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Parents and campaigners lobby last month's Cabinet meeting.

Parent uproar over cuts as Biggs welcomes pilot

TOWER HAMLETS PARENTS are up in arms over John Biggs’s plans to target services for children and young people when he proposes a cuts budget to the Council on 22nd February.

Parents – and junior service users – joined Council staff in a lobby of the Cabinet last month, and their campaign is set to continue at a meeting tomorrow, 2nd February (details below). Parents are worried that the Budget proposes selling non-profit making Council nurseries to private sector providers, who will want to squeeze a profit from running the service. “Closing the Council’s nurseries was proposed a couple of years ago,” one parent told London Bangla, “but parents worked with Labour Councillors to oppose the plans and the closure was stopped. Now the Labour mayor is proposing to pass the nurseries over to private businesses. What changed?”

Parents are concerned that valuable expertise will be lost in any transfer. Council staff would be taken on by the new providers, on the same rates of pay – but they could see their pay slashed as soon as transfer is complete, if their new bosses make a business case for why the staff are too expensive. Parents point out that many of the children who go to the nurseries have special needs and/or are referred by GPs or Social Services, so the Council would pay their fees – reducing any saving the Council is trying to make and leaving Council Tax payers shovelling money into the pockets of private businesses.

Parents are also worried about proposed cuts to Children’s Centres contained in John Biggs’s draft budget. Town Hall unions point out that this was published on the Council website on 23rd December – leaving very little time for meaningful public and staff consultation after the Christmas break. Cuts in the budget for the Youth Service and Careers Service are also proposed, leaving residents feeling that the budget cuts are focussed on young people.

While residents worry about their services, John Biggs has welcomed a government announcement that the Borough is to pilot the new Childcare Vouchers for working parents. The scheme will allow working parents to claim the cost of 30 hours of childcare a week for three and four year old children (up from the current 15 hours per week).

Although the expansion of the Scheme sounds generous, campaigners have pointed to several flaws. The 30 hours per week childcare will only be provided in term time (38 weeks of the year), so working parents will really only receive funding for approximately 22 hours a week, not 30. The basic 15 hours of free childcare remains available for all three and four year olds, but to qualify for the extra 15 hours both parents (or a single parent) must earn, on average, a weekly wage equivalent to 16 hours at the National Minimum Wage: in most cases, this will require both parents (or the single parent) to work 16 hours per week.

However, the worst aspect of the scheme is that the voucher appears to pay providers £4 an hour for the childcare it covers. Professional estimates put the cost of providing even basic private sector nursery places at around £4.50 an hour – which is below what quality nursery places in the public sector cost. Nurseries may decide they cannot afford to offer the “free” care, or may start charging for extras previously covered in the basic charges, such as food or trips out.

Public sector providers, who offer better terms and conditions to staff and provide high quality services, will find it very difficult to manage on the level of funding offered by the new voucher scheme. The low level of funding will put pressure on public sector providers to offload their services to the private sector – which, coincidentally, is just what John Biggs is proposing to do.

John Biggs added a caveat to his welcoming of the news that Tower Hamlets will trial the extended hours scheme from April onwards, saying: “I remain concerned that the Government may not adequately fund the scheme and will not hesitate to make this clear if it proves to be the case.” It seems he is aware of the funding pressures but has not yet linked them to his own budget cuts.

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