Council faces legal action over controversial safety valve deal

Parents call for 'transparency' on high needs bail outs

Parents call for 'transparency' on high needs bail outs

A council in negotiations with ministers for a bailout to cover its £64 million high needs funding blackhole is now facing legal action from parents over the controversial deal’s “shameful secrecy”.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole is one of at least five councils in talks with the government over agreeing a “safety valve” bailout in return for sweeping reforms to get SEND spend back under control.

Deals are normally agreed between officials behind closed doors. But BCP was rare in debating details of the deal in public at a council hearing.

The council is pushing for a 15-year plan to get their budget under control, saying if they did it any quicker they may face breaching their legal duties to vulnerable children. Most of the other 34 deals with councils are between five and seven years.

Lawyers have now issued a pre-action judicial review letter to the council over its refusal to publish the full details of its plan submitted to the Department for Education.

While a summary of the proposal was released, the full 15-year plan was exempt from publication at a January council meeting.

The council claimed this was because it contained “information relating to the financial or business affairs of any particular person”.

But in their legal letter seen by Schools Week, lawyers from Sinclairslaw warn this “cannot rationally be interpreted to include the affairs” of the council.

‘Critical transparency’

They added the level of public interest was “considerable” and have given the council one week to provide the plan.

It is thought to be the first legal case taken forward by parents relating to the safety valve scheme.

A spokesperson for the BCP alliance for children and schools, which is bringing the action, said it was “critical” councils are “transparent if they want families and schools to work with them”.

“The secrecy surrounding these agreements is shameful, and we feel we have no other option at this stage,” they added.

Minutes from a council meeting earlier this year, where the deal was discussed, revealed one of the proposals on the table risks an “inability to deliver all aspects of the plan due to legality”.

The council had originally suggested transferring 11 per cent from its mainstream schools’ budgets into the high needs pot under one of the proposals. But it is now proposing to top slice 0.5 per cent instead from the schools.

“Our goal is purely to ensure that the public and those who represent us fully understand the strings attached to this funding, the risks of further cuts to services, and how this will impact our most vulnerable,” the spokesperson added.

Last year, SEND charity IPSEA wrote to all safety valve councils asking them to confirm they would fulfil all legal duties to children.

‘Common sense’

The parent’s letter also states a judicial review could be pursued over any final safety valve plan. Earlier this week, BCP was still waiting to hear from ministers on its agreement.

The letter claimed other councils’ deals for saving money “contain controversial wording”, prompting concerns within SEND communities.

It added: “We sincerely hope common-sense will prevail to enable transparent disclosure and a full and proper explanation to be given to the public in relation to the LA’s conduct.”

A BCP spokesperson said: “As this relates to the commencement of legal proceedings, it would not be appropriate to comment at this time.”

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