COUNCIL staff facing a grilling from parents over proposed changes to children’s centres have been taught how to deal with difficult questions by an outside body, the County Gazette has learned.

Somerset County Council commissioned a document by public speaking experts The Campaign Company to brief facilitators and speakers ahead of consultations over the ‘de-designation’ of 11 centres.

A request under the Freedom of Information Act was lodged with the council to determine how much public money was spent on the advice, but the authority said it was commercially sensitive and refused to disclose the amount.

The document – obtained by the Gazette – highlights “hostile” media coverage towards the council’s plans, referring to specific articles run by the County Gazette and the BBC.

It also mentions “vocal and critical” comments made in the press by Cllr Mike Rigby (Independent) and Cllr Justine Baker (LibDem).

Speakers were told to reiterate five ‘top line key messages’ when probed at consultations and given a list of likely questions with some suggested answers.

Somerset County Council defended its decision to hire the outside organisation to brief speakers ahead of the consultations, which are still underway.

A spokesman said: “The council has its own expertise in engagement, involvement and consultation.

“However, this kind of work comes in peaks and troughs so, while we undertake the majority ourselves, at busy times – such as now – we commission support on a case by case basis.

“This has always been the case and is preferable to delaying important work like this because we haven’t got capacity, or having too many staff during the ‘trough’ periods.

“In this case the support is to prepare and facilitate meetings, gather feedback at the meetings and produce an independent summary of comments raised.

“A very small part of preparing for the meetings involves giving council staff attending the events an idea of the kind of questions that they might be asked so that they can answer common questions quickly and accurately.”