The ReadiBus service in West Berkshire: some key issues from the last five years – a summary in February 2023

The following statement was sent to Penny Post by the Trustees of ReadiBus on 14 February 2023. We’re happy to reproduce it below verbatim.

If WBC wishes to issue a statement of its own on this subject, we’ll be happy to print it in full.

 

The ReadiBus service is a door-to-door bus service that enables people with restricted mobility to travel independently.

Some key issues from the last five years – a summary

It started in 2018 with West Berkshire Council’s 2019/2020 budget proposals.

The 2019/2020 budget proposals included proposed cuts to some front-line services. The Council launched a public consultation on these budget proposals in November 2018 that it stated included allproposed Council cuts to front-line services.

Absence of public consultation on the cuts to the West Berkshire ReadiBus service

The public consultation however excluded the proposed 68% cut in funding to the front-line service that was ReadiBus service provision to vulnerable elderly and disabled residents in West Berkshire.

The exclusion of the proposed 68% cut in funding to ReadiBus service provision from the public consultation meant that these cuts were not actually presented to the full Council meeting. (There was no mention of them anywhere in the Council papers).

Failure in West Berkshire Council’s Public Sector Equality Duty

The papers for that full Council meeting did though include a statement that ‘the savings proposals have been out to public consultation in order to meet the Council’s Public Sector Equality Duty and responses considered in setting the budget’. However, the savings from the 68% cut to the grant-funding of the ReadiBus service in West Berkshire had not been put out to public consultation.

EIA misrepresentation to a full Council meeting

Furthermore, the Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) report on West Berkshire Council’s ‘2019/20 Budget Proposals’ that was presented at the full Council meeting in March 2019 was a misrepresentation. The presented EIA report informed councillors that the proposed decision, to approve the budget proposals, would have no adverse impact on the lives of people, including service-users.

However, a Stage 2 EIA produced by transport officers in relation to the proposed cuts to ReadiBus funding – that was not presented to that full Council meeting – had stated that ‘the impact of the grant reduction could be felt on residents through withdrawal of services’; that ‘residents in the eastern part of the district could be disproportionally affected’; that ‘the protected characteristics of age and disability would see the greatest impact’; and that ‘other protected characteristics (e.g. race) may also be impacted’. It also noted that ‘the cost/demand on other services e.g. adult social care could increase’.

Councillors at that full Council meeting in March 2019 were not presented with accurate and complete information in the papers and were led to believe that the budget proposals would have no adverse impact on vulnerable residents, because the cuts to ReadiBus service provision to elderly and disabled residents in the District were not identified and were not included in the public consultation; and because the EIA that was presented falsely and misleadingly stated that there would be no adverse impact on residents.

Misinformation by two West Berkshire Council Officers

As a strategic partner to the Council for over 35 years, the Council’s representative on the ReadiBus Board – who was a member of the ruling administration – sought an informal resolution on behalf of ReadiBus to these council-officer errors. Months passed until in late May 2019 – immediately after the local elections – Council officers informed ReadiBus that there would be no resolution.

ReadiBus therefore had to introduce measures to re-structure service provision in the wake of the 68% reduction in funding. This involved notifying service users that there would going forward be one bus based in Newbury rather than the previous two; and also that there would be some amendments to other services in other parts of West Berkshire.

Then, in June 2019, two West Berkshire Council officers made untrue and defamatory comments about ReadiBus to the Newbury Weekly News in relation to the measures that ReadiBus needed to introduce as a consequence of the 68% reduction in funding. This for the first time brought the cut in funding to ReadiBus from West Berkshire Council to the attention of the local media.

ReadiBus responded by requesting an informal meeting with the Council leadership, again facilitated by the Council’s representative on the ReadiBus Board of Trustees, to seek publication of a correction. Whilst the wording of a correction was not agreed to be released as a joint statement, West Berkshire Council’s Chief Executive said that the Council would release its own public statement. However, such a statement was never released and so the wrong was never put right.

Submission of formal complaints to WBC

The only option left to ReadiBus to seek a correction of these injustices was to submit formal complaints via the Council’s complaints process, which it did in October 2019.

It was the Council’s Stage 2 response to these complaints in January 2020 that included the revelation of the illegal discriminatory reason given by council officers for the exclusion of the cuts to ReadiBus service provision from the public consultation on the 2019/20 Budget Proposals.

Disability discrimination by WBC

In the Council’s Stage 2 complaint response to ReadiBus, the Council’s Principal Policy Officer found that the reason for this exclusion was that: ‘public consultation with (ReadiBus) 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’. This was direct disability discrimination by West Berkshire Council officers.

