The LibDem, Green and Independent group joined forces with Labour to “call in” to Scrutiny Suffolk’s recent decision to close or alter Childrens Centre provision throughout Suffolk. The 4 opposition members (I was one) asked probing and important questions to back the points made by our call-in speakers: LibDem Penny Otton and Labour’s Jack Abbott. Additionally there was an excellent statement from LDGI group leader, Elfrede Brambly Crawshawe.
However Scrutiny is a numbers game: there are double the number of Conservative members to opposition ones on the committee – most of the latter being obedient silent sheeple who ask no questions at all – but vote as they are told to. The vote therefore went against us.
As the public meeting was recorded (like Cabinet and Full Council), I would like to say to you “Watch the questions, observe for yourselves the Conservative members complete silence, notice the fumbling, incomplete attempt at explanation when anomalies were brought to light – and then ponder the majority vote which went against reason (but not against Conservative party policy).
Sadly, SCC seems to have destroyed the recording, leaving very minimal minutes. Could it be that Scrutiny is THE one remaining public meeting where the Conservatives are publicly held to account, without the chance of wriggling off the hook with a series of grandstanding speeches?
I think we should be told.
In the meantime – I did my best, but the Caterpillar goes.
The questions I and fellow LibDem John Field asked are below:
- This Scrutiny report actually contradicts the report given to Cabinet, on which the decision was made. Here it says that outreach will cost an average of £4300 per centre per year, which will provide 4 group sessions per week (term-time only) at £30 per session. By contrast, in Appendix I of the Cabinet report it stated that outreach sessions for Caterpillar would cost £23,500 a year – not £4,300. It said this sum eould cover at least 11 two-hour sessions per week (for 52 weeks a year) at a cost of £20 per hour, or £40 per session. If only £43,000 is available for outreach, that would leave just £19,500 for the other 9 centres – or an average of just £2167 each. Can you please explain why we have got completely different information than what was given to the Cabinet, and what the actual budget for outreach is per centre? Were the Cabinet given incorrect information, or have the Scrutiny Committee been given incorrect information?I
- In paragraph 8 you outline the various costs associated with each centre that is being closed or repurposed, and then state the amount that will be saved by closing each one. However, we will still own the buildings – so surely SCC will continue to pay for costs such as security, utilities and maintenance, even if it comes from a different department’s budget. Is this really a saving, or are you just moving the cost over to another budget in SCC?
- If the early help budget is so severely underspent by £1.4m for each of the last 5 years (according to Scrutiny paragraph 9) it is very hard to understand why it was deemed necessary to close the 10 children’s centres in the first place. Why was this spare budget not used to pay for additional outreach and staff, whilst also maintaining the current number of children’s centres?o
- How hve you calculated that the average cost of hiring a village hall is £30 per session, and why is this evidence not included in the response? Have you undertaken a desktop study of the rates and availability of village halls in the outreach areas for all the centres that are being closed? From my experience, £30 is at the very low end of the scale for hiring costs. Woodbridge I am having to raise £3.5m for Jetty Lane, because SCC failed to maintain and then pulled down a youth centre that could have provided this hire. In addition, many of the cheaper venues are likely to be in isolated rural locations and may not have accessible facilities such as disabled toilets/access or baby changing rooms.u
- Suffolk libraries are being encouraged by SCC to run as an independent business and will increasingly need to generate their own funding. What evidence do you have for your assertion that any future outreach sessions in libraries will be free of charge? Has this been agreed with Suffolk Libraries? For how long? Whilst they may currently offer one free session a week, I think it is very likely that they would start charging if we were wanting to use their premises more often. It also may not be viable for there to be frequent outreach sessions in libraries. Eg do you have any evidence to suggest that libraries would be happy with the idea that there could be 4 outreach sessions a week?
- I’m very concerned by the lack of analysis over safeguarding issues within this outreach model, particularly with regards to the use of public libraries as venues for outreach sessions with young children. Have safeguarding issues been analysed by officers ,and if so why wasn’t this included in the report to Cabinet?a
- You state that the outreach budget will be increased if necessary. Is there an upper limit to this, and where will the additional funding come from? (I asked this twice as I got no answer the first time. Not the second time either)
- You have suggested that the outreach funding would allow there to be 4 group sessions run per week. How does this compare to the number of group sessions that are currently provided by these centres?
- You dismiss the chances of “clawback” of significant sums the govt invested in two centres Caterpillar being one). As member for Woodbridge, why was this money not invested in keeping the old Youth Centre in good repair? You would then have an appropriate venue you could also hire out. Instead you tore it down, left 30 groups homeless,and invested govt money in a lease for an inappropriate building which you say is not fit for purpose. (You wouldn’t believe the patronising inaccuracies I was fobbed off with as a response to this. Disgraceful)