Statements from West Berkshire Council (30 December 2021) and Readibus (5 January 2022) regarding the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s verdict

Readers of Penny Post will be aware that for much of 2021 we have been following the tangled, divisive, legalistic and – to many users of the service – inexplicable dispute between the community transport provider Readibus and West Berkshire Council. (See the Newbury Area Weekly News section on our website for the background to this).

It’s always been unclear to me why WBC’s relations with Readibus suddenly nose-dived a few years ago. The relationship goes back to the last century, indeed which pre-dates the establishment of West Berkshire Council as a unitary authority in 1998. The points of dispute that emerged included a confidentiality clause in the new service agreement and  a purported “consultation” relating to funding cuts in 2019/20. The latter issue was raised by Readibus with the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and the decision has now been made (see link below). The response was published on WBC’s site on 30 December 2021, followed by a statement from Readibus a few days later.

As 30 December is possibly not the most popular day for picking through news stories, it seems fair to publish the two relevant statements now the fog of Christmas has cleared. (I’m not sure how relevant the final two paragraphs of WBC’s one are to the matter in hand but have included them so that both statements are verbatim.) This will also serve to clarify the name of the community transport company in question, something which WBC’s statement doesn’t mention – reports made by the LGO don’t refer to any parties, other than the council, by name.

The full judgement from the LGO can be seen here. One of the results of this was WBC being fined £300 to cover Readibus’ “uncertainty”. This may seem like a nominal amount but the judgement makes clear (para 50) that this is the maximum that the LGO is able to demand in this regard.

What’s more important is what happens next. Hopefully now that this issue at least is out of the way the two parties can draw the proverbial line, turn the proverbial page and start again. Judging from all the service users who contacted Penny Post – they’re the real losers in this – the needs that Readibus catered for (mainly people with mobility problem) still exist. After all, if the service wasn’t both valued and necessary, why has WBC and its predecessor being funding it for over 30 years?

Statement from West Berkshire Council, 30 December 2021

A complaint made about West Berkshire Council to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has been partially upheld.

The complaint was made by a local charity following a reduction in community transport funding in the 2019/20 budget. The ombudsman found the Council at fault for failing to carry out a public consultation about proposed changes but could not say if this would have led to a different decision. At the Ombudsman’s request we have apologised to the charity and made a small payment to recognise the uncertainty caused from not carrying out a public consultation.

At the time we consulted with the Community Transport Operators and felt they were in a better position to contact their clients to gauge the impact of the funding reductions. We accept that giving the Operators more time to carry out this consultation, or carrying a separate public consultation may have been more appropriate. We therefore apologises for the fault in its decision-making process on this occasion. In relation to how complaints from the charity were handled by us the Ombudsman did not find any fault with how these were dealt with.

We value the views of local residents in helping to design and deliver services which meet their needs and helps to enhance their lives. This complaint relates to a decision made in 2018/19 and since then we’ve improved our engagement with local residents. A new Communications and Engagement Strategy was adopted in autumn 2019 which builds closer links between residents and the services they use. This includes:

  • Planning consultation with stakeholders more effectively to ensure it is genuine and represents value for money
  • Involving stakeholders more to help shape what we do, and increasingly what they and their communities do; and
  • Collaborating more effectively to enable the development of effective engagement and the achievement of better outcomes.

We continue to support community transport schemes and has allocated £55,000 in funding this year to help local providers deliver services, as well as making grants totalling £50,000 available for specific projects each year. Community transport continues to be available across the district, and remains a valued service by those who use it. In the year before the pandemic (to March 2020) almost 60,000 journeys were made using community transport helping residents to do shopping, get to medical appointments and meet with friends.

Community transport is provided largely by volunteers and community organisations and we recognise the commitment of all those who help to provide these services. Over the past year we have seen communities come together to support one another, and we know that some residents are looking beyond Covid-19 and wanting to continue volunteering for the benefit of their communities. Anyone interested in volunteering as a driver can find out more on our website: https://info.westberks.gov.uk/communitytransportvolunteer. For more about community transport visit: https://info.westberks.gov.uk/communitytransport.

