Sandwell Council forced to call for external review into transport contracts

A “disaster situation” was described at a Sandwell Council meeting as councillors asked for an external audit into the handling of vulnerable children’s transport contracts.

Councillor Zahir Hussein (Lab, Soho and Victoria) proposed a motion to conduct a full and thorough external audit.

He said: “I would like to see an independent audit done on the level of scrutiny.

“We worked on this model for two years, and then now we’ve implemented it, and been found it’s not fit for purpose sounds ridiculous.

“It’s been alluded about wrongdoing. If there is wrongdoing that’s taken place, someone needs to be held accountable.”

A source told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that Councillors Jay Anandou (Cons, Old Warley) and Peter Allen (Lab, Great Bridge) voted in favour. Councillors Kacey Akpoteni (Lab, Hateley Heath), Julie Webb (Lab, Cradley and Old Hill) and Olwen Jones (Lab, Wednesbury South) abstained.

It comes as an unusual 16 recommendations were presented to the audit and risk assurance committee meeting on Tuesday evening (January 11), to improve how contracts for vulnerable schoolchildren transport are handled.

Those recommendations, set to be discussed at a cabinet meeting this week, include abandoning its own process to award transport contracts, and extending existing contracts beyond the current expiry date of 23 February 2022 until 21 July 2022.

The key agenda item, discussing the council’s internal review, was discussed after the exclusion of press and members of the public.

But many councillors and officers employed at the council who attended the meeting appeared to be confused, asking out loud in the public meeting whether or not it was a “private session” behind closed doors.

Michael Ager, an independent committee member, said: “We are getting very near into a disaster situation. I mean, this is very serious. Although I’m less clear about what are we now supposed to do.

“It seemed to me that the whole situation arises when people start breaking rules, ignoring rules, changing rules, or bending them.

“There’s two issues here: one is how do we get the current situation sorted so we actually have transport for our children in Sandwell? The other wider issue is how on earth do we stop this happening again?”

The report in question, called ‘SEND Passenger Transport Contract Initial Findings June 2021’, was obtained on Monday by the LDRS.

It 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 transport 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.

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

It is unclear whether the sealed document will now be made public.

One member of the public, who wished to remain anonymous, attended the meeting as they have two disabled children who regularly use transport provided by Sandwell council.

She said: “I found it appalling that councillors did not want to be open and transparent, and then went on to vote and make the public leave and close the meeting to the public.

“This is a provision that my son uses like so many other special educational needs children. To have them hide any information is insulting.

“It makes families and children feel unsafe, it shines negative attention onto a much needed provision and gives the general public a negative impression of that service which will in turn jeopardise it.

“But what really scares me is, if that was what they were happy for us to know, what on earth is so bad that they have to hide it so fiercely? That’s a scary thought. Because what we heard last night was bad enough.”

Speaking in the meeting, Councillor Jay Anandou (Cons, Old Warley), who proposed a new transport model to Sandwell council, said: “I just want to make everyone aware that we are abandoning a process, which the council worked upon for nearly two years.

“And there’s a cost associated to it. How are we going to make sure that this doesn’t happen?

“I know SEND has gotten a level of scrutiny that the audit committee will be doing on a day to day basis. However, you’re going to have to shoulder something, in terms of contracts of this size, this magnitude, going out.

“People who made the decision, they knew exactly what they were doing... You can’t let junior officers decide, no disrespect, there needs to be an increased level of scrutiny.”

Peter Farrow, head of audit at Sandwell council, said: “There were issues regarding with information provided to cabinet, and procurement processes hadn’t been followed, as would be expected in particular for contracts of that size and complexities of that size.

“We can’t be a safety net to check every procurement exercise. That accountability needs to be embraced by different services, and we can give assurances where we can to the committee.”

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