The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: There was fault and delay by the Council in responding to a complaint about new home to school transport arrangements. This led to a disabled child losing 8 weeks, 2 days of education and placed extra stress on his parent.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mrs X complains on her own behalf, and on behalf of her son, whom I shall refer to as Z. Mrs X complains that following a change of home to school transport provider the Council failed to meet her son’s transport needs with the result he missed 8 weeks of education. Mrs X says she was unable to meet her planned commitments as a volunteer and was exhausted by having to provide care for her son when he was out of school.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered information provided by Mrs X and the Council including:
- Complaint correspondence
- Correspondence between the parties
- Confidential third party correspondence between the Council and transport provider.
What I found
- Z attends a special school and is entitled to receive free home to school transport from the Council.
- From September 2014 until July 2016, Z was transported to school via a 16 seater minibus with 9 students travelling together in the vehicle and one passenger assistant.
- In May 2016 the Council reviewed the transport arrangements for this school and put the contract out for tender. The Council says it liaised with the school to identify any difficulties that might arise for individual children regarding a change in arrangements.
- The Council says Z’s school confirmed it was confident Z could travel with other learners in a 7 seater vehicle with a passenger assistant.
- The Council says it commissioned this arrangement and wrote to Mrs X on 5 August 2016, alongside the other parents, to tell her about the new arrangements. The letter asked Mrs X to contact the new provider for details including journey times.
- There is evidence the provider was given a list of the children and their individual needs and of communication between the provider and Council agreeing individual route details.
- Mrs X told me she only found out about the new provider the day before term started. She says the provider did not have a harness for her son to use and just had names and addresses of the children travelling, no details about their individual needs. Mrs X says there had been problems with her son in the preceding term escaping from his harness and banging his head on the glass. The new route and arrangements had her son listed to be collected second, although he was the most likely to be distressed by the journey and needed the shortest travel time.
- On 8 September 2016 Mrs X complained about the new arrangements, she said the new route was too long and no harness was available for Z. The telephone log shows Mrs X had rung the contact centre and emailed several times but been unable to get through to the SEN transport team and had not received a reply. The Council Officer noted Y was unable to go to school because of this problem.
- The Council’s transport team says it contacted the school that day to arrange for the correct harness for Z to be available. The Council told me the harness was not available on 8 September as it had not been recorded as a necessity on the pupil record and the school had not picked this up during the review of arrangements.
- The Council says it told Mrs X to put her request in writing to see if the transport eligibility team would be willing to consider a sole occupancy vehicle in response to her journey time concerns.
- Mrs X complained on 13 and16 September she had received no response. Her 13 September email explained she did not drive, she relied on school transport for Z and he had now been home an extra week.
- The Council says as September was a particular busy time emails received at that time were not read by the transport team for up to two weeks. It says it explained this on its website.
- Mrs X received an acknowledgment on 14 and 16 September that her emails had been forwarded to the school transport team.
- Mrs X says she emailed and telephoned the Council several times but just received an acknowledgment email. She says she referred to her son being out of school in every message.
- The Council says the school confirmed which harness was required on 19 September and the Council placed an order that day. The supplier said it could take up to two weeks to provide one.
- On 20 September Mrs X telephoned the Council. It says she was informed the harness was on order and she was then passed to the eligibility team about the sole occupancy vehicle request. It says the eligibility team advised Mrs X the request required a formal review with SEN colleagues and the school and she should use the current transport for the time being.
- The Council issued a letter about an equipment loan for Z on 23 September.
- The Council told me it collected the harness from the previous operator and made this available to the family on 26 September. The Council accepts Z missed 12 days of school due to lack of suitable transport until the harness was available.
- The Council says when the transport arrived on 26 September Mrs X refused to place Z on the transport and ‘consequently was responsible for enabling Z to access school’. The Council says it had provided suitable arrangements and Mrs X need not have declined these. The Council says its transport team was not aware Mrs X was preventing Z using the transport until 19 October, following a query from a local Councillor (on Mrs X’s behalf). The Council had assumed Mrs X was making her own arrangements when she did not let Z travel on 26 September.
- On 13 October Mrs X emailed the Council saying Z had been unable to return to school since the summer holidays due to there being no safe transport arrangements for him. The Council acknowledged her email on 19 October and said Z’s travel arrangements were currently being investigated.
