Answers have been demanded as to how a new contract providing home to school transport for vulnerable children in Brighton and Hove has gone ‘so horribly wrong’.
Tory councillors Lee Wares and Mary Mears say they have seen and received countless complaints from parents and carers of children at Downs View and Hill Park schools.
They described how Brighton and Hove City Council, which has commissioned the service, has issued apologies but suggested the problems do not appear to be start-up teething issues but ‘fundamental structure issues in how the new service is provided’.
The two councillors have written to council chief executive Geoff Raw passing on a litany of complaints.
The letter reads: “We are troubled that this council is potentially putting the lives, mental and physical wellbeing and safeguarding of children with special educational needs and disabilities and vulnerable adults are at risk.”
Cllr Wares is calling for an urgent meeting with all interested parties.
He added: “We would hope from this meeting everybody can find immediate solutions that enables every child and young person eligible for school transport to receive safe and reliable transport and then discuss openly why things have gone so horribly wrong that we would hope will lead to altering the new arrangements as necessary.”
The letter describes how some families are waiting for transport solutions, reports of no-shows, school staff advising there are too many children in some vehicles and children being held in vehicles for too long.
In response Kate Knight, deputy chair of the children, young people and skills committee, said: “I’m really sorry for the distress the current situation is causing local families. In operational terms, I want to give my assurance that everyone involved is working flat out to turn things round.”
She described sharing the concerns that have been raised and said she was ‘shocked and disappointed’ so many of the council’s contractors withdrew at the last minute from vital services they had agreed in writing to deliver.
She added: “Given that these contracts directly involve some of the most vulnerable members of our community, we will certainly be investigating – urgently and forensically – what has happened.”
Cllr Wares and Cllr Mears’ request for the matter to be discussed at the children, young people and skills committee next week has been accepted.
However they are both still concerned information regarding the tendering and appointment of the consultant, how much they are being paid and how the fee is calculated has been marked confidential as is internal cost savings data.
Cllr Wares said: “It is scandalous that with the fiasco surrounding the school transport contract unravelling on a daily basis the council even considered preventing us from disclosing the information. The audit report says that a business case is not required because the savings will come from the budget.
“We now know what the gross savings will be and how much the consultants will be paid together with other set-up costs. However, the council say that if we reveal the details we risk being sued and breaching the members’ code of conduct. The bottom line is we are being gagged.”
Cllr Mears added: “It is absolutely in the public interest for everybody to know what is going on. This is taxpayers’ money and the council should be totally transparent and open.
“If there is nothing to hide or worry about, why on earth would they prevent the public and those families affected by these issues from knowing. What is also of concern is that the council have now employed additional staff to oversee this contract but do not account for the additional cost.
“Nor do they take account of the enormous amount of lost teaching time each day because school staff now have escort pupils between vehicles and buildings. This is no way for the Labour administration to run the council.”