A London council has agreed to pay three families of disabled children up to £5,700 after improperly handling their school transport applications.
The London Borough of Bexley was heavily criticised by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman for "failing to follow its own policy" at the time of each decision, and leaving the families "frustrated and uncertain" about the way their subsequent complaints were handled.
It has now pledged to pay between £1,160 and £1,900 in compensation to each family, depending on individual circumstances.
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The council agreed that the way it handled the complaints was "unacceptable", and said it has taken action to ensure similar errors do not occur in future.
Disabled children denied transport
The three families initially complained to the ombudsman in autumn 2018 after the council refused to provide home to school transport for their children, who all attend special schools.
The children, who have autism and associated difficulties, were denied transport for the new school year, despite previously being eligible, because they "lived within statutory walking distance" of the school – although this rule does not apply when assessing eligibility on special educational needs (SEN) and disability grounds.
According to the ombudsman, the council "put the onus on parents" to provide evidence that children could not walk, rather than taking responsibility for the process.
The report said all three families had put in parental, medical and school evidence that their children could not walk the distance to school, but the council refused to accept this – and wouldn't explain why.
After failing to follow its own policy at the time, which included conducting home visits and consultations where necessary, the borough agreed with the ombudsman's recommendation to carry out an individual assessment in each case and accept further evidence from the families.
But it didn't follow through on its promises – instead "repeating the same fault" that was identified previously.
The ombudsman said the council failed to consider not just whether the children could physically walk, but whether their autism, sensory issues, behaviour and fatigue meant they could walk the distance safely.
It also failed to understand the legal test needed to assess whether a child could walk to school, and instead made the decision based on whether the children could travel by car or public transport or enjoy community activities.
Each family then had to appeal again, putting them through "further time and trouble".
Compensation for 'unnecessary' appeals
The council has now agreed to apologise and pay £250 to each of the families, to compensate for the time and trouble it took for them to lodge "unnecessary" appeals and complaints – as well as the effort it took to source additional evidence which the borough had agreed to supply.
It will also pay £10 to each of the families for every school day they went without transport, and refund all out-of-pocket expenses for the same period.
This will cost the borough between £1,160 and £1,900 per family, depending on individual circumstances – meaning the total payout will amount to between £3,480 and £5,700.
In addition to paying compensation to the families, the council has agreed to review the training, policy and advice to officers and panel members, as well as staffing levels within the relevant department.
It will also provide training to all relevant staff on how the ombudsman works and the importance of complying with agreed recommendations, and has agreed to consider whether officers and panel members would benefit from training on autism and other "hidden disabilities".
Michael King, spokesperson for the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: “When a council agrees to our recommendations it should make every effort to comply. It is not acceptable for councils to agree to our recommendations just to close down a complaint.
“Not only has the council not been completely transparent with my office, it has also left three families frustrated and uncertain that their complaint and appeal was dealt with properly. This can only have eroded their trust in the authority’s capacity to get things right.
“I am pleased the council has now agreed to my further recommendations and, as with all investigations, we will keep in close contact with the council to get assurances these improvements are carried out.”
Handling of complaints was 'unacceptable'
Jackie Belton, chief executive of the London Borough of Bexley, said: "We have apologised to the families involved in the cases that are the subject of the Local Government Ombudsman’s (LGO) report.
"The way their complaints were handled is unacceptable. We have taken action to try to ensure that similar errors do not occur in the future.
"We recognise and welcome scrutiny of our actions by the LGO. Their input helps us to ensure that we continue to learn.
"The report made several recommendations. We accept them and have taken action over the last few months to implement them. This includes introducing a more robust reporting and governance structure and changes to the wording of our SEN travel policy.
"We are pleased to have already received some positive feedback following these changes. We will continue to listen to and work with partners, families and schools to make improvements to the service."