- On 1 November Mrs X emailed to say that as Z remained out of school she would seek legal advice.
- The Council says when it became apparent Z was not accessing school it exceptionally agreed to a commission a single occupancy vehicle with passenger assistant (pending a formal decision on transport being made). The Council said it was considering a larger shared vehicle (to give Z more space) but this would take time to put in place and the sole vehicle would be provided until the end of term in December. The assistant could ensure Z kept his seatbelt fastened. Mrs X replied that no harness was available that Z could not escape from.
- The Council says it put out a tender on 1 November and transport started on 7 November.
- On 7 November the transport collected Z, but there was no harness. Mrs X complained to the Council that she had made it clear Z required a specific harness and could not be transported safely without it. The Council said it would order another one.
- The Council issued a letter for an equipment loan on 8 November.
- The Council has provided me with evidence confirming the new provider collected the harness from the previous provider on 10 November.
- The Council says as Mrs X refused use of the harness in the minibus on 26 September it assumed this meant a harness was no longer required and this is why one was not provided on 7 November.
- On 21 December the Council decided that as Z and the other children on the 7 seater vehicle were all travelling successfully it was not going to pursue a larger vehicle and it would continue to provide Z with a single occupancy vehicle.
- Mrs X complained to the Ombudsman but we directed her to use the Council’s complaint procedure. The Council apologised for the delay in responding to her communications in September. It said that while it hoped to consider new transport requests within 6 weeks it had taken 8 weeks in her case due to a significant influx of applications at that time.
- Mrs X replied that she did not agree the Council had been unaware Z was out of school as she had referred to this in every email and had always received an acknowledgment within 1-2 days of each email. Mrs X said her request was not for a single occupancy vehicle but for a journey time that did not exceed 45 minutes. The original transport offered took over an hour. She also requested Z receive 1:1 support (as he does at school) and the use of a harness did not negate the need for 1:1 supervision as Z could climb out of the harness. Mrs X says if 1:1 and a shorter journey time had been agreed she had been willing for Z to travel in the multi-occupancy vehicle. Mrs X said she had raised concerns about Z’s safety on several occasions via school and annual reviews and had not been aware she needed to raise them with the Council directly. Mrs X also said she had provided her own harness for use on school transport which meant she did not have one to use at home or for emergencies. Mrs X said Z had lost skills due to his long absence from school (since July) and there was also the added cost and stress of having Z at home for such an extended period. Mrs X considered a financial remedy was appropriate.
- The Council responded further apologising for the lack of transport for 8 weeks, 2 days but offering no further remedy.
- On 23 February 2017 Mrs X complained to the Council again that a promised new safety harness had not been provided. The Council was confused by this request as a harness had been provided in November (after it was collected from the previous provider). The Council contacted the new provider who said Mrs X had declined to use this harness and said her own harness should be used instead. The provider still had the harness provided by the Council. The Council told Mrs X if she did not like the harness it had provided another harness could be made available.
- Mrs X says Z was due to return to school on 8 September and actually returned on 7 November. During this time Mrs X says she had to provide extra care to Z and also use social care direct payments (usually used for weekend carers) during the week so she could attend meetings.
- The Council told me it had apologised for the loss of 12 days of education (8-23 September) but did not consider it was responsible beyond this.
- The Council says it completes a transport information form for each child with an education, health and care plan and parents can also provide information when making an application for transport.
- The Council says it does not know why the school did not inform it that Z was not attending and it only found this out on 19 October. The Council’s transport team was under the impression the provision of the harness in September had resolved the transport issue although it continued to process the request for a sole occupancy vehicle. When Mrs X refused the harness on 26 September the Council considered she was making use of alternative arrangements.
- I find the Council did notify Mrs X on 5 August and asked her to contact the provider.
- The Council accepts there was no harness available from 8 to 23 September. It says this was because the school failed to note that a harness was required and then delayed in telling it which harness was required. The Council says it ordered a new harness from the supplier. I find the Council could have asked the old provider for the harness and collected it, as this is what it did in November.
- The harness was only one problem, Mrs X also felt the route was too long and Z could escape from the harness.
