The inquest into Bexley Council’s SEN failures took up an hour and a half of
Committee time and to demonstrate that it was a serious matter it was well attended by non-Committee members too.
The sorry saga began at a Communities Scrutiny meeting in July, a meeting I decided not to go to after a long day in East Ham, I did however sit and listen to the webcast at home and there was one bit I remember very well. That is Cabinet Member John Fuller telling the Committee how well the Council had been doing with SEN transport even beating one pesky parent in Court. Unusually, that meeting was not reported here, however I did keep a recording of it.
Two weeks later
at a Full Council meeting the Labour Group pulled their rabbit from the hat; the Local Government Ombudsman did not agree with Councillor Fuller and
had ruled against Bexley several times. The Labour Group
issued a Press Release.
From there it is probably safe to ignore Tweedledee and Tweedledum’s Twitter attack, it was all bluster and distortions as we have come to expect, and examine this week’s inquest in greater detail.
The meeting began immediately and without any of the usual Agenda preliminaries with an apology from the Chief Executive Jacky Belton and a baptism of fire because amazingly I have not heard her address a public Council meeting in her previous seven months in office.
As stated elsewhere she was not in office at the critical time.
She offered “sincere apologies to the eight families who went to the Ombudsman and for the way their transport needs were assessed and for not implementing the LGO recommendations in a timely manner”. Three of the families had to return to the Ombudsman before obtaining justice. “It was totally unacceptable, We got it wrong”.
Council Leader Teresa O’Neill said she didn’t know about the LGO cases and that is one of the lessons that must be learned. She “was sorry about the impact it had on families”.
One of the parents addressed the Committee. Her son had been provided with transport for three years but then she came up against a refusal. All her enquiries received generic unsigned responses, no explanation was provided and her son was transformed into a ‘she’. “All deadlines were missed and I was left with no option but to go to the Ombudsman who found the Council at fault on 15th January and gave them a month to issue a full apology and arrange a fresh appeal.”
Bexley Council failed to respond even after being chased five times. When another apology date was missed, four more reminders fell on deaf ears. Eventually an appeal outcome was received on 5th April well outside the LGO timescale. It came with an assurance that her son’s ten months of transport problems had not affected his education. There had been no consultation with his mother and the Council felt it appropriate to criticise her for not sending a daughter to the nearest school. (There was a very good reason for it.)
To add insult to injury Bexley Council told her that there was no further recourse to Appeal. The LGO said that that advice was entirely incorrect. The stress caused by Bexley Council’s contempt for the law put the mother in hospital and she decided that her health was no longer good enough to pursue the case further.
She informed Bexley Council after which they said not another word. No sympathy, no empathy, no regret for the problems they had caused. The mother is a School Governor and knows that at no time did Bexley Council inform the school of what was going on.
Councillor Putson (Labour, Belvedere) asked the lady a question. “Was the action taken by the Council correct and as recorded in the Agenda?” The mother said that the Agenda was not a correct reflection of what happened.
Councillor Ogundayo (Labour, Thamesmead East) asked if help had been sought from elsewhere, politicians perhaps. The parent said that David Evennett MP and Cabinet Member John Fuller had both been notified but she “struggled to get a response”. David Evennett passed on her email to the school “but no one from the Council ever contacted the school”.
Councillor Diment (Conservative, Sidcup) expressed his sympathy for what had happened and asked what the situation was “in the new school year” but alas there could be no answer as the mother had been refused transport for her son this year. As a Governor she had heard that things were improved.
Councillor Perfect asked how she felt about the Council after finding herself beaten down to the point she felt unable to pursue the appeal that the LGO said she was entitled to. “Do you trust the Council now?”
“If the Council won’t listen to the Ombudsman we stand no chance as parents. The Council’s response was an insult.”
Councillor Dourmoush (Conservative, Longlands) asked “What can the Council do for you?”
“Improve communication, show empathy and not treat children as numbers. Recognise the stress involved in being an SEN parent. Start the process earlier so that it is completed before schools close for the Summer. Every Summer holiday is ruined by arranging transport. It is heartbreaking.”
