BRIGHTON AND HOVE: School transport latest

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A proposed in-depth review into what went wrong with school transport for children with special needs is not enough, according to Conservative councillors.

But a Brighton and Hove City Council committee has rejected a request for independent scrutiny by a cross-party group of councillors in favour of a “peer review”.

During the first week of term, more than 60 children who need transport to special needs schools in Brighton and Hove were left stranded at home or otherwise affected.

Dozens of parents have complained the transport provided was not suitable for their children’s needs.

Conservative deputy leader Lee Wares put forward the case for an independent look at what went wrong to the council’s Audit and Standards Committee on Tuesday (September 17).

He made his plea the day after the same request was rejected by the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee.

He told the Audit and Standards Committee: “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.

“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.”

Councillor Wares said that councillors needed to take control after being shut out of the process by officials.

Green councillor Leo Littman, who chairs the Audit and Standards Committee, said that it would be “superfluous” and  “unreasonable to use discretionary powers” to add an additional review on top of the one already requested.

After Labour and Green councillors voted to stick with the external review ordered by the Children, Young People and Skills Committee, Councillor Wares expressed his disappointment in a joint statement with fellow Conservative Mary Mears.

They 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 Greens dismissed out of hand a request for a councillor-led scrutiny panel.

“It is shocking that they both are showing little interest in proper scrutiny over matters affecting our most vulnerable children.”

Conservative councillor Robert Nemeth asked for an external audit into the decision-making process.

He described the papers presented to councillors about the decisions made on the home to school transport fiasco as “flimsy”.

Councillor Nemeth said: “I was quite surprised it was not a bulkier report.

“If members of the public were looking at these, I am sure they would ask why weren’t more answers teased out on this subject.”

Councillor Nemeth also asked why a special Policy and Resources or Children Young People and Skills was not called to deal with the contract process.

Audit manager Mark Dallen said that he didn’t know.

Councillor Nemeth was backed by fellow Tory councillor Garry Peltzer Dunn but the calls for a third-party audit were also rejected by Green and Labour councillors.

When looking at the “high-level desktop review” before the Audit and Standards Committee, Councillor Peltzer Dunn praised the candid report.

He said that the internal auditors said that their report was “not necessarily a comprehensive statement of all the weaknesses that exist” or all the improvements required.

The audit said that the service had been budgeted at less than £2.5 million a year under the old arrangements although it was £210,000 over budget in the 2018-19 financial year.

The new contract for the next four years is budgeted at £3 million a year.

The audit said that the council’s Policy, Resources and Growth Committee had rejected awarding contracts known as a “dynamic purchasing system” last autumn.

But the executive director for families, children and learning went ahead with a dynamic purchasing in the spring, using his delegated authority.

He was acting on the advice of cost-cutting consultants Edge Public Solutions who said that the same system was used by other councils including neighbouring East Sussex and Surrey.

Edge Public Solutions were paid £75,000 in less than two months for their work on the new system.

A total of 17 suppliers bid for routes, which is more than double the number previously.

Parents, schools, governors, parent associations, officers and suppliers are being asked to contribute to a review carried out by a senior officer or officers from another council into why home to school transport collapsed at the start of the school year.

Of the 127 routes to school, operators pulled out of 14 without giving the required 30 days notice, leaving 62 children without transport.

Children are also losing lesson and therapy time as teachers and teaching assistants are fetching them into school – apparently to save money on insurance.

This is costing 32,000 in lost teaching hours would come to £840,000 over two years because teaching staff now had to escort children from taxis and minibuses into school, councillors were told yesterday.

Under the old system, the escorts in taxis and minibuses ensured that youngsters made it safely into their classrooms.