Conservatives criticise Labour over £181K payout in home to school transport mess

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Documents retained by Conservative Councillors in a Freedom of Information request revealed that the Labour council entered into an early termination agreement with Edge Public Solutions LTD. This agreement allowed the consultancy to keep £181,000 despite their unsuccessful efforts.

Edge was given a six figure contract to set up and implement a local home to school transport service for children with disabilities and special educational needs. The main reason for bringing Edge on board was to save money as the budget had previously been overspent by £200,000.

The contract was seen as a safe option because it was success-based, meaning that if there were no savings Edge would not be paid, making it seemingly low risk to taxpayers.

When reaching out to transport service providers, Edge implemented a new “Dynamic Purchasing System” which was meant to increase competition and therefore lower costs. This resulted in taxi and transport firms bidding for more routes than they could realistically manage.

Edge were only given a few months between this new system being implemented and the start of the school year to acquire new suppliers for new routes. The new system was not presented in a formal business case to senior managers and lead members, which is a step that’s expected with this type of significant change to a council service in order to ensure a proper audit trail and accountability.

Less than six months into the service, major issues arose and numerous complaints were made, which led to a forecast of £1.2m overspend of the £2.4m budget Edge were given and commissioned to reduce. The complaints included improper safeguarding, and an independent review found that 50% of the parents and carers involved with the scheme who were surveyed by the Parent and Carers Council (PaCC) did not feel confident about their child’s safety.

Chair of the council’s children, young people and skills committee, Councillor John Allcock, said:

“Firstly. I would like to once again apologise unreservedly to families, headteachers, school staff and transport operators for the failings in our home to school transport service in 2019.

“The administration immediately set up an independent review to look at what went wrong with our Home to School Transport Service, which was published in March. We accepted those findings and continue to act on them openly and transparently.

“Significant improvements have already been made since last year, including additional senior leadership capacity and more robust monitoring arrangements.”

Conservative Councillors claim they had spent months asking for answers about whether the council was in dispute with Edge before filing their Freedom of Information request.

The documents retained show that the early termination agreement entered into by Labour councillors allowed Edge to retain £121,000 that they had already been paid, as well as an additional £60,000. Labour argues that this £181,000 sum is less than the potential legal costs that would result from a dispute.

Conservative Councillor Lee Wares said:

“This is an incredible outcome that takes more money away from helping vulnerable children and families. Labour seem to advise that it was cheaper to agree the settlement payments as they were less than the legal costs associated with a dispute.

“That suggests the contract was ill advised to agree and should never have been rushed; probably more to the point, Labour were culpable for the diabolical delivery of the service being more intent on political ideology than putting children first.”

Cllr Wares added that this is not the first time money has been “thrown away” by the Labour council:

“This is systematic in the Labour council, when Uber didn’t deliver on the contract for the BikeShare scheme, Labour let them keep £30k rather than fight for it back. Labour cannot be trusted with agreeing contracts and whilst it pleads poverty and puts up council tax, it throws away £210k on just two contracts and over-spends a £2.4m budget by £1.2m.”

In response, Cllr Allcock said that the council avoided paying a large exit fee and that Cllr Wares is aware of this:

“Cllr Wares has been provided with a copy of the exit agreement with Edge and is aware that under that commercial settlement the council avoided a £75,000 exit fee for ending the contract early. The reasons for not meeting the savings targets are explored in the LGA report.”

Cllr Allcock also argued that the budget was unrealistic to begin with:

“The independent review also highlighted the budget for Home to School Transport service was significantly too small and savings targets were unrealistic.  A paper regarding resourcing this service is going to a Special Policy & Resources committee next week (May 27).”

Other papers retained by the Conservative Group also reveal that Edge was the only consultant to bid for the work. The independent review states that a proper evaluation report of Edge’s tender was not completed.

Conservative Councillor Mary Mears said:

“No wonder Labour wanted to keep this secret. This is a further damning indictment on their handling of this service which the Local Government Association has recently condemned Labour over. Whilst the Parent and Carer’s Council struggles to find suitable funding from the council to work for children and families needing this service, the council wastes enough money that would keep PaCC properly funded for many years; it is disgraceful.”

She added that she feels the scrutiny panel seems to be losing interest in the issue:

“It is also now worrying that the scrutiny panel that was set up to investigate the issues is now stalling. The council agreed this panel should be held during these difficult times, but it seems the Greens who chair it, have lost a sense of urgency and interest.”

Cllr Allcock responded by saying that the council will not be retendering the contract Edge received, and that Labour has nothing to hide:

“The council has 4-year contracts with its transport providers which have over three years left to run. The council will not be retendering the contact given to Edge.

“A cross-party panel that is open to the public, chaired by opposition members and includes councillors Mears and Wares, was also formed and meets regularly.  We continue to welcome its scrutiny and have nothing to hide.”

Conservative Leader Steve Bell weighed in on the issue by stating:

“There are many issues around this subject that need to be investigated and we will continue to try and get to the bottom of this deep and murky pond. Labour cannot be so cavalier with such vast sums of money and just shrug their shoulders. I guess it is easy for them when they are using other people’s money.”

Cllr Allcock explained that the council is actively exploring ways to ensure a much more positive future for this important service:

“Our focus continues to be to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our children and young people on transport going forward and we are working closely with PaCC and Amaze to ensure these issues are addressed and not repeated.”

For more details on this issue, see the independent report published on Brighton & Hove City Council’s website.

 

Featured image: © Wikimedia Commons

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