Scrutiny of proposals which could see key children’s services in West Sussex outsourced have been blocked, sparking accusations of a ‘whitewash’.
An ‘Integrated Prevention and Earliest Help Service’ would bring together existing services in Early Childhood, Early Help, Think Family and the Young People’s Service and also incorporate the Healthy Child Programme (HCP).
The proposals have been described as ‘incredibly exciting’ and ‘ambitious’ by West Sussex County Council and could achieve efficiencies of £6million, excluding children’s social care.
As the council is currently holding a procurement exercise for the HCP, which includes health visiting, school nursing, and the family nurse partnership, Labour councillors have expressed fears that if a private company is awarded the contract, it could take over even more services included in the IP&EHS.
Proposals were discussed at the council’s Children and Young People’s Services Select Committee earlier this month, but Labour claims that crucial details were only presented to councillors by officers that same morning.
A request for further scrutiny by five Labour councillors was then blocked by Tory members.
Sue Mullins (Lab, Ifield East and Gossops Green), Labour group leader at WSCC, said: “The discussion on this subject at the select committee was needlessly and ridiculously rushed. There was no time for proper consideration of such an important proposal.
“It was claimed that the reorganisation of these services had nothing to do with saving £6m, but that is untrue - the two are inextricably linked. Why else the rush to push this through?”
Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate and Crawley Central) added: “This is a whitewash, and it speaks volumes that, when challenged, the Tories simply refuse to discuss the matter any further.
“That is not just undemocratic, it’s a dreadful way to run a council. Risking the care and education of our most vulnerable children to outsourcing is simply not the answer.
“The council should be involving staff to help design new services, not simply imposing an ideological model on them, with a high risk of redundancy and inevitably a poorer service.
“There’s no hard evidence to tell us how the £6m savings will be made. But surely there is an argument for spending more not less in this area?
“We need the council’s decision to be withdrawn immediately to give all councillors ample time to thoroughly scrutinise the entire proposal, discover where those savings are likely to be made and give due consideration for continuous provision of in-house services.”
A spokesman for WSCC explained that the call-in request had been rejected by the committee’s business planning group as it did not meet criteria set out in the authority’s constitution, and had been fully discussed by the councillors already.
The spokesman added: “We don’t currently know what the final service design will look like but the core of this redesign is about merging our existing services in order to streamline the support on offer to families and children in West Sussex.
“These changes are ambitious but we firmly believe it’s the right time and the right intervention needed for our vulnerable families.
“Outsourcing would not be considered without a full consultation with those affected and would be the subject of a full business case before any decisions are made.”
Although savings formed part of the work, just as significant was the benefits of combining the services, and the council has been and would continue to work closely with staff throughout the changes.
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