ReadiBus Trustees “shocked and baffled” by West Berkshire Council’s response to complaint about Council misinformation: 9 February 2023

For the last few years, we have been covering the story of the dispute between the community transport charity ReadiBus and West Berkshire Council. Aside from a hearing before the Ombudsman following a botched consultation by the Council, the main bone of contention is a clause in the proposed new service-level agreement which, for some reason, WBC has insisted upon. ReadiBus has refused to sign this on the grounds that it is effectively a gagging clause and gives WBC a veto over any statements that Readibus might make. Quite what aspect of its reputation WBC was seeking to protect in this way, given that the two organisations had been working together harmoniously for 35 years, is unclear: the irony is that, by insisting on it, WBC has created exactly the kind of bad publicity for itself that the clause was designed to prevent.

The real losers in this are the many people – particularly in the Thatcham and Newbury areas and in the eastern parts of the district such as Calcot, Purley, Theale and Tilehurst – with mobility problems and who have long relied on ReadiBus to help them get around. Soon after Penny Post first covered this, we were contacted by about ten users, all of whom were dismayed by the likely service cuts and confused as to how this could have come about. Given the fact that the district’s population is an ageing one, demand for such a service can only be on the increase. WBC has asserted that other community transport providers exist: whilst true, none offer the same service as does ReadiBus; the various different services complement one another and each has its place in meeting different needs.

The leader of the West Berkshire Lib Dems, Lee Dillon, told Penny Post in January 2023 that if his party was in power after the 4 May elections he would be happy to sign the agreement without the offending clause.

Over the last year or so, discussions between WBC and ReadiBus appear to have stalled. We received a statement from ReadiBus on 9 February 2023 which we’re happy to reproduce below in full.

 

ReadiBus trustees have been left shocked by a West Berkshire Council complaints process that proclaims that ‘West Berkshire Council is committed to promoting and demonstrating fairness’ but which allows no right to attend, no right to challenge and no right of appeal.

ReadiBus’ Complaint of Council Misinformation

Since September 2020, West Berkshire Council has been withholding grant funding to the West Berkshire ReadiBus service because the charity’s trustees declined to sign a ‘grant agreement’ that includes giving the Council the right of censorship of any public statement made by the charity.

The clause that the Council has been requiring ReadiBus’ trustees to sign before it will release the grant funding due to ReadiBus states: ‘the Charity shall not…make any press announcement…except with prior written consent of the Council’

The Council has claimed however that it is only notification of any publicity that is required by the Council and stated this in a press release in April 2021 and in subsequent public statements made by more than one prominent councillor who are members of the West Berkshire Council administration.

ReadiBus’ trustees spent months seeking dialogue with the Council in order to get the wording in the proposed ‘grant agreement’ amended to reflect the council’s public statements. The Council however declined to do this, leading the charity trustees to submit a formal complaint of council misinformation, via the Council’s complaints process, in February 2022.

The Council’s ‘Stage 2’ response to ReadiBus’ complaint about the press release stated that ‘the words used in the clause are different from those used in the public statement’ and that ‘written consent is not a requirement’.

But despite this, the Council’s ‘Stage 2’ response did not uphold the complaint, instead saying that ‘there has been a difference in interpretation’… There was therefore no conclusion or recommendation that the Council needed to re-word the clause in the proposed ‘grant agreement’, which would have permitted the release of the withheld grant funding to ReadiBus.

The Council then took nine months to respond to the complaint about the councillors’ public statements. This part of the complaint went to an ‘Independent Panel’ for decision. Whilst three Council officers were permitted to be present at this panel, the Council informed ReadiBus that it would not be able to attend.

Unable to attend, ReadiBus was then not able to challenge inaccurate information presented to the panel, on which the ‘panel’ apparently based its understanding of the matter.

In particular, the Panel was presented with – and states that it based its understanding on – a Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman report that it stated ‘focused solely on the alleged misconduct by the Subject Member’ and that ‘the substantive complaint had been the subject of an accepted Ombudsman decision’.  This however was completely false and a misrepresentation. The Ombudsman report referred to related to a complaint submitted to the Ombudsman in March 2020 – over a year before the complaint of Council misinformation in April 2021 that the panel was supposedly investigating and was not directly related to it.

