Can local authorities lawfully close all their children’s centres?

This post is prompted by recent reports that some local authorities are considering closing all their children’s centres in this round of cuts. See by way of example this recent article by Polly Toynbee.

There is of course a ‘sufficiency’ duty in relation to children’s centres, found in section 5A of the Childcare Act 2006 (inserted by an amendment in 2009). Sub-section 1 of section 5A states that:

‘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’.

Section 3(2) (to which section 5A(1) refers) says that ‘The authority must make arrangements to secure that early childhood services in their area are provided in an integrated manner which is calculated to (a) facilitate access to those services, and (b) maximise the benefit of those services to parents, prospective parents and young children’.

A ‘children’s centre’ is defined in section 5A(4) as ‘a place, or a group of places (a) which is managed by or on behalf of, or under arrangements made with, an English local authority, with a view to securing that early childhood services in their area are made available in an integrated manner, (b) through which each of the early childhood services is made available, and (c) at which activities for young children are provided, whether by way of early years provision or otherwise’.

Despite the overly complex drafting, it seems clear that there is a duty on English local authorities to have sufficient children’s centres, being places managed for or on behalf of a local authority to provide integrated early childhood services and activities for young children. These centres must physically exist, i.e. not simply be ‘virtual’ centres (a network of services without a physical centre).

The duty in section 5A(1) is though subject to an important qualification. The duty must be carried out ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’. This begs the question – can a local authority which intends to close all its children’s centres say that it is not ‘reasonably practicable’ for it to operate any centres?

It may well be that this question is tested in court. My provisional answer to it is ‘yes in principle’ – but the authority would need to have:

  1. Understood the local need for such centres
  2. Considered what level of provision would be sufficient to meet that need
  3. Analysed to what extent it is reasonably practicable for it to make that provision, given the reduction in its overall resources and other pressures on its budget
  4. Complied with its wider public law obligations, for example the public sector equality duty in section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 and the duty to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in section 11 of the Children Act 2004. These duties are considered in my general blog post on legal issues relating to cuts.

It may be that local authorities could find a way through this process such that it would be lawful to reduce their level of children’s centres to zero, though I have my doubts. It would seem to require a local authority to justify why the other pressures on its budget are such that it cannot afford to operate even a single children’s centre. If the local authority is spending anything above the minimum required to meet its statutory duties in other areas (for example, collecting the bins) this may prove difficult. It is important that the wording is ‘so far as is reasonably practical’ – emphasising that the local authority should go as far as it reasonably can to provide sufficient children’s centres to meet local need.

The law requires local authorities to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote children’s welfare when tough spending decisions are made. What is clear is that a local authority which simply says ‘we are closing our children’s centres because our budget has been reduced’ will not have complied with the required process and would in my view be vulnerable to legal challenge.

If the section 5A(1) duty simply required the provision of ‘sufficient’ children’s centres then it is obvious that the answer to the question in the title of the post would be ‘no’. However Parliament has chosen to qualify the duty by reference to ‘reasonable practicability’. We may well see how the courts treat this qualification relatively shortly after local authority budgets are set for the next financial year, if decisions to close all their children’s centres are indeed taken by some local authorities. I hope though for the sake of the children and families affected that this question never needs to be answered by the courts.

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