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Schooling first, say Law Lords

A council's duty to educate children is more serious than its responsibility to the elderly and the homeless, says a landmark judgment by the Law Lords, writes Nicholas Pyke.

The House of Lords has ruled that East Sussex was wrong to take its budget into consideration when it chose to cut a sick teenager's teaching hours. But this runs counter to recent community- care rulings where councils have won the right to take their finances into account before allocating, for example, accommodation for the elderly.

The case arose when East Sussex reduced 16-year-old Beth Tandy's home tuition from five to three hours as part of its bid to save pound;3 million from the education budget.

But this was wrong, said the five Law Lords who unanimously agreed that the council had erred in its statutory duty to provide a "suitable and efficient" education for Beth.

They said that shortage of resources was an "irrelevant factor", wrongly taken into account. Statutory duties could not be watered down in this way. If necessary, East Sussex must make cuts elsewhere in its overall budget.

The news was greeted with alarm by local authority leaders who have sought urgent meetings with the Government. They pointed out that their budgets are restrained by Government spending caps. East Sussex said that "the Lords are giving a very clear message to central government that local authorities need resources to carry out their statutory duties."

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