Transport for disabled children in Sandwell 'can be pretty awful'

Transport for disabled children in Sandwell can be ‘pretty awful’ and needs to be improved, a mother and councillor has said.

Councillor Vicki Smith, who is a parent to a young person with special education needs, spoke passionately about the need to improve SEND transport which takes children to school.

Her calls come as a new model for agreeing school transport contracts across the borough begins to take shape.

Serious questions are currently being asked of Sandwell council after two companies run by the same former authority employee, Azeem Hafeez, were selected to run SEND transport services to and from schools in Sandwell in a £22.1 million deal.

Now opposition Conservative councillors have proposed a new model for agreeing school transport contracts in a bid to avoid similar situation from happening again in the future.

Councillor Smith, who represents Cradley Heath and Old Hill, said: “If you imagine 12 children on a minibus for fifty minutes, packed in as they are, there’s not much space. It’s pretty awful. I have experienced it as a parent with a young person with special education.

“We used to use SEN transport, and lots of the time where it was fifty minutes of travel. Set off at half seven in the morning for a quarter to nine start at school, and they’re not home until quarter past four in the afternoon.”

At a children’s services and education scrutiny board meeting, Councillor Jay Anandou presented the new model to the committee and hoped council leaders will agree to implement it, in time for contracts up for renewal in February 2022.

It includes:

  • A review into time lengths of taxi journeys to and from school to ensure children are not needing to travel for more than 50 minutes in normal circumstances.

  • Contracted providers to ensure drivers and passenger assistants for children are trained and accredited in first aid, non-verbal communication, use of safety harnesses, and manual handling.

  • Passenger assistants to be trained to provide emergency medication of transport, such as pre-loaded EpiPens or pre-loaded epileptic medication.

  • Small and medium enterprises afforded the chance to tender for the contracts.

  • The new model to avoid the risk of awarding contracts to a small number of providers.

The committee also considered investigating the feasibility of taking all SEND transport provision ‘in house’, or a combined approach with existing adult social care transport.

The council faced embarrassment after a report, published in August this year by Birmingham City Council, noted that 59 out of 110 employees at North Birmingham Travel involved in the contract did not appear to have a documented DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) check in place.

A total of 16 staff had ‘positive disclosures’ – meaning they included cautions, convictions or other criminal disclosures, which are not an automatic bar but are subject to further scrutiny – but “officers could only assure themselves about two”.

A further allegation said a document relating to DBS checks appeared to have been tampered with.

Councillor Jay Anandou, who represents Old Warley, said: “The children services scrutiny board went well, with most of my recommendations agreed unanimously across party lines. The scrutiny working group itself was well managed and led by Councillor Shackleton giving room for all opinions and ideas.”

Councillor Anandou hoped that additional recommendations, such as an increase of DBS checks on contracted drivers, would be upheld by Sandwell council.

The council currently reviews DBS checks annually. If an incident occurs that breaches the drivers DBS, such as a speeding ticket, the operators of the travel company must declare it to the council.

Councillor Anandou also wished for regular updates about the new transport model from council officers from next month. He said members of the public “wouldn’t want any surprises” and a “major uproar” to be ignited. The recommendations were agreed at the scrutiny meeting.

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