Councillors admitted that they should have acted more quickly when concerns were raised about the home to school transport service for hundreds of vulnerable children in Brighton and Hove.
And the lessons learnt from a new report could be applied more widely across the whole of Brighton and Hove City Council, a meeting was told yesterday (Monday 9 November).
Cost-cutting consultants were brought in but walked away after the service collapsed for dozens of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and went hundreds of thousands of pounds over budget.
The consultants, Edge Public Solutions, pocketed more than £180,000 for what councillors have since described as an “epic failure”.
Expert outsiders from the Local Government Association (LGA) were then brought in and an internal review was set up in the form of the Home to School Transport Policy Panel.
The panel’s report was presented yesterday to a “virtual” meeting of the council’s Children, Young People and Skills (CYP&S) Committee.
Conservative councillor Lee Wares, a member of the policy panel, said: “It is good news indeed that because of the intense scrutiny and oversight of the service, it is now improving.
“However, the service has a long way to go and, at best, has only recovered to where it was before the self-inflicted damaged was caused.
“Where the report is silent is poor judgment of councillors. The former leader of the council refused proper questioning and scrutiny when officers told P&R (Policy and Resources) Committee what was happening in July 2019.
“Had the democratic process not been denied, the devastating impact to children and families we have all witnessed, may not have followed.
“At CYP&S Committee, a former chair declared he was not prepared to allow lavish contracts for petty bourgeois monopolies and that he had read the papers and would not allow the change if he thought anything was wrong.
“Such judgment might not have led to the LGA raising concerns about child safeguarding and welfare and the council may not have blown the budget by over a million pounds after employing consultants to make a saving.
“The previous chair of CYP&S Committee advocated for the panel to be disbanded before it had finished its work.
“Had he had his way, we would not have been able to report today to ensure the lessons are learnt and that children are put at centre of decision making.
“The former chair of A&S (Audit and Standards) Committee originally only authorised a desktop study of the concerns raised and subsequently refused an independent audit saying it would be frivolous.
“If proper scrutiny had been allowed, the service may not have descended into the chaos it did causing the harm it has.
“Likewise, the former administration did nothing to support the request for the service to be placed on the corporate risk register.
“Had they done so, closer attention may have been paid to the crisis that was unfolding in front of their eyes and it may have avoided the LGA criticising the council for not understanding the risks that existed.
“Why did we have to make four or five attempts at committee for this matter to be taken seriously?
“Why did it take parent carers to come to full council to ask for and support the creation of a scrutiny panel?
“These are troubling questions.
Councillor Lee Wares“Whereas the reports discuss service, procedure and process failure and necessary change, it is silent on the role of councillors.
“Councillors are not blameless in this shameful episode. When political ideology is pursued above all else, failure is inevitable.
“When councillors lack a desire for scrutiny, mistakes – in this case on an epic scale – are made.
“When councillors fail to hear what is being said, those they are here to serve will no longer trust them or the council.
“So as lessons are being learnt, I hope colleagues will reflect on how they may have dealt with this better and what they might do next time something like this happens.”
Labour councillor John Allcock, who chaired the final meeting of the panel and previously chaired the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee, said that the problems should never have happened.
He said: “As a new chair of Children, Young People and Skills Committee in September 2019, it became evident to me that something had gone badly wrong with the home to school transport service so I commissioned the Local Government Association (LGA) to independently review the service.
“This review took place in January and its clear and frank deliberations and recommendations have greatly assisted the panel and officers in their work.
“Our recommendations are for not only the council’s home to school transport service. They also provide helpful lessons for how major change projects across all council-led services are managed in future.
“The panel has referred governance matters, surrounding the consultancy contract to advise and support the council on last year’s procurement process, to the council’s Audit and Standards Committee along with a second independent barrister’s report that I had asked the chief executive officer to commission when I was chair of CYPS.
“The Audit and Standards Committee have since agreed that a cross-party panel is established, with an independent person, to look at that matter.
“I would particularly like to thank Councillor Wares for his tenacity in identifying and challenging the council’s governance processes in relation to the service.
Children wait to be unloaded outside Downs View after changes to their home to school transport arrangements“I also wanted to refer to covid – which has created enormous challenges, stresses and worries for the city and especially families, schools and operators – and we have been pleased to hear that the service has been safe and reliable and working well throughout very worrying times for our children and young people.
“The most important thing about delivering a home to school transport service is getting children to school safely and calmly so they are ready to learn, as well as recognising that the journey time itself is part of a child’s life and should be as comfortable and as enjoyable as possible.
“We are pleased to hear that great steps have been made towards that being the case for every child in receipt of this service.”
Councillor Allcock added: “We were especially pleased to hear this from PaCC (Parent Carers’ Council) at our final public meeting in September 2020, when they told us that they’d seen a real improvement in the service, as well as strong co-production and communication with families.”
He said that working closely with the PaCC had been key to the successful recovery and its members were now directly involved in developing the service.
Councillor Mary Mears said: “When the panel started, we were accused of playing party politics. That was furthest from our minds.
“The most important thing for us was the welfare and wellbeing of our parents, carers and our vulnerable children and young people. Their safety is important.”
It had been hard-going to persuade key players to take the problems seriously, she said, but local taxi firms had helped bail out the council despite being criticised unfairly.
Councillor Mears, a former Conservative leader of the council, also praised Green councillor Hannah Clare for the way that she chaired the panel.
Councillor Clare has since become the deputy leader of the council and now chairs the Children, Young People and Skills Committee.
Councillor Clare said that her own party could have reacted more quickly, adding that it had been “a real learning curve” and a valuable process that had brought about positive change.
She said: “One thing that councillors can learn from in the future is when there is a problem you need to have member scrutiny to the level we did.”
Labour councillor Gill Williams said “Councillors could have been and always should be much better informed before they make decisions based on the advice given.”
Jo Lyons, the council’s assistant director for education and skills, said that the council accepted the panel’s findings and recommendations in full and added: “We very much regret the disruption, distress, loss of school and upset caused to families and other stakeholders over the autumn term of 2019.
“In particular we apologised unreservedly again to families, schools and transport providers and are determined lessons learned will mean we do not have these failures again.”
She said that the panel’s recommendations had been included in an action plan for home to school transport – and progress reports would come back to the Children, Young People and Skills Committee.
LIKE WHAT WE DO? HELP US TO DO MORE OF IT BY DONATING HERE.