Hackney Council has apologised to two parents of disabled children at the recommendation of the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) after being harshly criticised for the “strain and distress” experienced by their families.
The parent of one child diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), identified by the LGO as Mr X, was forced to wait 69 weeks for a completed education, health and care (EHC) plan, well outside the mandated 20 weeks.
According to the council, Mr X is still waiting for the bulk of the compensation recommended by the LGO, whose report revealed the parent had to remortgage his property and lost opportunities to work “because of the time and effort he has had to take in ensuring a reluctant council provide appropriately for his son”.
The Town Hall’s subsequent report, authored by Hilary Smith, head of strategy, policy and governance at Hackney Learning Trust, states: “The council is firmly committed to co-producing education, health and care (EHC) plans with parents and wants to ensure that it hears the representations of parent/carers and, wherever possible, reach agreement regarding a child’s needs and provision.
“It is important to acknowledge that true co-production between a local authority and parent/carers can occasionally take longer than the timeframes stipulated in the Code of Practice.
“Where a case is more complex, it can be in the interests of the child for the council to spend more time considering and reviewing representations, rather than seeking resolution through the SEND Tribunal.
“The alternative would be to issue a low quality plan at 20 weeks, which both parents and council do not agree with and which would contravene the spirit of co-production.”
The report adds that the council had believed “in good faith” that the 20 weeks it has to complete an EHC plan had restarted after an appeal point in the process.
The LGO argued that an approach which allowed the Town Hall to restart the clock on the 20-week period in this way “would potentially allow councils to benefit from their own errors in circumstances where a defective decision is made and subsequently overturned”.
The ombudsman’s report also found that the Town Hall sought to attribute blame to Mr X for its own delays, despite it having sole responsibility for the management of the EHC assessment process and ensuring timeframes are met.
The Town Hall has suggested that it prolonged discussions over how best to support Mr X’s child, who has severe language difficulties, as part of a “pragmatic approach” to secure agreement with Mr X over the plan.
It adds: “The council, however, acknowledges the LGO’s interpretation that assessments must be completed within the statutory 20 week timeframe and apologises for the further delay which occurred at this point.”
It is understood that the Town Hall, which was asked to pay Mr X £22,448.47, will only pay £20,948.47 of the sum “subject to review of itemised receipts and proof of expenditure provided by Mr X”.
Mr X has received £1,500 for distress caused by the council delay, with another parent, Mrs B, receiving £4,150.
The delays in funding experienced by Mrs B and her child, who has Down’s syndrome, sparked accusations from the LGO that the Town Hall was operating a ‘waiting list’ for children with SEND, rationing services based on available resources instead of identified need.
The ombudsman’s report found that the nursery attended by Mrs B’s child had applied for funding from the Supported Childcare Fund (SCF), a now-defunct scheme supplied by the council to support children with emerging or undiagnosed needs.
The SCF budget was, however, “fully committed” when Mrs B’s child was referred for support, but they and three other children did not receive money by the time the fund ceased.
The LGO report details Mrs B’s fears that a lack of supervision had put her son at risk of choking and inadequate training for staff in Makaton sign language disadvantaged him as he relied on this method of communication.
In response to the ombudsman’s request that the council write to all families who may have suffered an “injustice” as a result of the SCF’s funding arrangements, the Town Hall states: “Every request for support is different and it cannot be assumed that other children who were awaiting SCF directly compare with the unique circumstances and needs of this case.
“The council considers that the needs of these children were being met through reasonable adjustments within their settings and that we were working with parents to support their child.
“Of the three eligible children who did not receive SCF, two (including Mrs B’s child) subsequently received an EHC plan. The third child moved out of the area shortly after requesting SCF and we are informed that their needs are currently being met without recourse to an EHC plan.
“In light of this, we will contact the family of the additional child who remained resident in the borough and who did not receive support through the SCF, inviting them to make a case showing that injustice was caused.”
The Town Hall had previously contested the characterisation of it running a waiting list for funding, saying it was in fact “a list of names ordered according to the timing of the applications for funding, that allocations were based on need; and that needs were met within the setting until such a time as allocations were made”.