Labour has been accused of putting the fox in charge of the chickens by allowing officials to commission an inquiry into the home to school transport fiasco.
The claim was made by Conservative councillor Lee Wares who asked for a cross-party scrutiny panel made up three councillors – one Labour, one Tory and one Green – to be given the task.
But he fell foul of Brighton and Hove City Council’s procedural rules and was told that his request should have been made to a committee that met the day before (Monday 16 September).
And he was accused by Labour and the Greens of being “disingenuous” when he made his request to the council’s Audit and Standards Committee at Hove Town Hall yesterday (Tuesday 17 September).
Councillor Wares was responding to an internal audit into “the decisions surrounding the recent home to school transport procurement” which has left dozens of children without transport or, according to parents, without safe transport.
Councillor Wares asked for the audit, along with the former Conservative council leader Mary Mears, in early July when the two councillors warned about “avoidable risks to the proper delivery of the service that will negatively impact children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and vulnerable adults”.
When the new school term started, their worst fears were realised as transport contractors taken on using the new “dynamic purchasing system” pulled out at short notice.
Dozens of children were left without transport to school – the council put the number at 30 and said yesterday that it was down to 25.
But parents and carers said that many more were being taken to and from school in unsuitable vehicles or in ways that were unsafe.
The council has given an unreserved apology and promised that the problems will be put right within four weeks.
Councillor Wares told the Audit and Standards Committee: “Yesterday, in response to the grave issues raised by Councillor Mears and I, Labour declared that it is tasking officers to invite another local authority to investigate the school transport debacle.
“This is simply not good enough. For weeks we have been bombarded with complaints about the service, the administration, the council and officers.
“For months we have been warning of the issues that now exist and we still have no answers to questions we raise.
“Last night we heard the council say sorry then promptly blame everybody else. We heard Labour say how they would oversee the investigation and anybody with concerns should send them to officers to process.
“I cast no aspersions but you could forgive anybody for thinking that the fox has been put in charge of the chickens.
“If an investigation is to be truly independent and transparent, that everybody will have confidence and trust in, anybody involved with the subject of the investigation should have nothing to do with the investigating.
“Parents and carers are horrified at the prospect for what Labour has proposed.
“As councillors … it is for us collectively to interrogate what has gone on and discover the cause. It is then for us to decide what is needed and what happens next.
“We have already been shut out of the process by the use of officer urgency powers and we are being shut-out again.
“We ask this committee to enable councillors to take control of this outrageous situation and instruct a cross-party scrutiny panel be urgently convened to investigate the matter.
“Anything less is to abdicate our responsibilities and duck the issue. We are the elected members of this council and we must be the ones to lead.
“It is also outrageous that we continue to be gagged as to fee payable to the consultants. Everybody will eventually find out because the council publishes the invoices that it pays.
“It appears £75,000 has been paid in the first two months.
“Labour won’t tell us what the gross saving target is but they tell us the net saving of £290,000. It isn’t right that Labour can justify what is going on because of the saving it will achieve but won’t disclose how much the budget will actually be slashed.
“Labour won’t tell us the cost of the extra staff being employed in-house and ignores the 32,000 lost teaching hours for our most challenged and vulnerable pupils.
“Labour said last night there should be no cuts when vulnerable children are involved. It is, however, doing precisely that but hides away the secrets.
“If Labour and this council won’t tell us the truth about the costs, then it should not be running the investigation as to why we are in this mess.”
Councillor Wares was criticised by Labour and Green members. Councillors Alan Robins and Pete West accused him of being “disingenuous”.
Councillor West said: “There’s no doubt that there is a question over how strong a grip the administration has got in this matter.”
He previously supported an internal audit and said that it had been right to look into whether the decision-making process had been “constitutional”.
The decision itself – and the way that it was handled – might not suit some people but he deplored what he said was “a pretty serious allegation” being made by Councillor Wares in asking for third-party oversight after the internal audit.
But Conservative councillor Robert Nemeth said that the audit report was “not respectful enough” to councillors. He said: “It just leaves too many questions unanswered.
“Who was responsible for making the decision? It shouldn’t be secret.”
He asked why there hadn’t been an urgent sub-committee meeting – to be told by audit manager Mark Dallen: “I can’t say, to be honest.”
Labour councillor Les Hamilton said: “Nobody tried to hide the fact that this hasn’t gone very well.”
He added that the matter should have been brought before the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee, which he chaired briefly before the local elections in May.
Abraham Ghebre-Ghiorghis, the executive lead officer for strategy, governance and law, that he and the council’s chief executive had complete confidence in the impartiality and competence of the internal audit.
He said: The audit function did exactly what was expected of it.”
After the meeting Councillor Mears and Councillor Wares said: “We are obviously disappointed for families in the city that at Audit and Standards Committee, the Labour and Green groups voted together against an independent third-party audit into the school transport debacle.
“Additionally, Labour and the Greens dismissed out of hand a request for a councillor-led scrutiny panel.
“It is shocking that they are both showing little interest in proper scrutiny of matters affecting our most vulnerable children.”
And the Greens said afterwards: “Parents need assurances this will not happen again.”
The party said that it had been “a shambles after many children were left without a driver to take them to school”, adding: “The changes, which included introducing a private consultant to manage the service, were widely criticised for putting cost savings before the experience of parents and children.
“Attempts to create a market – so that multiple providers were able bid for routes – led to a ‘nightmare’ where providers could bid but then withdraw at the last minute, leaving children without transport to school.
“A series of failures led to ‘unacceptable hardship and distress’ being caused to disabled children and their families.”
The Greens said that an independent inquiry would take place while highlighting the appointment of Councillor John Allcock as the fifth Labour chair of the Children, Young People and Skills Committee since May 2015 – and the fourth this year.