Big changes are under way in the Council’s Children’s Services. Children’s Services are being transferred to the Children’s Trust, set up and owned by the Council. This will bring together the services currently delivered by health visitors, children’s centres and various parenting support services into a fully integrated Early Years Health and Wellbeing Service within one single system.
A more integrated system is welcome, but the new policy raises five urgent issues for service users and staff:
- cuts in provision,
- the quality of provision,
- employees’ rights,
- and secret deals.
The new plan shrouded in secrecy
At the Cabinet meeting on 18 April this year there were two reports about the new plans – a public report and a private report. (Bizarrely, there is no report of this Cabinet meeting on the Council meetings website, but the public report can found on the report of the Schools, Children and Families Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 2 May at https://birmingham.cmis.uk.com/birmingham/Meetings/tabid/70/ctl/ViewMeetingPublic/mid/397/Meeting/9862/Committee/327/SelectedTab/Documents/Default.aspx)
The public report states that “For reasons for commercial confidence, the full tender documents, the detail of the recommended provider and the private report have not been shared with the unions.” In other words, all the key information was kept secret, not just from the unions but from the public as well.
In June the Council launched a consultation exercise on the plans from 19 June to 17 August. The Early Years Health and Wellbeing Consultation Booklet (https://www.birminghambeheard.org.uk/people-1/eyconsultation/supporting_documents/67517.04%20Early%20Years%20Consultation.pdf) revealed publicly for the first time that the new Service would not actually be provided by the Children’s Trust itself. The Trust would contract out provision to four new providers.
We have followed a formal process to decide who will lead on the delivery of our new proposed service model and this has enabled us to award the contract for the delivery of these services to Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust in partnership with Barnardo’s, Spurgeons Children’s Charity (Spurgeons), St Paul’s Community Development Trust and The Springfield Project, based in Sparkhill.
Barnardo’s is a major provider of children’s services to many local authorities. Spurgeons is a charity based in Rushden, Northants. St Paul’s, based in Balsall Heath, and Springfield are much smaller Birmingham organisations. Spurgeons and Springfield are both charities with a Christian faith ethos.
A fake consultation exercise
But the Consultation Booklet says nothing about the capabilities of these 4 providers – what their past and present record is – or what services they will provide in Birmingham and to who, or what the cost of the 4 contracts will be . Nor does it say what public and staff involvement there will be in the Trust and the providers and how they will be publicly accountable to service users. There seem to be no plans for public or staff participation as members of the Board of the Trust.
So the consultation exercise was essentially asking for a blank cheque to be written in the dark and handed over to 4 private organisations about which we know little about what they will do. What is happening here – let’s call it by its name – is the privatisation of Birmingham’s Children’s Services.
In an update report on the Children’s Trust at the Schools, Children and Families Overview & Scrutiny Committee on 13 September stated that “An outline early draft of the service delivery contract and supporting schedules will be completed by the end of September with a detailed draft completed by the end of December.” So we won’t know until January next year what the actual contract is that was awarded in the spring of this year and so-called “consulted” on this summer.
Transfer of Council Early Years staff to new employers – Union recognition refused by two providers
The following day, Thursday 14 September, the Joint Trade Unions GMB and Unison held an update meeting with management over the proposed transfer of BCC staff to the new Trust. What they didn’t realise is that staff would actually be transferring not the Council-owned trust but to the 4 private providers. This creates multiple problems including staffing restructures.
Both unions have now lodged disputes with the council over how the contract was awarded and how no safeguards for members were considered as part of the bidding process. The contract is due to begin on November 1st but this is now unlikely to happen. There is one explosive issue still unresolved – members’ continued rights to trade union recognition. One of the incoming companies has stated they have no intention of recognising both GMB and Unison and another refused to recognise the GMB. As yet we don’t know which two companies these are.
The closure of the 26 Council-run Children’s Centres
There is one more disastrous proposal in the Council’s plans – they aim to close all 26 of the Children’s Centres that are run by the Council. This represents nearly half of the 60 Children’s Centres in the city. The list of the Centres and which are marked for closure can be found in the Consultation Booklet and on the BATC website at https://birminghamagainstthecuts.wordpress.com/2017/07/21/save-the-26-childrens-centres-the-campaign-spreads/
It doesn’t need spelling out here how damaging this would be for the parents, children and communities they serve, as well of course as the loss of jobs by their staff. Of course the closures will be most damaging for the most deprived and disadvantaged areas. For two examples see Nicky Hinchcliff on Adderley at a GMB public meeting on 22 July (BATC 4 August: https://birminghamagainstthecuts.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/closing-26-nurseries-what-it-means-for-adderley-nursery-school-and-childrens-centre/) and Polly Toynbee on Lakeside (Guardian 8 August https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/08/end-child-poverty-tories-closing-sure-start )
Several labour movement figures have spoken out against the closures but what is urgently needed is a full-blooded campaign, led by the parents most affected together with the staff and their unions.
First steps could include petitions, letters to the press, calls to councillors and MPs of all parties to support the campaign, public meetings in the city centre and the local areas most affected, and pressure on the three councillors most responsible: Cllr Majid Mahmood – Value for Money & Efficiency Cllr, Paulette Hamilton – Health and Social Care, and Cllr Brigid Jones – Children, Families & Schools.
And a forceful public campaign to save the Children’s Centres would provide the unions with the best context for their demand for union recognition and rights from the 4 private providers of Children’s Services.
Richard Hatcher 7 October
from a presentation at Birmingham Trades Union Council delegates’ meeting 5 October 2017.