A cost-cutting new transport contract could place vulnerable children from Brighton and Hove at risk, according to concerned councillors.
Potential bidders and their staff were told by Brighton and Hove City Council that they did not need prior training or experience in caring for or transporting children with special needs.
Nor were they even expected to meet the standards required of taxi and private hire drivers and which are set out in a council document known as the Blue Book.
The lower service standards are understood to be part of a drive to reduce costs when the new contractor or contractors are appointed.
The £12 million four-year contract was advertised last month but concerns among parents, carers and existing transport bosses have prompted two councillors to call for a halt to the process.
Conservative councillors Lee Wares and Mary Mears have written to the council’s executive director for families, children and learnkng, Pinaki Ghoshal, and Richard Barker, head of school organisation.
They wrote: “It has come to our attention that there is growing concern over the proposed tendering of services to transport vulnerable children (and) young people and those with special educational needs or mobility problems between home and school.
“While acknowledging the city faces a number of challenges and priorities, the safeguarding and welfare of our children must at all times remain in the forefront of our decision-making.
“Inter alia the concerns we have, two seem to be contrary to the wellbeing of the children and young people and those that are transporting them.
“Firstly, we understand that organisations and/or individuals transporting children do not need to have any prior training.
“That training extending to how to treat or move individuals, how to recognise problems, how to respond to issues or how to get them into and out of vehicles.
“Essentially, there is no requirement to have any understanding, appreciation or qualification to be responsible for, care for or transport vulnerable children or young people with special education needs or mobility problems including their physical, personality or mental challenges.
“Equally there seems no need to have an infrastructure or capability to undertake risk assessments and know how best to work with the council in managing the service.
“Secondly, Brighton and Hove City Council has via the Blue Book one of if not the highest standards in regulating transport operators and drivers.
“We understand that service providers will not have to meet those standards.
“It seems counter-intuitive, if not absurd, that the council requires such high standards to transport the general public with many being highly capable and independent yet is prepared to allow the transport of our most vulnerable by operators who will not meet those same standards.
“Respectfully, it seems a grave error in judgment that may leave the council culpable should anything untoward occur not least the impact on those in the council’s care.
“We believe that this situation is so important that notwithstanding how any previous decision got to the stage the council is at, this project should be suspended forthwith.
“It would seem that the most appropriate course of action to take right now is for the council to consider how it can continue with existing transport providers (even if that means securing contracts for another 12 months) and use that time to reconsider its options.
“Further, we believe that our duty of care to these children and young people is of such gravitas that the decision should be made via a report to full council where all councillors are able to contribute and decide the best and most appropriate way forward, whatever that might be.
“We would be grateful to receive your urgent response.”
Proposals to save sums of £30,000 or more a year have appeared in the past two council budgets, with a significant overspend having been reported in the 2015-16 financial year.
But in an equality impact assessment in this year’s budget said: “Significant savings have been achieved in previous years in transport and overall cost compares well with other councils.
“A further small saving of £39,000 is planned for 2019-20 from an overall gross budget of £2.5 million to be achieved across the full range of work undertaken within the School Organisation Team.”
A year earlier councillors were told that 354 children with special education needs, disability or mobility problems received assistance travelling to and from school.
One of the challenges for the council is that the cost of providing transport is “demand-led”.
Another challenge is that many of the rules affecting the council in this area are set nationally rather than locally.
But disquiet on this issue comes as teachers, parents and carers of children with special educational needs and/or disabilities are growing more concerned about the impact of spending cuts affecting those children.
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