Dear Mr. Christie
I note your undertaking to provide councillors with a report on the SEND Passenger Transport Contract fiasco early next week.
However, I agree with my colleague Cllr. Atkinson that two weeks after the start of this contract, given the litany of concerns already submitted, is a rather languid timescale in which to provide scrutiny councillors with a report on all the problems, let alone to begin to resolve them.
We are not dealing here just with a group of vulnerable people but with themost vulnerable group of people in the whole Tri-borough area. Children with learning disabilities and learning difficulties cannot advocate for themselves, they need parents, carers and other supporters to protect their interests and act on their behalf to ensure that they are treated humanely.
Some of the incidents I have been hearing make my blood run cold. Some of the treatment these children have received is cruel beyond belief, bordering on torture. For example, at the extreme, children having to spend up to four hours on one bus journey.
I am setting out below the updates I have received about what has happened this week, the first full week of the operation of the new contract. These updates are anonymous because, whereas some parents feel able to be forthright with their complaints, others are worried that their children will be victimised if they name them and go public with their concerns. This is a very sad situation indeed.
Here are the incidents that have been reported to me this week:
- Children told to be ready at 8.30 am eventually being collected at 12.30 pm
- An ill-tempered driver who was upsetting all the children on his bus
- The use of very old and unsuitable buses
- One escort for six or more children
- Parental calls to HATS to enquire who will be collecting their child and when being told that HATS did not know the arrangements
- A HATS manager who refused to speak to parents because “he did not need to”
- Escorts asked whether they can cope with children who may have a seizure revealing that they have not been trained to deal with such an eventuality
- Parents not being informed of the name of the driver or the escorts, despite telephoning to request this information
- Telephone calls to bus companies where promises to return calls are made but not honoured
- Children not being brought home until after 4 pm when their school finished at 2 pm
- Children being delivered very late to school and becoming very agitated as a consequence
- A significant number of children kept on the buses for over two hours and in some cases for over four hours
- Buses that are too large with too many children and too few escorts on board
- Children ready and waiting over 3 hours before being picked up, with no explanation for the late arrival of the transport
- Parents giving up on the transport and taking their children to school themselves
- HATS confirming to officers at the Town Hall that they will call parents back and then not doing so
- A number of children not being taken to their after school club at St. Quintin
- Parents attempting to call HATS on the telephone number provided by the Town Hall but no one replying
- Parents going in person to the Town Hall reception and being told by staff that no one there knew about special needs transport, who was in charge, nor how anyone could be contacted
- St. Quintin effectively empty because so few children arrived there for the after school club
- Parents being rung by St. Quintin to ask where their children were, when the parents thought they were at St. Quintin - a particularly distressing matter as no one then knows where their child is, nor whether they are safe or not
- A conversation with escort who appeared to be in a supervisory role to find out the pickup time for the following day, being told the parent would be contacted by telephone, but no telephone call forthcoming
- Children left in the street in tears when the bus did not arrive at the expected time
- Some children being taken home to the wrong addresses
- The bus drivers are apparently paid for four hour sessions, but if they are delayed, there is no overtime - as a result they hurry the children and cause further distress
- Children being taken on different routes and causing them additional distress as they do not understand what is going on
- Are the drivers and escorts being paid the London Living Wage, the National Minimum, Wage … or less?
- One of the companies, Star Buses, offered training by one of the schools but refused it
- Westminster has cancelled all taxis with all children now being forced to use buses whether this is appropriate or not - is this the case in the other two boroughs as well?
- All the experienced drivers and most of the experienced escorts have now left – leaving drivers and escorts who have clearly not been properly trained
- New drivers not knowing the routes they are supposed to use.
Clearly not all of these are the “teething problems” of a new contract, but matters that demonstrate a disastrous transfer of responsibilities, with all three boroughs clearly culpable for failing to provide proper information, training, supervision and assistance to the new passenger transport providers.
Please do not duck your responsibility and that of the Tri-borough Cabinet Members when addressing these problems. And please provide scrutiny councillors with a clear action plan for dealing with all of them as a matter of urgency.
Cllr. Judith Blakeman