Havering school transport cuts debate tied up by rules row

A Havering Council debate over cuts to school transport for children with special needs was branded “ridiculous” last night.

The cash-strapped council is proposing changes to the way it provides school transport to 600 Havering children, which cost about £5.5million last year.

A consultation which closed last year said the council will stop paying for taxis for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and cut the number of bus journeys it funds.

It has tabled a new transport policy that will prioritise the most “cost-effective” option, encourage carpooling and promote direct payments so that parents can “organise their own” transport.

At a debate during a full council meeting on Wednesday January 17, the Conservative group proposed a motion calling on Havering’s cabinet “not to proceed” with the cuts due to the “stress and anxiety” caused to parents.

But about half of the 90-minute debate was taken up by an argument over whether the Havering Residents Association (HRA) and the Labour group’s proposed changes to the motion – known as amendments – were allowed under council rules.

The council’s chief legal officer Gavin Milnthorpe apologised for the confusion, which he said was because he was unable to “review” the draft amendments before they were published.

However, Conservative group leader Keith Prince said the changes did not “meet the criteria to be valid amendments” and repeatedly urged Deputy Mayor Patricia Brown to ignore the officer’s advice.

At one point he accused Milnthorpe of offering “misleading” advice, although he later attempted to withdraw the phrase.

Some councillors became increasingly frustrated and Labour’s Frankie Walker called the argument “ridiculous”.

She added: “We’re spending more time on the amendment than the debate.”

Labour’s Jane Keane said: “What has gone on tonight has been highly disrespectful to parents, a real disservice, it was absolute showboating at everybody else’s expense.”

After several minutes of argument, Mr Milnethorpe said he feared another “Jackie Weaver moment” and called Cllr Prince’s concerns “a bit silly and technical”.

During the debate that followed, the Conservatives criticised the “cost-cutting exercise” and raised several cases of parents who are worried about how their children will get to school.

But council leader Ray Morgon insisted that “no decision has been made” and pledged the council would “review the consultation carefully”.

He added: “It’s not a tick-box exercise.

“But clearly, we’re in a very difficult financial position our [chief finance] officer has said we could be within six to twelve months of a Section 114 [bankruptcy] notice.”

Following the debate, the HRA-Labour administration rejected the Conservative motion but committed to “consultation and scrutiny” before implementing any changes to SEND transport.

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Mick Ferris

Editor Email: mickferris@yellowad.co.uk