The final half hour of last week’s Cabinet meeting was the rubber stamping of
the decision to charge 17 and 18 year old Special Educational Needs pupils £400
for their school transport. £400 is about 10% of the average cost per pupil.
Councils have no statutory duty to pay for SEN transport beyond age 16 and
Bexley would rather not. Currently about 133 students would be affected.
The new policy will not apply until September next year and will not apply to pupils who are already enrolled in a particular course. In most circumstances therefore the new arrangements will not apply to existing students.
It was acknowledged by the Deputy Director of Children’s Services that parents will need to take the charges into account when considering college places to be booked by March 2019. Extended schooling will to some extent then be governed by the income of the parent.
Cabinet Member Philip Read who is the driving force behind the latest imposition/economy measure justified it by saying Council Taxpayers would still be footing 90% of the bill and that Redbridge Council (Labour) was doing the same thing. He said that he had discussed the issue with nine SEN parents (Bexley Voice members) and they all thought the proposal was “fair and reasonable” as might well be the case for parents unaffected by it because of the delayed introduction date.
Parents who simply cannot find the money or to whom other exceptional circumstances applied may be able to apply to an Appeal Panel for deferred payments.
The balance between the needs of the general population and those with exceptional requirements is a difficult one.
As always this was another subject in which Councillor David Leaf considered himself an expert so he felt the need to repeat much of what Councillor Read had said. The proposal was “sensible, modest and prudent” and he blamed the need for it on “the mess made by the last Labour government”, an excuse which must surely be wearing a bit thin by now.
Councillor Wendy Perfect (Labour, Northumberland Heath) struggling with the microphone deprivation imposed on Labour Members referred to “the stresses and strains and sacrifices, the pressure, the worry and lifestyle changes, the financial hardship” necessitated by the extra £8 a week. There was she said no reference to that in the Cabinet’s report.
She knew people who had given up their careers to support disabled children and “they are constantly in fighting mode” to get help. “Therapies and equipment cost thousands of pounds over and above what the state gives them. Sometimes houses have to be extended or modified. They worry about what will happen to their children once they get old.”
Bexley Council is saying “we know your life can be difficult but we are going to make it a little bit more difficult”. She urged the Cabinet to revisit their decision; the optimism of a new Councillor knows no bounds. When did Bexley’s Cabinet ever revisit a decision?
Councillor Daniel Francis (Labour, Belvedere) said he was a member of Bexley Voice and he didn’t think that Councillor Read’s small sample was typical of members across the borough. Without a microphone his voice did not carry too well but one of his themes was that families who spent their disability allowances on a Motability vehicle might not be eligible for any other help with transport costs. i.e. No recourse to the Appeal Panel. (I hope this is more or less accurate, it was very difficult to hear what Councillor Francis was saying.)
Councillor Francis went on to talk about the injustices of the Disability Living Allowance. Both Daniel and I have disabled daughters so I too have seen and heard about how unfair the allowance assessments can be especially regarding Motability vehicles. Appeals against wrong assessments commonly take 18 months during which time no money is forthcoming at all and Bexley Council will be demanding its £400.
Bexley’s Appeal system will be no good at all during that period of what Daniel called limbo. As the father of twins in a few years time he might well be sending his able bodied child to one school without charge and the other less fortunate one will cost him £400, if the fee has not gone up by then. As he reminded us, Bexley Council tends to introduce a charge when none existed before and then increase it rapidly. The poor went from not paying Council Tax, to 15% and then 20% all within a couple of years.
Once again, due to clever scheduling of Scrutiny Committee meetings, this was another decision that Bexley’s Cabinet was steamrollering through with little fear of democracy getting in their way.
Cabinet Member Philip Read said that no Labour critic had suggested where the money might otherwise come from and Councillor Leaf said that Newham Council means tested SEN transport costs.
There was a unanimous Cabinet vote in favour of hammering the least fortunate members of society, unfortunately they are the people making the greatest demands on resources so the budgetary pressures get ever greater.