EXECUTIVE board members have rejected calls for a U-turn on a decision to charge parents of disabled children for their transport to school.
Controversial proposals, that could leave families in and around Chester about £880 out of pocket were discussed at a council executive meeting for a second time after the children’s services scrutiny committee recommended a change of mind on a plan to charge families a percentage of the school transport bill once a child is over 16.
At last week’s Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWaC) scrutiny committee meeting, councillors heard evidence from parents who would be hit hard by the plans. The councillors decided to recommend the decision to charge for school transport should be overturned by the executive board.
The contentious move was voted through by the Tory-led executive last month but Cllr David Armstrong, Labour’s spokesman on children’s services, called in for scrutiny committee amid concerns it would stop vulnerable children attending school.
The plan, put forward in the budget consultation by children’s services portfolio holder Cllr Mark Stocks, said discretionary payments for transporting disabled children to school had to be reduced. It meant parents of disabled children over 16 and up to four years old had to pay a contribution towards their child’s transport costs.
The plans were met with anger from parents who say they are forced to send their children long distances to go to school because there is no provision for their children closer in the county.
Cllr Armstrong said Cllr Stocks had been put in an “unenviable” position by the budget he was given – despite a £2.5 million increase in this financial year – because of a large increase of children who had been taken into care by the council.
Cllr Armstrong said the directorate was not given enough money in the budget and called on the committee to recommend overturning the decision and for the council to find the money from another area such as marketing or consultation.
In response, Cllr Stocks said the changes were needed to save the council about £140,000, adding the local authority would still pay 87 per cent of transport costs for disabled children.
He said he had to work within the budget he had been set. And even though the amount of money saved was small it would “all add up”.
Cllr Stocks also said out of the 150 families in the county with children over 16 in special educational needs (SEN) education, only about 90 would be affected by the changes. He said the council would work with families to make sure impacts were minimised and there would be an appeals process if the family did not qualify for hardship payments to cover the costs of the transport.
Cllr Stocks also said the council would explore the possibility of volunteers driving children to school which would reduce costs.
The council executive said it would set up a working group to look at alternative transport arrangements for SEN children to try to reduce costs for families.
Executive members followed two recommendations of the scrunity committee but rejected a complete U-turn on the policy.
The executive voted through an amendment to ensure all students currently in education would keep their free transport – costing the council about £71,000 – and also said it would write to the Government to clarify what is happening with transport costs when the school leaving age increases to 18.
Council leader Cllr Mike Jones said the decision was “difficult”.
He said: “We know we have spending reductions up until 2020 so it is a very difficult time,whoever is elected.
“We do and continue to do an enormous amount to support our vulnerable children and I think it is something which will continue even when we have to make these difficult decisions.”