Even so, the ‘Panel’ stated ‘that there was a discrepancy in language’ and that ‘the Council’s and Subject Member’s statements in April 2021 could have been clearer about the exact provisions of the clause’.

But then it stated that ‘No further action will be taken’… and also that the Council’s process ‘does not provide any appeals mechanism to review this decision’.

The outcome means that West Berkshire Council is still withholding the balance of its budgeted grant funding to ReadiBus, denying the charity at least £22k that would be due to it under the Council’s own grant-funding formula for service provided since 2020. This is despite the ReadiBus service safely meeting the needs of some of the most vulnerable residents in the District during the pandemic, including on every day of each of the lockdowns (for which it was judged in November 2021 to have been the best in the whole of England for community transport pandemic service provision).

The Chair of the ReadiBus Trustees, Prof Sophie Bowlby added the following observations:

‘The Council proclaims that ‘West Berkshire Council is committed to promoting and demonstrating fairness’ but it doesn’t seem to be much of a fair or independent process when:-

  • We were not permitted to be present at the consideration of the complaint – but 3 Council officers were present;
  • We were not given any opportunity to challenge inaccuracies presented to the ‘Panel’; and
  • There is no mechanism for any appeal to review the decision’.

 ‘No right to attend, no right to challenge, no right to appeal – that does not seem to be the basis of a fair or independent complaints process. It would rather seem to be a reflection of ineffective self-scrutiny mechanisms at West Berkshire Council’.

“The Council’s public statements in April 2021 describing a clause that they demanded ReadiBus sign in order for grant funding to be released were not true.,” Prof Bowlby ‘ continued. “Despite the Council’s Principle Policy Officer finding that ‘the words used in the clause are different from those used in the public statement’; and despite an ‘independent panel’ appointed by the Council concluding ‘that there was a discrepancy in language’, the outcome was stated as that ‘no further action will be taken’, resulting in the budgeted grant funding to ReadiBus continuing to be withheld.

“In essence, the Council’s ‘independent panel’ decided that saying that ‘the Council requires ReadiBus to notify it of any planned press statement’ is not significantly different from saying that ‘ReadiBus shall not make any press statement without prior written consent of the Council’. This is a completely ridiculous claim.

‘The Council is withholding 3 years’ of grant funding to ReadiBus on the basis of an apparently falsely written pre-condition for its release. That’s over £20k that is due to ReadiBus from the Council in accordance with the Council’s own grant-funding formula. This money should be released.

“ReadiBus has shown immense good faith that the Council will eventually stop this continuous defensiveness, recognise the errors that it has made in this matter and release all of the withheld grant funds. Throughout this time, ReadiBus has continued to provide essential service to vulnerable West Berkshire residents who have needed it, including on every day of each of the pandemic lockdowns.

“Indeed, ReadiBus was the only service by which vulnerable West Berkshire residents could make safe essential journeys during the lockdowns of the pandemic. And the extraordinary efforts made by ReadiBus staff to help those in need were recognised at the CT Awards in November 2021, when ReadiBus was judged as the best in England for community transport pandemic service provision.

‘We cannot just write off this debt from West Berkshire Council’s non-payment of the grant support due to ReadiBus for the service provided. West Berkshire Council must make good on this’.

‘This is ultimately about West Berkshire residents and the service that those who are vulnerable need. Vulnerable residents should not be disadvantaged for the sake of covering up council officer mistakes. There needs to be some leadership at the Council, which so far has been sorely lacking. It is beyond time for West Berkshire Council to do the right thing about this – when is common sense going to prevail?’

Prof Bowlby also stated that ReadiBus had reached out to the new Chief Executive of West Berkshire Council, Nigel Lynn, in February 2022 and again in October 2022. To date, however, he has declined to meet to resolve these issues.

• See also: The ReadiBus Service in West Berkshire: some key issues from the last five years – a summary

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