The full extent of the early years payment problems at Northamptonshire County Council has been laid bare with one councillor declaring the situation a crisis.
Since a different payment system was brought in two years ago there have been huge problems with childminders and nurseries being underpaid by thousands of pounds and regularly paid late.
A number of nursery owners spoke of their experiences at a special scrutiny meeting held at county hall.
It was revealed that not only had the council not been able to process payments properly but it had also been breaching families’ personal data including giving dates of births, addresses and national insurances numbers to strangers. It was also made clear that the issues are still ongoing and the council has not yet been able to get on top of the problem.
Speaking at the meeting, Tom Shea, who has a number of nurseries and employs more than 200 staff, said the issues caused by the council not being able to work its system had resulted in hours of wasted time and frustration for many.
He said: “A lot of our time and energy which should be spent looking after children is being spent on administration. I know child minder who don’t have money to pay the mortgage. Some are giving up being childminders.”
Nursery owner Hayley Hannan asked councillors and officers: “Why aren’t you helping us? We are here raising your children. Listen to us. You have got to listen to us. Otherwise you are going to have serious issues – because we are not taking it any more.”
Rachel Hutchison, who has a nursery in Dodford, said the time spent on checking invoices and speaking with council officers to try to rectify late payments was taking her away from time being spent with her children.
She said: “In January 2018 I was underpaid by £12,000. My staffing bill is £9,000. Where do I get the money from?
“It has taken away from my children, it has taken me away from my maternity leave – I have a four month old baby. There have been apologies for the past 18 months.”
Cllr Fiona Baker, who is the councillor responsible for children’s services, said that she had gone on television to apologise.
Owner of Little Learners nurseries Sam Evans said her £110,000 monthly wage bill was only able to be paid on one occasion after an insurance claim for a leak was paid.
There was anger from all sides as councillors put new director of children’s services Sally Hodges, who has only been in post for three weeks, and strategic manager for commissioning and strategy Deborah Mahon under the spotlight.
Both officers are new to the post and had inherited the problems from their predecessors.
Deborah Mahon admitted the department had a resource problem and that if more staff were put in it would take her over budget.
At the moment two commissioners appointed from central government are looking at every penny the council is spending. A children’s commissioner is also overseeing the department after a damning Ofsted at the end of last year.
Sally Hodges said the issue was one of her top priorities but hard choices would have to be made.
She said: “If I increase the capacity in that service I will need to reduce it somewhere else. That needs to be on the table.”
Cllr Victoria Perry, who was the councillor responsible for children’s services, until she was replaced in January, said she had been told by a former director of children’s services that the new system had been brought in to save staffing costs. It had also gone live without being tested.
Cllr Perry said: “This problem was escalating and escalating and at some points I was being told it was the provider’s fault – it wasn’t the case.”
Cllr Adam Brown was among those at the meeting who were keen for answers.
He said: “It is little short of a miracle that any of their businesses have survived. They have had promises dating back well over a year. We need to stop making assurances that we cant deliver on.”
He called for the new system to be scrapped and the council to revert to what it was using before.
Cllr Richard Auger apologised to the nursery owners and said: “We are in crisis. This would be a major incident in policing.
“We are not even treating this as an emergency. We are more NCC focused that provider focused.”
The meeting heard that neighbouring authorities are using the same system without any problems. Questions were also asked of shared service provider LGSS’s role in the problems and whether the new multi-million pound ERP Gold system was involved.
Cllr Danielle Stone said: “There seem to be really critical capacity issues. We need to flag that up really urgently with the commissioners. We cannot have hard-pressed staff covering for these gaps.”
Recommendations that will be put to the cabinet by the scrutiny committee include repaying people immediately and in one lump sum and getting to the bottom of cause of the system problems.