At a cabinet meeting held yesterday (January 12), Sandwell council approved recommendations to abandon its own contracts process and “mini-competition” undertaken under its own Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS) – an exercise which took over two years to plan and create.
The council admitted not having a wide pool of contractors to carry out transport for schoolchildren, rather than the four large contracts it currently has, to be “unsuitable and undesirable”.
The other recommendation approved was to extend existing contracts with providers for the continued provision of SEND transport beyond the current expiry date of 23 February 2022 until 21 July 2022.
The council also stated companies who originally put forward bids for the contracts will be informed and be invited to reapply. It is unclear whether the council will now be subject to legal action.
While this extension means that families with vulnerable children will continue to access much needed transport across the Sandwell borough, it is an admission on the council itself that they are unclear how they plan to go forward.
In an external audit review by Grant Thorntons, released on December 31, they stated the council must ensure a further contract extension is “not required”.
In a statement read out to the meeting, Councillor Karen Simms (Lab, Friar Park), and cabinet member for children and education said: “I’m pretty confident with all the information that I have been given a new procurement exercise will begin almost immediately.
“This includes provisions to address the concerns and issues identified, and deliver the best solution for service users and their families.
“I hope this provides sufficient assurances for the council around quality and provision, and delivers the most economical and sustainable solution.
“The main concern is making sure that the children get to school as where they need to be in the best sources we can provide for them.”
It comes as a damning report was obtained by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) on Monday which signalled multiple failings from the council to follow its own procedures in awarding and handling contracts.
The report in question, called ‘SEND Passenger Transport Contract Initial Findings June 2021’, 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 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.
An anonymous source told the LDRS that councillors voted in favour on Tuesday evening (January 11) to have an external audit into the mishandling of vulnerable schoolchildren transport contracts. This was based on a three to three split voting for and abstentions.