Gazette readers who have direct experience of dealing with a local authority on behalf of disabled children, whether as parents or as lawyers acting on behalf of clients, will look at the latest salvo against ‘high needs’ children by the president of the Society of County Treasurers and think: where to start?
Writing in MJ (the Municipal Journal, 13 May), Lorna Baxter, who is also director of finance at Oxfordshire County Council, warns: ‘High needs has the potential to bankrupt councils.’ MJ itself identifies the cause as an exponential increase in ‘child population, earlier identification of need, parents challenging the system and the extension of the eligibility criteria to those aged up to 25’.
The language adopted by local government officials, under huge and growing financial pressure after a generation of cuts, is alarming, in that it openly kicks against legal obligations which many were already flouting.
As the Gazette has reported, in a significant proportion of the 92% of cases at the Special Educational Needs Tribunal where a local authority is the respondent and loses, the LA was refusing even to assess a child’s needs. Council leaders seem content to hand down the budget cuts they must make in an even fashion across council departments – a version of ‘fair’ that ignores the law.
I asked Caroline Barrett, partner at public law specialists Rook Irwin Sweeney, about this. As she points out, LAs have made these cuts ‘despite the fact that the needs of disabled children in those areas will not have decreased, and the statutory responsibility to fund all provision listed for children in their education, health and care plans [EHCPs]… remains the same’.
This is why parents are ‘challenging the system’ – using the legal, indeed only, means available to them to correct what is too often expedient decision-making. Council spending on children with an EHCP is dwarfed by the amount they must budget for adult social care in an ageing population. So why single out children, and the parents and lawyers who advocate for them?