The ruling cabinet at Northamptonshire County Council will set out how it is going to deal with the early years payments fiasco next week.
For the past 18 months, hundreds of childminders and nursery owners from Northants have been plunged into chaos after the county council mismanaged payments, underpaying some by several thousand and making many others wait months for the funds to be reimbursed. At one point the authority owed 230 providers £125,000 in late payments.
Next Tuesday (May 14th), the conservative cabinet will announce what it intends to do to solve the long-running problem, which started in 2017 when the authority brought in a new IT system.
It will decide whether to accept a series of recommendations from the council’s own scrutiny committee, which in March attempted to get to the bottom of the issue by questioning council officer Deborah Mahon and the authority’s new director of children’s services Sally Hodges. It also heard from a number of nursery owners who had been underpaid.
Recommendations from the scrutiny committee include: the council reverting back to termly rather than monthly payments, paying money owed to providers immediately, setting up ways for providers to contact the council and even scrapping the new system and going back to the old one.
It also recommends that the ‘authority understands the issues that have caused its early years payment arrangements to operate ineffectively.”
Chair of the scrutiny committee Mick Scrimshaw said: “Hopefully our scrutiny has made some kind of impact but this will, of course, depend on what cabinet decides to do. They now know our concerns and I think they would be foolish to ignore them, so I am hoping for a good outcome.”
The Capita One payment system that is used by the council is used without issue by other neighbouring local authorities.
It is thought that part of the problem could have been the link-up between the Capita One system and the authority’s own ERP system.
An internal audit into the situation is also expected to be published anytime soon.
Early years provider Maria Boterill Barnes, who owns Home from Home, which runs four pre-schools in the county and educates 500 under fives, says the problem is ongoing.
She said: “It is such a mess. I have been underpaid £15,000 in April and as yet have not had time to work out where the wrong payments have been because I have just opened a new setting.
“The way early years providers have been treated is appalling and if it had not been so well run my business could have gone under. The pressure we are being put under is phenomenal.”
The nursery owner is in dispute with the county council over almost £100,000 which she says is owed in underpayments her from 2017. The council has offered £30,000 to settle the bill but Ms Cotterill Barnes has refused.
Northamptonshire County Council also reduced hourly pay rates to all early years providers last month after having a cut in funding from central government.
The move caused outcry and was announced at the eleventh hour. All of the county’s nine maintained nurseries – including internationally renowned Pen Green Children’s Centre – are also having to pay back hundreds of thousands of funds to the council after it miscalculated funding formulas.
Councillor Scrimshaw said the scrutiny committee could also look at this issue.