The way contracts are being awarded to transport vulnerable children from home to school sparked a furious row in the council chamber last night (Thursday 11 July).
The Conservatives have asked for an audit of the process, having previously set out concerns that children with special educational needs and disabilities might be placed at risk.
Councillors Lee Wares and Mary Mears said that proper procedures had not been followed and safety-related policies had been ignored by Brighton and Hove City Council officials.
And “break clauses” were being included so that the four-year contracts could be brought “in house” after a year, they told the council’s Policy, Resources and Growth Committee.
They questioned the cost of bringing in private sector consultants to save money on the home to school transport contracts which have been over budget for some years.
The cost of the consultant’s fees was no disclosed.
The council’s executive director for families, children and learning, Pinaki Ghoshal, said that safeguarding children was a priority.
He also said that while savings would be modest next year, they could reach £620,000 in the third year of the contracts.
Councillor Nick Childs, who chairs the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee, said that he had scrutinised the proposals in great detail, adding: “I haven’t seen any danger to children.
“There are a number of local monopolies which are seeking to protect their profits.”
He said that the new contracts process would introduce greater competition and added: “It’s surprising that the party of free trade opposes this.”
He accused the Conservative government of inflicting cuts on children with special educational needs and criticised the existing “lavish public contracts for local petty bourgeois monopolies”.
After the meeting at Hove Town Hall one councillor said that the so-called “lavish” contracts had been awarded under the previous Labour administration.
Councillor Wares told the meeting: “I can’t actually believe what Councillor Childs has said this evening.
“These are local businesses that have served this city for decades. It’s scandalous to accuse local businesses and employers of such behaviour – and while this is out to tender.”
He also complained that too much time had been spent telling him that he couldn’t ask a series of questions than allowing an important matter to be properly discussed.
In the letter that he and Councillor Mears sent to chief executive Geoff Raw, asking for an audit, they said that they still had not been shown a proper business case for the current process despite several requests.
They added: “There are now previously avoidable risks to the proper delivery of the service that will negatively impact children with special educational needs and disabilities and vulnerable adults.”
Councillor Mears said: “I’m so concerned with this proposal that I’m raising it as a corporate risk.”
She also touched on councillors’ responsibility as corporate parents to children in the care of the council.
Mr Ghoshal said that a lot of work had gone into redrawing routes and working out which children could travel in larger vehicles rather than by themselves as officials wrestled with costs.
The existing home to school transport budget was overspent by more than £500,000 in total over the past two years. It caters for about 370 children.
The new routes are subject to bids through a series of online “auctions” or “e-tendering” exercises, restricted to pre-approved businesses.
The first round of “auctions” had to be postponed because some of the potential bidders were unable to log on to the system.
But the second round went ahead as planned yesterday afternoon, Richard Barker, the council’s head of school organisation, said.
Mr Ghoshal said that there had been some discussion about bringing contracts in house but he added: “There is no plan to do that.
“I personally cannot see a scenario when we would bring the drivers in house. There are only two journeys a day.”