AN UNPRECEDENTED number of youngsters requiring protection from abuse and neglect has forced council bosses to cut funding for children’s centres, they have said.
Jim Leivers, director of children’s services at Oxfordshire County Council, said 634 youngsters were now on child protection plans – “more than ever before.”
Since 2010 there has also been a 63 per cent increase in statutory child protection investigations – made when a child is considered to be at risk of "significant harm" – compared to just 23 per cent nationally.
According to a report this month, the rapid increase is because of greater public awareness of abuse after high-profile child sexual exploitation cases – such as Operation Bullfinch in Oxford – and closer working between county authorities.
But Mr Leivers said the growing demand and “eye-watering” budget cuts meant there was now “no financial alternative” to axing universal services it was not legally required to provide.
This includes Oxfordshire’s 44 children’s centres and seven early intervention hubs, which the Conservative-run authority has proposed replacing with eight "children and family resource centres" targeted at the most vulnerable people aged up to 19. It would save £8m.
At the first of three question-and-answer events about the plans on Wednesday night, Mr Leivers told parents: “I know of no councillors who want to close centres.
"But however desirable they are... there is no legal requirement that we maintain them.
“The big issue we have got is dealing with children who are abused and need to be cared for. We have a set of duties we can’t meet with the resources we have.”
He added: “It is dead easy to sit there are say ‘find a solution to this.’ But there isn’t a financial solution.”
The cuts are part of wider savings of £290m the council has planned since 2010, due to reductions made by the government to its funding and a cap on how much it can raise through council tax.
The council has urged volunteers and community groups to come forward with proposals to continue to use the children’s centre buildings after funding runs out next September. But exasperated parents said the cuts were ideologically-driven and accused the authority of giving them “an ultimatum”.
Many said they would not feel comfortable about volunteers running the centres without trained staff also present. Others claimed the closures would lead to more referrals to social care in the long-term.
Cutteslowe father-of-two Alex Palmer, who had a heated exchange with independent councillor Mark Gray and Conservative frontbencher Melinda Tilley, said afterwards: “All they are saying is ‘if you want your services you will have to run them yourselves’.
“They are hiding behind legal duties and balanced budgets, but they must be able to find the money somewhere.
“At the moment it is just gambling that the community will step in.”
Mrs Tilley said: “We are listening – we would not have given up our time if we weren’t.”
Tamsin Browning, a spokesman for the Save Oxfordshire’s Children’s Centres campaign, said the consultation events needed to be held when more families could attend.
The first only attracted about 50 people but this was because 6pm to 7.30pm was “tea time or bed time”. Times close to 2pm would conflict with the school-run.
She added: “If they want responses from normal families, they need to hold events at accessible times.”