Redbridge councillors “uncomfortable” about administration’s plan to ignore ombudsman

Redbridge councillors are “uncomfortable” that the council does not plan to compensate a mum whose son missed a year of school.

In February, the local government ombudsman recommended the council apologise and pay the family £9,800 after failing the 11-year-old, who has severe epilepsy and autism.

The child, not named for privacy reasons, was due to start secondary school in 2015 but was too ill to attend for a year, during which time the council did not arrange home schooling.

The local government ombudsman also reported that the council’s failures meant the boy missed out on 16 months of therapeutic care.

However, council officers insist the boy was too ill for home schooling or to access therapeutic care and do not think the council should obey the ombudsman’s recommendations.

Speaking at the overview scrutiny committee on June 7, corporate director of people Adrian Loades said: “We do not take ombudsman reports lightly but in this instance we simply believe they are incorrect.

“We feel we have put considerable amounts of evidence in front of the ombudsman which, for one reason or another, we do not feel have been properly taken into account.

“This child was not overlooked or forgotten about, the fact they were not receiving home tutoring was a deliberate decision.

“The ombudsman stated the local authority should have undertaken an educational assessment but… the medical assessment received was that this child was not fit for education in the school or at home.

“The ombudsman was also critical about the child’s access to therapies. The view of officers and the school is that there were many times where that child was not well enough for therapies.

“From the local authority’s perspective, we feel we have met our duty, we made available those therapies and when the child did not access them it was because of their illness.”

Committee members were also told it was “of very little value” to undertake an audit of all students at the school to check if they are receiving the correct support, as the ombudsman recommended, because the issue was “so long ago”.

In his initial report, ombudsman Michael King criticised the council’s “failure to assess” whether the boy could receive homeschooling, calling it “an injustice”.

He also noted that, once the boy returned to school, there were “prolonged periods” where he did not receive the therapies described in his Education, Health and Care Plan.

He wrote: “(His mother) arranged physiotherapy sessions for (him) at a cost of £60 a session but was unable to afford to pay for the other provisions not being met by the council.”

However, councillors at the overview scrutiny meeting were reluctant to agree to disobey the ombudsman, even if they agreed with officers about the case. 

Cllr Ross Hatfull (Lab, Valentines) said: “Going against an ombudsman’s report makes me feel uneasy regardless of the circumstances of the case.

“I know how long a process it is to go through the ombudsman and how hard it is so I know this family must feel deeply aggrieved at what has happened.

“For us to then not listen to the ombudsman does worry me. I think this decision will bring a lot of negative publicity against the council.”

Cllr Anne Sachs (Lab, Chadwell) agreed, arguing that ombudsman decisions were similar to those of a referee because the system “works on respect”.

She said: “Authorities very often find themselves in situations where they really do not feel the ombudsman has got it right.

“Sometimes you have got to take a deep breath and say ‘you win some, you lose some’. The amounts recommended for payment are modest.”

Mr Loades said that while officers “completely understand” councillors’ reluctance, they still felt that “the payment of public money is not warranted based on the facts of the case”.

No decision was made at the meeting and the issue was deferred to a later date, with the suggestion that councillors debate it again in private.

Victoria Munro

Local Democracy Reporter