Damning internal review into Sandwell Council school transport contracts

A damning internal review into how mismanaged school transport contracts were awarded by Sandwell Council is to be discussed by councillors.

The report, is entitled ‘SEND Passenger Transport Contract Initial Findings June 2021’.

According to the report’s conclusions, it is alleged that while the council had been “well intentioned” and “driven by a desire to improve” the quality of transport services delivered to Sandwell’s most vulnerable children, several council procedures were “not followed”.

Other damning allegations the internal review found include:

  • Council processes were not followed, including officers employed by the local authority not declaring if they had any potential conflict of interests with the contracts.

  • No written records of discussions to approve the high risk decision of moving over 100 contracts to only four contracts.

  • A lack of an explicit written record of the decision making process into the contracts.

  • Incomplete and “significant overlaps” of information submitted by taxi firms, raising questions if the transport bids by the companies were acceptable.

  • Questions over how contracts awarded in June 2021 were calculated at £5.5 million, despite the budget for vulnerable schoolchildren transport services remaining at £2.5 million.

In one incident a local taxi firm – which was unsuccessful in its application for the contracts – complained the council was not clear in its resubmission letter that taxi firms could submit new applications in ten working days of the application, not 10 days as stated by the council.

While the report noted “negative inferences” have surfaced after a fiasco decision to award the £20m transport contracts to Azeem Hafeez – a former Sandwell employee – the authors stressed the coverage did not “play a role” in the outcomes of the report.

The report recommended a “need to revisit” how these contracts were awarded, and for officers involved in future contracts to sign off conflict of interests forms. It also recommended a rethink into how two companies could be awarded such large contracts.

The report is set to be debated at an audit and risk assurance committee meeting on Tuesday evening, where councillors are set to approve the recommendations.

It will then be debated at a cabinet meeting , where it is expected to be approved.

It is unclear whether the council will commission an external review into school transport contracts, despite the latest audit report by Grant Thorntons highlighting the need for action.

Current school transport contracts in Sandwell, which take vulnerable schoolchildren to and from their place of education, are set to end in February.

This is despite increasing demand for the services from families with vulnerable children.

It is unclear what the council is intending to do, although a renewal of the original contracts for North Birmingham Travel and County Cars is expected to be issued until July 2024.

In a letter commenting on the recommendations to the cabinet, Councillor Jay Anandou said that while he was “pleased” that Labour councillors made this decision, it was only because of “outcry, protests, and the potential for legal challenge given serious failings”.

“In spite of these positive actions, it also leaves more questions unanswered," he added.

“Firstly, the council is now making a decision to re-procure the service but no timescales are provided. The new contract will go live in September 2022 and end in July 2024? This [is] merely two academic years.

“Why did officers fail … to declare their interests? What governance and scrutiny changes will be implemented by Labour councillors as a result of this debacle?”

Councillor Anandou has called for a white paper on school transport to be published so that “costly mistakes” may never happen again.

He first raised concerns over the questionable contracts in July last year after tabling a motion to a full Sandwell Council meeting calling for an external review into future contracts.

But in the same meeting, this was defeated by an amended Labour motion which recognised the leader had already instructed an external review.

Rajbir Singh, the previous leader of the council, halted proceedings and ordered the internal review to establish how the award was made.

The report was first commissioned by the department of audit services and risk management at Sandwell Council after a cabinet meeting, held last year on June 16, was expected to endorse a decision to choose two companies – North Birmingham Travel and County Cars – to take on four four-year contracts.

It also emerged last year that taxi drivers hired to take vulnerable Sandwell children to school were feared to have been working under modern day slavery conditions.

Sandwell Council agreed to put in place a short term contract to ensure children with special educational needs have school transport provided for the new term.

The taxi firms in question were run by former council employee Azeem Hafeez, who is the son of former Sandwell council deputy leader Mahboob Hussain. Both were named in the Wragge Report of 2016 on dodgy land deals at the local authority.

One Labour councillor, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “It was the right intentions, but poor execution.

“We’ve been given assurances that everything is being sorted. We are being told there’s nothing to worry about.

“The most important thing is that young people can still travel safely to and from school and we’ve maintained that so I believe we can continue doing so.”

When questioned over the allegations raised in the internal review, a spokesperson for Sandwell Council said: “The matters you raise will be discussed by the audit and risk assurance committee on Tuesday, therefore it is not appropriate to comment prior to those discussions.

“There is also a report going to cabinet on Wednesday considering future plans for the SEND transport service.”

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