- Apart from the information in Mrs X’s complaint, there is no record on the Council’s file of Mrs X’s original concerns about the new journey time and lack of 1:1 supervision. The Council says it was processing this as a request for a sole occupancy vehicle but has not provided me with any evidence to support this. Mrs X says this was not her request at all. She felt the problems with a larger vehicle could be overcome.
- The Council’s response to my enquiries provides a new version of events to that provided in the Council’s complaint response. The Council says a harness was collected and available for 26 September but Mrs X declined to use the harness in the minibus. The Council says when she declined to use the minibus it was assumed by the transport team Mrs X would be transporting Z to school herself and the Council had discharged its duty to make suitable arrangements.
- The Council’s own evidence does not support this version of events. There is no evidence an officer personally collected the harness and made it available to the family on 26 September. The evidence is that the harness remained with the previous provider until 10 November, when it was collected by an employee from the new provider. The harness cannot have been collected in September if the old provider still had it on 10 November. Therefore I find no harness was available until 10 November, and even if it had been, this did not overcome Mrs X’s other concerns about the journey.
- The note on the Council’s file about the harness in September is likely to be the order for a new harness made on 19 September. It is not clear what happened to this order as a new harness was never provided (only the old one).
- I am unclear why the harness provided on 10 November was not suitable or used. The provider still has it and the Council has also offered to obtain a further harness. I cannot see Mrs X has responded to this offer. In any event Z has been transported to school since 7 November using Mrs X’s harness (although I accept this has at times been inconvenient for Mrs X not to have one available for emergency use).
- I have seen no evidence that would allow the Council to be reassured Mrs X was making arrangements from 26 September. The evidence available is that Mrs X was repeatedly stating Z was not attending school. Her email stating this was read and responded to on 19 October, so the Council was aware on that day Z had not attended since July. There is no contemporaneous record of Mrs X refusing transport on 26 September or a harness being made available that day.
- If a parent refused to allow a child to access transport I would expect a Council to record that on the file and send a letter to the parent explaining the consequences of doing so.
- I cannot see the Council took any action about Z being out of school until 1 November when Mrs X threatened legal action. There is no explanation for the delay between 19 October and 1 November. On the same day the Council requested a sole occupancy vehicle. It says this was approved on 4 November and a provider put in place for 7 November.
- It is unclear why Mrs X’s concerns about safety and journey time were not responded to in September. Mrs X says she was not requesting a single occupancy vehicle just that her son be more closely supervised on the vehicle and be picked up last / dropped off first. There is no evidence the Council ever considered this request. If it had done so the complaint may have been able to be resolved quickly by changing the route, adding an extra escort (if there was room to do so), moving where the escort sat or changing Z to a different vehicle.
- There seems to have been a lot of assumptions and misunderstandings on this case which could perhaps have been easily resolved, or even avoided, by sharing the information about requirements with parents when the contract was changed, or by an Officer speaking to Mrs X at an early stage. By treating Mrs X’s concerns as a new request and communicating only in writing an opportunity to properly understand the complaint and resolve the matter quickly was lost.
- Z was unable to attend school for 8 weeks and 2 days. The Council’s February 2017 complaint response acknowledges this, although the Council’s response to me says it was only responsible for 12 days of lost education.
- For the reasons set out above I find the Council was responsible for the full period. Z lost out on education during that period and Mrs X had to provide additional care over and above what she expected. This was an injustice.
- The Council has provided an apology for the delay in putting transport arrangements in place but I find this is not a suitable remedy for the loss identified.
- Within four weeks of my final decision the Council will pay Z £1200 to acknowledge two months of lost education. This should be paid into an account in Z’s own name and used by his family to provide activities, therapy or equipment of educational or social benefit to Z.
- Within four weeks of my final decision the Council will pay Mrs X £400 in recognition of the extra care she had to provide and that the family lost out on weekend respite due to having to divert social care direct payments to weekdays.
- I recommend the Council keep records of complaints raised about transport and of incidents on transport, especially when a parent refuses transport. Where a Council considers a parent has rejected suitable transport arrangements I recommend the Council provide advice in writing of the consequences of doing so and of any appeal or review process available.
- There was fault and delay by the Council in responding to a complaint about new transport arrangements. This led to a disabled child losing 8 weeks, 2 days of education and placed extra stress on his parent. The complaint is upheld.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman