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Allegations free childcare was cut by at least £10 million prompt almost unprecedented move to call a special meeting as Councillor Helen Crawford says 'This sector is telling us, loud and clear, that they will no longer be viable, they will no longer be able to pay the Living Wage to their employees and will have to consider closing their doors'

By Scott Maclennan

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Councillor Helen Crawford fears some nurseries could go bust.
Councillor Helen Crawford fears some nurseries could go bust.

Dire warnings that £10 million of funding for free childcare for 1600 children across the north has allegedly been ripped out of the service has sparked a near unprecedented move to requisition a full meeting of Highland Council.

The decision last week by the SNP-Independent administration to freeze the hourly rate for the private, voluntary and independent (PVI) nurseries at £5.43 per child per hour was met with outrage as some fear would leave them “no longer viable.”

Councillor Helen Crawford has the support to requisition a full council meeting, something that would be an embarrassment to those in power coming as it does just four months after the election.

Such special meetings are usually ordered in this way for a variety of reasons but mostly on matters of crisis or around a lack of oversight.

The issue is how the Scottish Government’s 1140 hours of free Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) is funded – one of the defining policies of Nicola Sturgeon’s time in office.

Cuts of £10 million

Kenny Forsyth of outdoor nursery provider Stramash at Tornagrain wrote to the cabinet secretary for education Shirley-Anne Somerville that the council had “displaced” at least £10 million for 1140 hours of ELC.

Citing Scottish and council budgets he claims the move short-changed the PVI sector because the baseline budget for the initial 600 hours of free ELC was reduced from £17.6 million in 2017/18 to just £6.6 million in 2021/22.

When a further 540 hours was added by the government to bring the total to 1140 the funding was ring-fenced and Mr Forsyth argues that allowed the council to squeeze the original budget for 600 hours.

Lack of detail and oversight

Cllr Crawford wanted the meeting because the issue of freezing rates was “waved through” without any detail though a “sustainable review” was also agreed.

She is seeking a “detailed report” to “enable discussion and informed decision-making that is backed up by the exact amounts paid to the PVI sector compared to the council’s own nurseries.

“The reason that this sector matters is that it provides the sort of wrap-around care that allows hardworking families to get out and work," she said. "If we pull the rug out from under their feet, we are literally saying to hard working families, who are economically active, that we don’t really care all that much about you.

“That’s the exact opposite of what we should be doing, especially given that we have a cost of living crisis.

“And this sector is critical to the prospects for our children in terms of onward academic attainment. This sector provides a quality early learning environment for our youngest, so that they can succeed and achieve as they progress through primary and beyond.

“This sector is telling us, loud and clear, that they will no longer be viable, they will no longer be able to pay the Living Wage to their employees and will have to consider closing their doors.

“I know personally that many of these ELC providers are not only run by women, they are also predominantly staffed by women. And they are at the heart of our communities, our villages and towns.”

Requisition is 'not necessary'

Council leader Raymond Bremner said: “I’m aware that a valid request has been received requisitioning a meeting of the full Highland Council. That meeting will be held within the required timescale.

"The administration are already intending bringing a substantial paper to council in respect of this issue at the meeting of the full council on October 27 therefore I don’t believe a special meeting of the full council before then is necessary.

"The substantial paper will be a wide ranging report and will allow all members to fully consider the context and implications of the current situation.”

At the previous full council meeting education committee chairman John Finlayson said: “No one more than I would like to get more resources and funding to all our services and certainty to all our education settings and partner settings. But there is a reality.

“As has already been highlighted, the council is faced with a £9.6 million overspend in the current year and the possible £41 million gap between 2023/24 and, because of this, it's not possible to consider recommendations relating to recurring funding at this stage because we have to address the current financial crisis.

“So the reality is that ELC partner centres did receive an interim uplift last year – the council agreed that in 2021 – what the council cannot do at this time is commit to further uplifts in light of the financial crisis that we are discussing. And let's remember, it is a crisis.”

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