Greater consideration of Armed Forces Covenant needed by local authorities, Ombudsman warns

It’s not enough for councils just to pay lip service to the Armed Forces Covenant, the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) has warned.

Over the past few years, many authorities across the country have publicly pledged their support for armed forces families by signing the covenant, ensuring members of the forces and their families are not disadvantaged as a result of their active service.

Now, following the publication of a new report, the LGO is reminding councils that the covenant should inform all decision making for those authorities that have signed up. The alert comes after Devon County Council declined to provide home-school transport to one forces family after circumstances meant they had to move home.

The family was living in forces accommodation; two younger children were enrolled in a primary school and received school transport to take them there. But the housing conditions were so poor that the older child, a boy who was already being treated for cancer, was twice hospitalised with a fungal lung infection.

The family was moved to a temporary property further away from the children’s school. But because of the boy’s health needs, and because the children had already changed school frequently, the family wanted the children to remain at the school and asked if the council would continue to provide transport.

The council declined, despite the family sending in supporting letters from the boy’s specialist, and insisted that the children should attend a nearer school. The family appealed the decision before complaining to the LGO. Throughout this time, the family had to pay for alternative transport and for breakfast clubs and rearrange their working lives to ensure the children got to school.

The council argued that its decision did not disadvantage the family because a non-forces family would have been treated in the same manner.

However, the LGO’s investigation found that the council’s policy, upon which it based its decision not to offer transport, did not take into account the Armed Forces Covenant. As the family’s new home was determined by the armed forces, and they did not have a ‘free choice’ of where to live, it was only because of their status as a forces family that the children were put in the position of having to change school. This unnecessary disruption to the continuity of the children’s education is exactly what the covenant seeks to address.

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said:

“Councils that have signed up to the Covenant have pledged to consider the often quite unique circumstances that forces families find themselves in. It is not enough to say that decisions about civilian families would be similarly made and therefore forces families are not placed at a disadvantage.

“In this case it was particularly crucial that the children should remain at their school and receive the stability they needed through a difficult time. I’m pleased that Devon Country Council has agreed to my recommendations and will also revisit its policies and procedures to ensure that there is greater awareness among staff of the covenant's requirements so that similar situations may result in a different outcome for families living in their area.

“I now hope that other authorities that have signed the Covenant will reflect on my report, re-examine their own policies and ensure they adhere to both the letter and spirit of their pledge.”

To remedy the family’s complaint to the LGO, Devon council has been asked to apologise to the family and has already agreed to put in place measures to raise the profile of the covenant among its staff and review its school transport policy.

The council has also agreed to put in place a home-school transport plan for the child as soon as possible and to pay the family £1,000 to reimburse the costs they incurred as a result of the council’s faults, and a further £1,000 to acknowledge the avoidable stress the faults caused the family.

Article date: 18 June 2015

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