This is my layperson’s explanation of the judgement. The judgement runs to 18 pages so I’ve extracted what I think are the guts. I am only going to cover two of the complaints raised by the mother who brought the case.
The first complaint was that BCC was in breach of Section 5A of the Childcare Act 2006 and the mandatory statutory guidance made under that Act.
Section 5A says:-
(1) Arrangements made by an English Local Authority under section 3(2) must, so far as is reasonably practicable, include arrangements for sufficient provision of children’s centres to meet local need.
(2) “Local need” is the need of parents, prospective parents and young children in the authority’s area.”
This is known as the “sufficiency” duty.
In order to discharge the sufficiency duty, a local authority has to consider and assess: -
- the need for children’s centres in their area;
- what provision would be enough to meet that need; and
- what number of children’s centres it would be reasonably practicable for the Local Authority to provide, taking into account such matters as affordability, and practical considerations such as the availability of appropriate buildings, geographic location, and accessibility.
The statutory guidance sets out what a local authority should do to meet the sufficiency duty, including:-
• “ensure that a network of children’s centres is accessible to all families with young children in their area;
• ensure that children’s centres and their services are within reasonable reach of all families with young children in urban and rural areas, taking into account distance and availability of transport;
• consider how best to ensure that the families who need services can be supported to access them;
• target children’s centres services at young children and families in the area who are at risk of poor outcomes through, for example, effective outreach services, based on the analysis of local need;
• not close an existing children’s centre site in any reorganisation of provision unless they can demonstrate that, where they decide to close a children’s centre site, the outcomes for children, particularly the most disadvantaged, would not be adversely affected and will not compromise the duty to have sufficient children’s centres to meet local need. The starting point should therefore be a presumption against the closure of children’s centres.
• take into account the views of local families and communities in deciding what is sufficient children’s centre provision”.
The barrister representing the mother argued that:
- There was no express statement by BCC that the Council had had specific regard to the requirements of Section 5A,
- There was no passage that directly addressed the question whether the reduced number of children’s centres under BCC’s preferred option met the needs of parents, prospective parents and young children in Buckinghamshire for such centres.
- Nowhere in BCC’s documents was there anything to say that the Council had identified the need for children’s centres or assessed sufficiency. This was a precise and distinct statutory obligation which could not be submerged in passages in the documents relating to the discharge of other duties.
- Because children’s centres were open to all, and not reserved for young children with additional needs, by specifically focusing on the laudable aim of improving the provision of services for more vulnerable children of all ages, the Council lost sight of, and therefore failed to assess, the local need of all families with children aged 0-5.
The judge said in her judgement “The Council plainly concluded that the 16 family centres would suffice. It did not need to spell this out in terms, so long as it performed the duty in substance, as I am satisfied it did. There was no single line assessing a particular level of need or addressing sufficiency, which gave [the submission by the barrister for the mother] a certain superficial attraction; but as [the barrister for BCC] submitted, consideration of sufficiency to meet local need was pervasive through every stage of the decision-making process.”
The judge cited a number of relevant references in BCC documents, for example:
- an appendix to an options appraisal document referred to Section 5A.
- paragraph 19 of the same (or perhaps some other) report said that “the rationale for these additional sites is to effectively meet local needs, as well as to maximise the accessibility of family centres.” The judge said this “demonstrates that the Council addressed its mind to the sufficiency duty”.
- paragraph 18, in conjunction with Appendix 4, explained how the location of the family centres was chosen.
The judge was satisfied that “the material before the court is sufficient to establish that the Council did assess the overall needs and locally based needs of families with young children, and of the children themselves, for children’s centres; and that it did make a conscious and informed decision that the 16 centres at the selected locations would be enough to meet those needs. Therefore, the Council fulfilled its duty under s.5A.”
So it all depends on your definition of “demonstrates”.
Section 5A means BCC cannot legally close a children’s centre unless it can demonstrate that the outcomes for children, particularly the most disadvantaged, would not be adversely affected.
Does this mean, as the dictionary says, BCC should demonstrate this by “clearly showing the truth by giving proof or evidence”?
Or does it mean BCC can demonstrate this by scattering references to the legal duty and bland assertions amongst its BCC documents? Do these bits and pieces discharge BCC’s legal duty under Section 5A?
Well the judge decided it did.
A second complaint was that the consultation was unfair.
The barrister for the mother argued, amongst other things, that the consultation failed to provide sufficient information to enable consultees to respond to the consultation intelligently - indeed it was not even immediately clear that BCC’s preferred option involved closing down any children’s centres.
The judge pointed out that page 11 of the consultation document spelt out the proposed closures. And question 16 and 17 of the accompanying questionnaire explictly referred to the fact that under two of BCC’s options, including its preferred option, some of the children’s centre buildings would be closed.
She concluded that in her judgement “it would have been clear to any reasonable person reading the consultation documents that 2 of the 3 proposals being consulted on would involve the closure of some (or all) children’s centres in Buckinghamshire and that the other proposal being consulted on would involve a significant reduction in the services provided by the 35 existing children’s centres. It would also have been clear to the consultees how the Council proposed to meet the needs of all families with children under 5 as part of the overall restructuring”.
So, according to the judge, any parent struggling to cope with pre-school children who didn’t get round to reading page 11 of the consultation document or questions 16 and 17 of the questionnaire and didn’t cotton on to the fact that BCC proposed to close 19 children’s centres (and understand why) is - well just unreasonable.
So now you know.