Two Conservative members of a council policy panel – set up in the wake of the home to school transport fiasco – walked out of its first meeting this afternoon (Wednesday 18 December).
They criticised Labour and the Greens for colluding in a cover up as the two parties prepared to sign a wider “memorandum of understanding”, setting out a joint approach to a number of key policies.
The meeting today took place behind closed doors at Hove Town Hall despite promises that the aims of the policy panel included rebuilding trust and encouraging “greater openness and transparency”.
It followed the introduction of new home to school transport arrangements at the start of the current academic year.
They left some of the most vulnerable children in Brighton and Hove without safe transport or without any transport at all.
Brighton and Hove City Council played down the importance of today’s meeting, saying that it was a “scoping session”.
But the scope – or remit – of the policy panel proposed at the secret meeting triggered the Tory walk-out.
It will not be able to explore why the £3 million-a-year service descended into chaos, instead focusing only on unresolved issues.
Nor will it look at how changes designed to save money for the council have ended with a projected overspend of more than £800,000.
Councillor Lee Wares said “As councillors, we had a long list of people and organisations we wanted to interview.
“We had a wide range of subjects to cover from how Edge Public Solutions were procured, to the use of urgency powers, issues around checks on health and safety, training, DPS checks, why routes were returned, the impact on children, families, schools and their staff.
“We wanted to interrogate the enormous budget overspend and how the council is resourcing the department.
“All Labour and Greens are allowing is for councillors to review Labour’s Independent Review and fill in any gaps that might be missing.
“It concerned us that the coalition of Labour and Greens would try to stitch up the scrutiny panel and they have.
“No doubt we will be criticised for walking out of the meeting but we won’t put our names to something that is designed to try to make the problem quietly go away.
“We have told both Labour and the Greens that when they decide they really want to be open and transparent and when they want to leave no stone unturned and allow public scrutiny, they just need to pick up the phone and let us know.
“In the meantime, this has just heightened our resolve that by whatever means, we will expose the diabolical situation that exists and why it happened.”
Councillor Mary Mears said: “It was shocking to arrive at the meeting to discover Labour had clearly got to the Greens to ensure that the true issues and problems would not be investigated by councillors.
“This is true to form, similar to when the leader of the council would not permit a series of questions at Policy, Resource and Growth Committee on Thursday 11 July.
“In preparing for the ‘memorandum of understanding’ that Labour and Greens are about to sign, it is obvious they do not want to truth to be told.
“We now know why Labour didn’t want this meeting held in public.
“With both the other parties wanting to suppress a councillor-led investigation from families and children affected by the failing service, there was no way we could stay in the meeting and be complicit in what is looking rapidly like a cover up”.
At the meeting of the full council on Thursday 24 October, Labour councillor John Allcock, who chairs the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee, said: “I understand we urgently need to rebuild trust between the community and the local authority and therefore, as an administration, we believe it is important that a review is carried out.”
The external review has not yet begun and is expected to start in the new year.
Councillor Allcock also responded to requests for “an internal, cross-party member-led policy panel”, adding: “We are more than happy to work with members to provide this additional layer of scrutiny.
“Our first priority has always been to resolve the problems our young people and their families have faced, with the scrutiny and review now running alongside.
“Having an independent outsider working on this as well will, we hope, encourage greater openness and transparency.”