Two councillors raised such “significant concerns” about the home to school transport service that the awarding of contracts will be the subject of a second audit investigation.
The investigation was announced at the final meeting of Brighton and Hove City Council’s Home to School Transport Members Policy Panel this morning (Wednesday 30 September).
The announcement followed a report by “expert counsel” – an independent specialist barrister – into the way that senior council officials had handled the process.
Those officials are being asked for their comments before the barrister’s report is made public – a process known as Maxwellisation. The same process led to a long delay in the publication of the Chilcot Report on the Iraq War.
Labour councillor John Allcock, chairing a “virtual” meeting of the panel, said that the barrister’s report and the new investigation followed concerns raised by Conservative councillors Mary Mears and Lee Wares with council chief executive Geoff Raw in March.
Councillor Wares said that he hoped that the council would take such concerns more seriously in future when they were brought up by the likes of himself and Councillor Mears.
He also criticised the council for wrongly trying to heap the blame for the chaos and for cost overruns of more than £600,000 on to transport providers, including local taxi firms.
It turned out, he said, that transport operators handed back routes because of the council’s failings, including not providing enough information about what operators would be required to do.
The problems arose as the council worked with a consultancy on the process and tried to cut the cost of the £2.5 million-a-year service.
Earlier this year the consultancy, Edge Public Solutions, walked away from the debacle with £180,000.
Councillor Allcock, who succeeded Green councillor Hannah Clare in the chair after her party took over running the council, told the panel: “Councillors Wares and Mears raised significant concerns in March this year with the council’s chief executive officer Geoff Raw regarding the consultancy contract to advise and support the council on the home to school transport procurement process, requesting the issues be independently investigated.
“In June, after Councillors Mears and Wares raising further concerns, I (Councillor Allcock), when chair of the Children, Young People and Skills Committee, asked the chief executive to obtain an independent review of the home to school transport procurement process to ensure transparency and accountability.
“Subsequently the matter was referred to an external counsel for review and advice.
“Given that these are matters of governance rather than service, and given their vital importance, the panel feels they would be better dealt with by the Audit and Standards Committee and are recommending that this is taken forward by that committee, with a suggestion that they set up a cross-party panel, with an independent person, as a matter of urgency.
“The independent counsel has produced a draft report which will now be sent to all the individuals involved to allow them to comment before the report is finalised and publicly published.
“The Audit and Standards Committee will consider the report before deciding how to proceed.”
Councillor Allcock also said: “The Home to School Transport Members Policy Panel has been reviewing the management of the home to school transport service and associated problems that caused significant difficulties for children, young people and families in September 2019.
“As part of the investigation, the matter was referred to a group of experts from the LGA (the Local Government Association) who undertook a thorough review and consequently made important recommendations.
“The Home to School Transport Members Policy Panel has seen substantial improvements in the service since September 2019.
“The panel would like to thank all those involved, specifically: parents, children and young people, transport providers, school staff, PaCC (Parent Carers’ Council) and Amaze and council officers for working together to deliver the improvements.
“The panel has now concluded that the service review side of the work has come to an end.
“We will be submitting our report to the next meeting of the Children, Young People and Skills Committee which meets on (Monday) 9 November.
“The report will contain recommendations to the committee to ensure a high quality and appropriate service in the future.”