Unions sue Hampshire Sure Start charity over alleged illegal redundancies

Hampshire Chronicle: Hampshire mums and their children march through Winchester in 2011 to present a petition to Hampshire County Council leader Ken Thornber over cuts to Sure Start centres Hampshire mums and their children march through Winchester in 2011 to present a petition to Hampshire County Council leader Ken Thornber over cuts to Sure Start centres

A CHARITY running Sure Start children’s centres in Hampshire is facing compensation claims totalling hundreds of thousands of pounds after axing jobs.

The public sector trade union Unison has lodged claims at Southampton Employment Tribunal for 130 ex-employees, including centre managers and receptionists, on the grounds they were prematurely dismissed.

Unison has accused Action for Children of failing to consult for 90 days – the legal minimum when more than 100 posts are shed. Instead there was a 30-day consultation.

Action for Children won a contract to run centres in 13 out of 15 areas of Hampshire, including Winchester, after the service was privatised by the county council last March.

Peter Terry, regional organiser for Unison, said: “Even though they are a charity, Action for Children is still required to comply with the law. This has left many of them thousands of pounds out of pocket.

“It is bad enough being made redundant or having to accept a cut in pay. Being unlawfully fast-tracked through the process in this way just adds insult to injury.”

Mr Terry said 130 out of 270 employees were made redundant or offered new contracts on inferior terms and conditions – a figure the charity disputes. He said the ex-staff are claiming in total about £800,000.

Last year there were widespread protests from “Save Our Children’s Centre” (SOCC) campaigners after the council slashed funding by £6m or a third in 2012-13.

Now campaigners are dismayed at the scale of redundancies. Co-founder and mum-of-two Catherine Ovenden said: “This was one of our greatest fears and what we were trying to prevent happening.

Hampshire County Council promised us there would be no loss of front-line staff. They have broken that promise by outsourcing the service to providers who were unable to comply with the financial restraints of the budget given to them.”

Mrs Ovenden said many centres were putting up “working in the community” or closed notices and Harbour Centre in Eling, near Totton, was nearly always shut.

She said: “It is pointless having the building if there are no staff available to run it. The centres might physically exist but there is a complete loss of services, leaving Hampshire families without the vital support of early intervention.”

County chiefs previously pledged no centres would close although opening hours could be cut and charges introduced for playgroups.

Emma Horne, Action for Children’s south division UK director, said: “Making redundancies is not a decision we have taken lightly and we do understand this is a difficult time for all members of staff affected.

“These decisions were taken to ensure we can continue to meet the needs of the families we support. We take our legal obligations very seriously. In May this year we undertook a 30-day consultation as required by law with both the 69 members of staff who are being made redundant and trade union representatives.

“At no times did we have plans to make redundant more than 100 staff.”

Councillor Roy Perry, chief of children's services, denied the council had broken any promises.

He said: “We said we would keep all of our children's centres open and we have. We also promised we would maintain the number of family support workers and in fact as a result of the re-organisation we will have seen the numbers of staff working directly with families, including in those centres run by Action for Children, increase.

“We have also, as promised, been able to re-invest savings made back into support services for young children by creating a new grant programme which will enable more organisations to develop additional services which are complementary to and link in with children's centre services, again enabling more families to benefit from services which support their needs."

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