A countywide shake-up of children’s services has sparked fears that some of Cumbria’s most vulnerable residents will “fall through the net”.

County council chiefs held a meeting last week to agree new contracts for child and family support services, but this decision is now set to be “called in” amid serious concerns.

Particularly controversial has been news that the national charity Family Action, headquartered in London, is set to be parachuted in to take over Copeland’s Howgill Centre, a well-respected institution within the borough.

Copeland MP Trudy Harrison said she would be urging the cabinet to urgently re-think their decision, adding that it “makes no sense”.

She said: “In an area where family and community means so much, the 40 years’ experience which Howgill has brought to Copeland is priceless and not at all replaceable by an out-of-area organisation.

“The tender process has been challenged throughout and is arguably flawed. I am meeting with Howgill and county councillors calling in this decision on Friday and desperately hope Cumbria County Council will re-think their decision.”

The cabinet’s decision was held behind closed doors, which is normal practice when dealing with commercial decisions.

However, it is understood that Barnardo’s, which held four of the six Cumbrian contracts, has lost all bar one.

Services in Carlisle, Allerdale, Copeland and Barrow are all due to be handed over to London-based Family Action.

Barnardo’s was previously responsible for Allerdale, Carlisle, South Lakes and Eden, but the Local Democracy Reporting Service understands it has been left only with Eden.

Meanwhile, the charity Action for Children, which previously had Barrow, will be offered the South Lakes contract.

Councillor Emma Williamson, who serves on the Scrutiny Advisory Board for Children and Young People, said she had “made it clear” to council chiefs that she would be calling in the decision as soon as it was formally announced.

She said: “It is a terrible decision for Copeland that they are going to parachute a national company in that does not understand the unique fabric of Copeland and its very specific needs.”

She raised concerns that it would take new contract-holders “a long time to embed into the community”, leaving service-users “really frightened”.

She said that “vulnerable people are going to fall through the net”, describing the cabinet’s decision as potentially “catastrophic” for Copeland.

Mike Starkie, the elected mayor of Copeland, said the number of self-referrals to the Howgill was evidence of high levels of confidence in the existing service.

And he predicted this relationship with the public, nurtured over many years, would be “completely shattered” by the awarding of the new contract.

The new management arrangements are supposed to kick-in at the beginning of January, with fears raised over what this change could mean for “ongoing case work”.

Mrs Williamson expressed concerns over whether staff who take on referrals would be be able to see them through when the new contract is due to come into force in several weeks’ time.

It has been claimed that the decision to award the contract to Family Action leaves a question mark over all the “additional services” provided to Copeland residents by the Howgill Centre.

Leading councillors are concerned about possible job losses affecting long-serving employees with many years of valuable experience and passion for their role, though some of these roles will be afforded protection Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) regulations

The county council is due to go into “standstill” for 10 days at the end of October over the decision, a legally-binding part of the procurement process which means it is limited in what it can say about the contracts.

This cooling off period is intended to allow concerns and questions to be raised by members of the public following call-in.

But moving to address some of the concerns, Councillor Anne Burns, Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, said: “The contract for Child and Family Support Services is due to come to an end on December 31, 2019 and under procurement legislation the council has to re-tender the contract.

“This has been a piece of work which started some time ago and following a thorough and fair procurement process we have arrived at the decision which has been taken today. Cabinet are legally obliged to award the contract to the organisations that submit the best overall bid.

“We are extremely grateful to the Howgill Family Centre for the services they have provided to children and families in west Cumbria over many years and we will continue to work with them and support them to manage this significant change.

“It is important to note that in these circumstances employees involved in delivering the service will be considered under TUPE [Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) regulations] regulations. We are also clear that there should be no negative impact on service users as a result of this decision, and other organisations or groups supported by Howgill should not be affected.

“We understand that there may be concerns locally during this period of change and our priority is to ensure that children, young people and their families receive the best possible support.”

The process by which the county council has reached their decision has also come under fire, with Mayor Starkie describing the tendering as “ham-fisted”.

He also claimed that the top tier authority had tried to “sneak” the consultation in “under the radar”, with claims that the “goalposts had been moved halfway through”.

“The whole thing has been in chaos from the start,” he said.

Tony Lywood, Labour’s prospective parliamentary for Copeland, said the “first priority” must be to protect children’s and family services.

He added: “It is very disappointing that the Howgill centre, which has done fantastic work for decades, was not awarded the contract by Cumbria County Council.

“Local charities are nearly always the best way of service delivery in an area they know well and are personally committed to.

“The great work of the people at the Howgill Centre seems to have been overlooked in this case.

“Howgill is a great local charity and delivers its services with efficiency, compassion and care.

“I will, with others, be questioning long and hard how and why the Howgill Centre was not chosen in this process with the aim to revisit this most unfortunate and regrettable decision.”