A green light has been given by the Council Cabinet today, 28 June, to put all the Early Years services including Children’s Centres out to tender with the contract worth £34m p.a. over a five year period. Cllr Brigid Jones told Cabinet colleagues that the budget of £34m is a third of what was needed to adequately fund services.
The start of the tendering also sees the Council stop being a direct provider of these services and becoming a service commissioner only.
Early years services consist of Children’s Centres, Health Visitors, parenting support and Pregnancy and breastfeeding support services which support parents from the time a child is conceived up until the age of 5. Birmingham’s Early Years Services provide support to around 100,000 parents and 80,000 children at any one time.
There will be a major rationalisation of existing Early Years provision with a multitude of providers and over 60 contracts being replaced by a single lead provider possibly operating as part of a consortium. The proposal is for there to be a greater integration of services particularly with Health visitors working more closely alongside other Early Years workers.
A three year long service review, which included public extensive consultation on the wellbeing offer to carers and children, has finally concluded. But little detail was given of how existing services will change including which Centres will remain or close, and future levels of service that families can expect were not part of the consultation.
The Council’s Budget consultation showed that actual total spend on Early Years was £74.478m in 2015/16. In March 2016 the Council agreed to cut the Early Years Budget by £1m this year with cuts rising to £5m in 2017/18 and the following two years as the new operating model becomes operational from September 2017.
Cllr Jones also told Cabinet that the Council would move forward with making this year’s £1m cuts and that providers had been told of profiled cuts to Children’s Centre services.
There was powerful resistance within the Labour Group four years ago when Budget proposals were reversed that would have seen £9.5m cut from the Children’s Centre Budget including the closure of half of all Children’s Centre’s. The long drawn out service review process has hidden the reality of these intended cuts from public view but this will now change. Between now and September 2017 there will be a wholesale decommissioning of existing services across the city causing disruption to early years workers whose jobs may be at risk and to children and families that use Children’s Centres.
The move to tender for a lead single provider will potentially open the door to a large voluntary sector provider to put in a bid. While there has been an existing mixed economy among Early Years services this move represents a decisive move for the authority to become a commissioning council – a move pushed by Central Government.
Keep our NHS Public Birmingham has also been critical of the decision to include Health Visiting services in the competitive tendering process, which could open the door to private health providers joining a bid, and is seeking reassurance that the public health money that funds the health visiting service has not been cut.