Opposition leader Lucy Nethsingha says she was shocked that Cambridgeshire County Council spent £216,000 on a PR campaign for fostering “but are not willing to find any extra to help feed the poorest in the county over Christmas”.
Cllr Nethsingha, leader of the Lib Dem group, was responding to this newspaper’s revelation of a 30-month PR contract handed to former BBC Radio Cambridgeshire presenter Paul Stainton.
“The amount of Cambridgeshire taxpayers’ money being handed out to PS Media (Paul Stainton) in fulfilling this project has shocked me,” she said.
She said she was aware of a marketing and PR campaign being brought to the general purposes committee to attract more foster carers but said the remit was far wider than that contained within the contract.
The county council says the decision to award the contract to Mr Stainton came after a business case was signed off by the committee in November 2017.
It provided £480,000 for “a step change in the marketing, recruitment and support for foster carers in Cambridgeshire which included identified funding for a three-year marketing campaign”.
But Cllr Nethsingha said: “I am afraid there are many questions to be asked about the way in which this project was carried out.
“I have already drawn the project to the attention of the chair of the county council audit committee.”
The Lib Dem councillor said the committee was told that the total agreed was for “a broad scale of work, and an entirely reasonable project”.
She said: “I would have no hesitation in supporting further assessments of how children travel through the foster carer system.
“I feel that providing additional support to existing in-house foster carers is something the council should certainly be supporting.
“Our in-house foster carers are crucial to the care of some of the most vulnerable children in the county.
“However, it would now appear that a significant proportion of the money intended to go towards supporting foster carers has been spend with PS Media.”
Cllr Nethsingha added: “While it was clear in that a campaign to recruit more in-house foster carers would be part of the project, I was certainly not expecting that this would form such a large part of the cost.
“In addition, the explanation for using an external consultant for this recruitment work was that the county council was not a specialist foster carer recruiter.
“I am surprised to hear that they would consider PS Media to be specialists in foster carer recruitment.”
Mr Stainton said: “Due to the incredible success of this campaign, hundreds of vulnerable children in Cambridgeshire have seen their lives completely transformed for the better.
“This in turn has also helped save millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, at a very difficult time for council budgets.”
The contract with Mr Stainton was agreed within a year of him leaving the BBC in an acrimonious pay and conditions dispute.
However, his departure was softened not only by the county council contract but with other income from Peterborough City Council and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.
Official records show that Mr Stainton was paid £68,468 by Peterborough City Council in the three years to June, 2020, and a further £18,850 by the combined authority in the six months from December 2017 to May 2018.
It brought his income for mainly video and consultancy work throughout that period to over £303,000.
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The county council spokesperson said that at the time of the contract, around 61 per cent of children in foster care within the county were placed with independent fostering agencies – whose average cost per child per annum is in the region of £50,000.
“This is more than the cost of using a locally recruited carer,” the spokesperson said.
“And it is over and above the costs of social workers or family members travelling to keeping in touch with children who could be in placements out of county.”
“The recruitment of foster carers has historically been a challenging endeavour.
“Councils are not specialist foster carers recruiters and are in direct competition with private providers.
“The decision was taken to put the campaign element of the work out to a private provider drawn down from a procurement framework.
“This is where any number of suppliers from different services can apply to be pre-approved, and then are drawn down by the council and other public sector bodies at need.”
The council said they looked for a supplier with expertise in video production alongside a prominent level of local knowledge.
These were to include “close and existing links with existing local media and the local business community in order to encourage and develop advocacy and sponsorship opportunities”
The spokesperson added: “PS Media was drawn down from the framework to undertake the work.
“During the 30-month contract 81 new foster carers have been approved, a current minimum annual saving for the council approaching £4m.
“As importantly it has increased the pool of local carers for local children, who can receive dedicated 24-hour support and skills training from the fostering team.
“Regular update reports have been taken to the general purposes committee as part of transformation funding overview.”
Asked why the work needed an external public relations expert, a council spokesperson said: “At the time of the initial business case the inhouse team lacked the specific skills and capacity to take on this work.”
In future, said the spokesperson, and following re-structuring within both the city and county media teams, more of this work “is now being fulfilled in house”.
Mr Stainton said: “PS Media works with a number of companies and organisations, offering expert communications, advice and training.
“We are incredibly proud to be an integral part of Cambridgeshire County Council’s fostering campaign.
“Our multi- faceted, strategic approach has helped attract record numbers of foster carers, at a time when other authorities and agencies have struggled to attract new carers.”
He added: “We look forward to playing our part in helping provide even more vulnerable Cambridgeshire children with a local, loving home in the future.”
Mr Stainton has just completed a second piece of work for the county council – producing videos of rural parishes and towns and how they responded to the Covid crisis.
The videos were shown to an online parishes conference last week.
“This work was judged to cost under £5,000 and in accordance with the council’s procurement rules three quotes were sought and PSMedia appointed as a result,” said the spokesperson.
“An audience of 340 took part in the event and the films will also be used in other ways to demonstrate the work of parishes during the pandemic for the rest of the year.”