Bexley council failed to learn from previous school transport complaints

London Borough of Bexley has been heavily criticised by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman after it failed to make agreed improvements to the way it decides school transport applications for children with disabilities.

While the council implemented some of the changes, the Ombudsman still has concerns about the council’s understanding of the statutory guidance and its role and duties in deciding transport applications.

The Ombudsman has now issued a public report detailing the problems it has found which impacted the three families of children with disabilities.

Its report finds the council failed to consider not just whether the children could physically walk, but whether their autism, sensory issues, behaviour and fatigue meant they could walk the distance safely. It also continued to put the onus on parents to provide supporting evidence their children could not walk, rather than taking responsibility for collecting the professional evidence needed to reach a view.

The Ombudsman also found the council failed to understand the legal test needed to assess whether a child could walk to school, and instead made the decision based on whether the children could travel by car or public transport or enjoy community activities.

The Ombudsman also found the council at fault for only allowing the families to provide evidence at the appeal stage, rather than first consideration, and for how it calculated the financial remedy for the families.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:

“When a council agrees to our recommendations it should make every effort to comply. It is not acceptable for councils to agree to our recommendations just to close down a complaint.

“Not only has the council not been completely transparent with my office, it has also left three families frustrated and uncertain that their complaint and appeal was dealt with properly. This can only have eroded their trust in the authority’s capacity to get things right. 

“I am pleased the council has now agreed to my further recommendations and, as with all investigations, we will keep in close contact with the council to get assurances these improvements are carried out.”

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services. In this case the council has agreed to apologise to all three families for failing to follow our recommendations.

It has agreed to reconsider the applications of the families as new applications, where it has not already reversed its previous decision on appeal, and to obtain professional advice or carry out a face-to-face assessment, if required to decide an application.

It will also pay the families £250 each for the time and trouble of an additional unnecessary appeal and complaint, and for the time sourcing additional evidence which the council had agreed it would get.

It will refund the families’ out-of-pocket expenses for the period they were without transport and pay each family £10 for each school day they were without transport to acknowledge the time spent transporting their children, the stress and inconvenience, and the lost opportunity to work or undertake other activities.

The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve processes for the wider public. In this case the council has agreed to review its training, policy and advice to officers and panel members. It will again review the staffing levels within the relevant department.

It will also provide training to all relevant staff on how the Ombudsman works, and the importance of complying with agreed recommendations. It has also agreed to consider whether officers and panel members would benefit from training on autism and other ‘hidden disabilities’.

Article date: 10 October 2019