Monday, 10 January 2011
10,000 local children had their services cut this evening on the back of a report that the Council themselves admitted was full of inaccurate numbers and statements about what would or would not happen. Amid bizarre scenes in a meeting at the Town Hall that left many in the 100 strong audience confused the Cabinet of H&F Council voted to cut services affecting some of the most vulnerable children in our borough, and to close the majority of Sure Start children's centres here, saving £3.2 million.
Or did they? The meeting started to get strange when the Cabinet Member for Children's Services, Cllr Binmore, introduced the report which had been prepared by the Director of Finance for the authority. It was, she said, out of date and that "thinking" had "moved on". Now Cllr Binmore claimed that in fact there would be one more children's centre and that most of the savings would be achieved from "reconfiguring" the services using a "hub and spoke" system. Even better there was now going to be a consultation of parents and professionals to inform the Council about what they did with their new service, albeit one that was now 3.2 million pounds slimmer.
The problem with this was that the report states very clearly that only 6 Sure Start centres, which cater for newborn children through to school age and other services that look after vulnerable children personified by the tragedy of Baby P, will be left open, and that 50 staff were to be made redundant.
Ah, said Cllr Binmore, but "thinking" had "moved on" and they were "committed to spending every penny on the front line". And anyway there was going to be a consultation.
So we had, basically, a report which by the Council's own admission was completely inaccurate including on the figures of closures and cuts. This was a problem, suggested the opposition Labour councillors, and should the Council not withdraw this report and hold the consultation before making such sweeping cuts? After all the consultation might reveal that the cuts would be dangerous for vulnerable kids. "No" said Council Leader Greenhalgh, visibly irritated by both the questioning and also the barracking from the floor. Which, it has to be said, came mainly from Andy Slaughter MP.
There were even demands for a legal opinion from the Council lawyer standing behind the councillors, he appeared ready to answer the point but Cllr Greenhalgh also said no to that as well. We didn't need one, he said.
There followed scenes from a script of Monty Python as questions were taken from the opposition councillors about what the report actually said would happen, while they were all answered with vague replies about "commitment to the front line" and a consultation - and that what the report said was no longer relevant since their thinking had moved on.
Cllr Cowan shot back with a comment that on a service as potentially serious to children's safety as this it was not the time to be facetious. Could he please have some numbers and if not some evidence of their research into what the impact of the cuts would be. Answer there came none.
By the end of the meeting Cllr Cowan asked about the consultation - which had also not been mentioned in the report. He asked what the point of it was given that it would take place after the £3.2 million had been cut, and how long it would last. Cllr Binmore at this stage, having been in the hot seat for the best part of an hour, said there was "no evidence" that the cuts would place children at greater risk, and appeared to be thinking on her feet when she said that the consultation would last, "er, I would.... anticipate, ........ no longer than.......er...... one month." On the hoof stuff.
In the end, and after confirming that there had been no contact with central Government despite David Cameron's pledge during the campaign that there would be no such cuts to the Sure Start programme, the councillors voted in a split second and started talking about planning regulations as everyone else was still interested in children's services. Answering cries from the audience, which included children, local professionals and the general public, Cllr Greenhalgh retorted "Yes. we just voted it through. Yes we have." And so they had.
Speaking outside the meeting there was anger from teachers and professionals involved in the children's services, with one chair of governors telling me they expected to see sweeping cuts that would leave the services devastated. Some of those people were among protesters gathered outside the Town Hall before the meeting, which were addressed by the Shadow Childrens Minister Sharon Hodgson MP, Andy Slaughter MP and Councillor Stephen Cowan. You can see the videos of what they said above and below.
There will now, apparently, be a consultation throughout Hammersmith & Fulham on these cuts that Cllr Binmore, again clearly estimating as she went along, said would begin "er, any day now". So look out for that. But the point is the consultation will now be taking place against a backdrop of £3.2 million having already been cut from the pot. That was done this evening. And in the most curious way.
Posted by Chris Underwood at 20:53