Statement from Readibus, 5 January 2022

Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman supports ReadiBus’ complaint and makes finding of fault and injustice against West Berkshire Council: West Berkshire Council required to apologise to ReadiBus, to pay compensation and to review its procedures

Following an investigation spanning 21 months, the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman has found that West Berkshire Council was at fault for failing to carry out a public consultation about its 68% reduction in grant funding to ReadiBus in its 2019/20 budget proposals and that ‘this caused injustice’.

West Berkshire Council has been told to apologise to ReadiBus, to pay compensation and to review its procedures.

West Berkshire Council has legal obligations in regard to equality and diversity as set out in the Public Sector Equality Duty (Section 149 of the Equality Act). It also has a consultation policy which says everyone affected by decisions should have the opportunity to have their views heard. Neither of these obligations were met.

The Ombudsman’s report said: “I am satisfied the council’s consultation policy and the video published on the council’s website by the council leader gave the expectation that a public consultation would happen. Therefore the council was at fault for failing to carry out a public consultation.”

The Ombudsman report also criticised West Berkshire Council for its explanation for its failure to publicly consult. In response to ReadiBus’ complaint and to enquiries made by the Ombudsman, the council had said: ‘public consultation with service users on the proposals was not considered to be appropriate by officers due to a significant number of them having learning difficulties. This would have made it difficult for them to comprehend what was being proposed’.

The Ombudsman stated, “If this was the council’s reason for not carrying out a public consultation this is concerning as many of ReadiBus’ clients have mobility issues and not learning disabilities. In addition, a public consultation could have engaged with the families and carers of those with learning disabilities and to exclude them from this process on the basis they may not understand the process is fault.”

ReadiBus Chair of Trustees, Prof Sophie Bowlby, commented that “the intentional exclusion of the cuts to ReadiBus funding from the public consultation on 2019/20 budget proposals was a serious failing in West Berkshire Council’s public sector equality duty; and the Council’s expressed reason for doing so was clear disability discrimination.”

“There now needs to be more from West Berkshire Council than just a written apology – there needs to be action by the leadership to address what has happened here. We would very much welcome an approach from the Council leadership to meet with us with a view to fully exploring what went wrong and how the Council can put this right. So far, West Berkshire Council’s response to us bringing these matters to its attention has been to introduce a ‘gagging clause’ as a condition of future funding and since last summer it has refused to speak with or engage with us.

“We have been the conveyer of important messages, it is not an appropriate response from a responsible authority to simply ‘shoot the messenger’ and to try to cover up its failings by requiring a right of censorship of any public statements, as the Council has done. We look forward to being invited to meet with the Council leadership to resolve all of the matters that we have raised with the Council over the last three to four years’.

West Berkshire Council has issued a written apology to ReadiBus. The Local Government Ombudsman guidelines require that any apology ‘should not minimise or express any doubt about what happened’; should ‘be meaningful’ and ‘must both accept responsibility for the fault and acknowledge the impact this had on the complainant.’

Prof Bowlby further commented that “West Berkshire Council’s apology does not acknowledge the impact their fault and injustice has had. And there is no apology to the residents who have been impacted and discriminated against. There needs to be an end to the ‘corporate defensiveness’ that West Berkshire Council has shown over the last three to four years, to be replaced by some learning from the Ombudsman’s criticism and some commitment from the leadership to make good.

“The Council dismissed our complaints when we brought them up via their internal complaints process. It has been a huge amount of work to take our complaint to the Ombudsman to try to get some justice and a resolution. The WBC leadership should now want to talk to us to put things right. We would welcome that. We have been supportive partners to the Council for over 35 years – sometimes that requires telling a partner something that they don’t want to hear. The Council should be valuing such a partner, not refusing to speak with them.”

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