Bristol’s cabinet member for education and skills has been accused of misleading the council by hiding concerns around £5m of cuts to a special needs budget.
A High Court judge has ruled that Bristol City Council did not properly consult over the cuts to the high needs block.
And cabinet member Anna Keen has refused to deny accusations of impropriety despite the multi-million pound slashing of funds not appearing in budget papers that went to the council’s own scrutiny committee.
In the cabinet meeting on January 23, Keen said that she was “pleased to make these recommendations based on robust consultations with schools” that would “ease the pressure on our High Needs budget”.
An opposition councillor who from next year will be the chair of the task and finish group, scrutinising the budget, says that Keen did not pass on concerns from the Schools Forum – an independent body whose role is to consider local authority proposals – about the cuts.
Clive Stevens, Green councillor for Clifton Down, said: “It’s important that lessons are learned. The 2016 Bundred Review highlighted the need for councillors to be given clear information, but here in 2018 we had a £5m cut which was simply not shown in the budget papers.
“I felt I needed to bring public pressure to bear to get the administration to understand the importance of doing things right.”
An official Labour statement called Stevens “a cheap opportunist” for raising the issue.
The claimants who brought the case to the High Court include two nine-year-olds with various disabilities, and their mothers.
Judge Barry Cotter ruled that the city council had failed in its duties to not only complete equality impact assessments on the 10 per cent cut to the High Needs budget, but also failed to consult on this issue when it was required to do so, also breaching three statutory acts and common law requirements.
In his ruling, Judge Cotter said: “There is no evidence… that members of the Council had any regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, still less ‘actively promote’ children’s welfare.”
The Judge added: “Indeed, the decision-making process appears to be driven entirely from the standpoint of ensuring a balanced budget by 2020/21.”
When asked to respond to whether Keen felt she had misled the mayor, cabinet and full council, a Bristol Labour group spokesperson confirmed that Keen fed back the concerns of the Schools Forum to the mayor.
But Stevens told Bristol24/7: “The reality is she misled us at cabinet (regarding the Schools Forum) and at full council (regarding the £5m cut) but I think she was under pressure and maybe didn’t check the details as much as she should have.”
When the budget papers came to full council on February 20, the line in the budget (pictured above) said that there was a £1.2m increase, and not the £5m cut that Judge Cotter refered to.
“Anna or officers seemingly hid this information,” wrote Stevens in an open letter. “It wasn’t in the text either. Greens didn’t support this budget but Labour councillors dutifully voted it through.
“I don’t think many of them knew that they were passing £5m of education cuts onto some of the most vulnerable children in Bristol. Some will feel misled.”
In response to Stevens’ letter, a Bristol Labour group spokesperson said: “The Bristol Labour group is committed to supporting all of the city’s children, including those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), and protecting public services while highlighting central government cuts.
“That’s why, last week, Councillor Helen Godwin launched a ground-breaking Children’s Charter. It’s why this administration has kept open every single children’s centre in the city. And it’s why, in February, Labour councillors supported an amendment to invest an additional £800,000 in two new specialist children’s homes. The Green Party voted against it.
“Labour cabinet members, including Councillor Anna Keen, are working closely with legal officers to understand the decision and future steps. Mayor Marvin Rees’ administration continues to support calls from the cross-party Local Government Association for the Government to urgently review funding to ensure that councils can meet unprecedented demand on services and the growing complexity of the needs of children and young people.
“Like a cheap opportunist, Councillor Stevens is trying to score political points for himself by misrepresenting half a sentence from a five minute speech at a cabinet meeting, rather than reaching out to support important ongoing work for Bristolians’ benefit.
“Unlike Labour members, he did not raise the issues in advance and, as normal, he’s attacking Bristol’s progressive Labour administration rather than the Tory Government who are responsible for funding in this area.”
Leader of the Conservative group at City Hall, Mark Weston, said: “I don’t think there is a conscious effort to subvert democracy. However, I believe the increasing dictatorial approach adopted by Labour in power is a direct consequence of their majority on Council and the structural problems of holding the mayor to account.”
Bristol SEND community spokesperson Tess Christy said: “We hope this is a wake-up call for the council that the rights of children and young people with SEND to an effective and suitable education cannot be ignored. Our children deserve better.”
Main photo: Families protest against the £5m SEND funding cuts by Bristol City Council before July’s judicial review