Councils 'should pay for mistakes'

26th January 1996 at 00:00
Authorities guilty of malpractice should be made to pay the full cost of the investigation by the Local Government Ombudsman, according to a new book on special educational needs.

The authors say this could fund more investigations and end the long delays which, they say, "bring the Ombudsman's office into disrepute". Recent figures show that the average investigation takes 76 weeks.

An increasing proportion of the cases reaching the Ombudsman concern SEN. The number of special educational needs reports it has published rose from five in 198889 to 37 in 199394.

Peter Bibby and Ingrid Lunt say that lengthy waits reduce the effectiveness of the investigation and harm the children concerned.

"It is of the highest importance that central government and the Ombudsman take action to eliminate the injustice that is caused by these unacceptable delays," they write in Working for Children.

"The administrative system under which complaints are investigated needs to be streamlined. It is more than likely that the Ombudsman's office is underfunded. There is an arguable case for charging a defaulting authority with the cost of the investigation."

This is a principle which, in some instances, has been adopted by the Audit Commission.

The Ombudsman had expected that the new special needs Tribunal system would cut down the weight of complaints. This may yet prove to be the case. However, while arguments about a child's entitlement are now handled by the Tribunal, delays by councils are still a matter for either the Ombudsman or the Government to investigate.

Mr Bibby and Ms Lunt have also written to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment complaining about the length of time her Department takes to investigate cases of footdragging. They claim the DFEE can take 18 months to pronounce.

They called on the DFEE to publish more information about its work in settling appeals, which "could be expected to raise professional and public confidence in the fairness of the procedure and justice of the outcomes".

John Fowler, from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, said the Ombudsman already receives some Pounds 10 million from councils' rate support grant.

"I can see the equity of their argument," he said, "but it could be a bit impractical and certainly could not be done without primary legislation. It should also be remembered that in fining councils you would at the same time be making it harder for them to put matters right."

Working for Children: Securing provision for children with special educational needs by Peter Bibby and Ingrid Lunt. Published by David Fulton (0171 405 5606) Pounds 16.99

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