he wants councils to be as efficient as possible. The point is that we have increased investment in early intervention.

I am terribly sorry, but we have heard several interventions already, and I need to proceed to my final remarks.

I would be pleased to continue the discussion with my hon. Friends about what might be done in the specific case of Somerset. I have outlined Government funding for children’s centres and our expectation of a presumption against closure. We want services that are accessible for all families. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wells on securing the debate and look forward to discussing the matter further.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.