The Council Officer in charge of SEN Transport, a Mr. Simon James, admitted mistakes were made in his department right up to the 2018/19 academic year. Among the mistakes were incorrect distance assessments, no explanations offered to parents and no notification to the Cabinet Member. “Those mistakes will not be repeated in the future.”
More children are being assisted and fewer complaints are now being made, none to the Ombudsman. Among the improvements made are bringing the responsible staff closer together with a single manager and improved training. The need for parents to apply annually when circumstances had not changed had been abolished and decisions would be made before the end of term.
Councillor Ogundayo asked why the issues with Local Government Ombudsman were not made available to the meeting in July (when Councillor Fuller painted a rosy picture).
At the same meeting Cabinet Member Fuller said “schools are on our side” but the parent Governor speaking tonight said that was not correct. “Which schools were happy and which were concerned?”
Councillor Ogundayo also quoted the words of John Fuller provided in audio form above and asked for it to be justified. “How much did the family highlighted have to pay the Council following the lost Court case?”
Mr. James said the information should have been shared but wasn’t. There was no information available on happy or concerned schools but a programme of meetings with schools had been implemented.
Councillor Ogundayo said that her questions had not been properly answered but was told that there was no information on which schools had been supportive of Council policy which must cast doubt on the veracity of some of the statements made in July.
Councillor Ogundayo’s question about the lost Court case remained unanswered but tChairman Alan Downing ruled the question to be “old history” and inappropriate to the meeting. The Councillor complained that the lack of transparency made it more difficult to learn from history. The Chairman told her “to sit quiet for a moment”.
Councillor Putson referred to the Agenda which listed the number of complaints and appeals and asked how accurate the figures might be given that they were pretty much all wrong in July. Absolutely accurate this time apparently. He went on to ask why it was that at the last meeting the Cabinet Member was allowed to (innocently) give out wrong information when the responsible officer was there and could have corrected him.
No straight answer was provided, just an assurance that this time the figures were correct.
Councillor Ogundayo came back with her question about the amount awarded to the Council when a parent lost a Court case. Complaining parents ought to know the risks. She still didn’t get anything beyond apologies for past mistakes.
The Chairman offered his opinion that no single individual was responsible for the mistakes although he understood that “none of those are now present in the Council.” Despite that I counted seven managers from the appropriate hierarchy sitting at the Committee table. Maybe only junior heads rolled.
Councillor Ogundayo pressed her Court costs question once again and this time was promised a written response.
Councillor Putson also asked about staffing levels and as reported yesterday they have risen from three to seven but in reality an even bigger increase because the three often suffered vacancies.
Referring once again to the Agenda he drew attention to statements that appeared to be “misleading, or inaccurate or contradictory” and were the dismissed cases dismissed as a result of “political or budgetary pressures or policy or staff error?”
The Chairman didn’t like his question and was “disappointed that it was asked. Bringing in politics is really out of order”.
Councillor Perfect (Labour, Northumberland Heath) attempted to bring the Cabinet Member to account for his “ignorance” on 2nd July. Councillor Fuller didn’t like that word and reiterated what Council Officers had already said more than once. No one had told him the truth but since then he had “worked hard and had meetings almost daily to put it right”.
Councillor Francis (Labour, Belvedere) said the Council is claiming that they were correct in one case “but the LGO said in writing we hadn’t complied and the lady walked away only because she was exhausted by the process and we are still saying we were correct but that is not what the LGO put in writing to the lady who made the presentation this evening.” Bexley Council will always deceive if it can and only the Labour Councillors can be relied on to expose them. Note who asked the only difficult questions recorded above.
Even the Chairman thought that Councillor Francis had made a good point.
Labour Leader Councillor Francis reminded Committee Members that almost half the families rejected for SEN transport last year had it reinstated and the LGO had complained of a lack of transparency and non-compliance. The Chief Executive herself circulated “an email on the 24th of July which was quite frankly, in retrospect, full of errors. It basically said only eight cases, nothing more to see here. That email bears no resemblance to where we are now.”
Finally there was Councillor Ogundayo’s question about a more public apology but as already reported she was given short shrift when all the Conservatives voted against further apologies. It’s always best in Bexley to hush things up if you can.