Despite this revelation, the Council’s complaints process did not uphold the complaint or propose any corrective action.

The only option now left to ReadiBus to seek a correction of these injustices was to make a complaint to the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman, which it did in March 2020.

Introduction of Council censorship as a condition of grant funding

The Council’s response to this, however ,was to impose a condition on future funding that required that ReadiBus ‘shall not make any public statement except with prior written consent of the Council’.

ReadiBus Trustees took a principled stand against this apparent attempt to impose a right of censorship. The Council in response withheld the balance of its grant funding due to ReadiBus until the charity trustees would consent to this.

The Covid-19 pandemic then intervened.

Withholding of budgeted grant funding to ReadiBus – even during the pandemic

Vulnerable West Berkshire residents needed the ReadiBus service to make safe essential journeys during the pandemic. Indeed, the ReadiBus service was the only available means of making safe essential journeys for clinically extremely vulnerable West Berkshire residents during the lockdowns.

Despite this, West Berkshire Council still withheld the budgeted grant funding to ReadiBus for the second half of 2020/21 (ie from 1 October 2020).

If ReadiBus had withdrawn its service from 1 October 2020 in line with the withholding of its budgeted grant funding from West Berkshire Council from that date, vulnerable West Berkshire residents would have had no means of safely making essential journeys in the following lockdowns in November 2020 and from January to March 2021.

Goodwill from ReadiBus

ReadiBus did not withdraw service and continued to provide service for the full year including throughout the lockdowns.

The extraordinary efforts made by ReadiBus 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.

ReadiBus trustees had a reasonable expectation by the end of the last lockdown in March 2021 that the goodwill shown by ReadiBus in continuing service provision would be reciprocated by West Berkshire Council and that a resolution to the wording of the clause that was causing the withholding of budgeted grant funding would be found.

Re-affirmation of withholding of budgeted grant funding to ReadiBus

In March 2021, however, a Council officer re-confirmed to ReadiBus Trustees that despite ReadiBus’ goodwill in continuing service provision during the pandemic and throughout the 2020/21 year, not only would the budgeted grant funding for the second half of 2020/21 continue to be withheld, but also the balance (more than half) of its grant funding for the following year (2021/22) would also be withheld unless Trustees consented to the condition that ReadiBus ‘shall not make any public statement except with prior written consent of the Council’.

The only option consequently left for ReadiBus trustees was to reluctantly conclude that the Newbury-based ReadiBus operation had become unsustainable.

Further misinformation by WBC

The Council responded to this with misinformation. In a press release in April 2021 and in public statements made by prominent councillors, it was claimed that the Council only required notification of any publicity. The written clause to which the Council was requiring ReadiBus Trustees to consent, however, stated very clearly that ReadiBus ‘shall not make any press announcement except with prior written consent of the Council’.

It was therefore not true for the Council or for the councillors in their public statements to suggest that the Council was only requiring notification of any publicity.

There followed many months of the ReadiBus trustees seeking dialogue with the Council to get the wording in the proposed ‘grant agreement’ amended to reflect the council’s public statements. The Council however consistently declined to do so.

A seriously flawed WBC complaints process

The only option left to ReadiBus was to submit a formal complaint, via the Council’s complaints process, about Council misinformation. This it did in February 2022.

The Council took nine months to fully respond to this complaint, using a complaints process that did not allow attendance, representation, challenge or appeal, but which did allow serious misrepresentation of the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman’s report of fault and injustice by West Berkshire Council.

The response claimed that the Ombudsman’s report related to the issues of misrepresentation by WBC of the clause ReadiBus was asked to sign, when the Ombudsman’s report pre-dated that issue by over a year. The Council’s flawed complaints process represents further fault and injustice by West Berkshire Council.

The Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman’s finding of fault and injustice against the Council

The Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman’s report was not about the Councils’ public misinformation in April 2021. The report was about the lack of public consultation by the Council over its 2019/20 budget cut in funding of 68% and about the reasons given for this lack of public consultation, and was submitted to the Ombudsman in March 2020.

The Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman’s report published in December 2021 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 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”.

The Principle of an Ombudsman’s finding of ‘fault and injustice’

The intentional exclusion of the cuts to ReadiBus funding from the public consultation on the 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.

The fundamental principle behind an Ombudsman’s finding of fault and injustice is ‘to put the complainant back in the position they would have been in if nothing had gone wrong’. The Council has not done this.

Moving forward

ReadiBus asks for a resolution of these injustices of recent years and for the Council to overcome its corporate defensiveness in dealing with these matters and review what has taken place.

If nothing else, ReadiBus’ Trustees consider that it is important to remove the requirement for the council to have a right of censorship as a pre-condition for grant funding of over £5,000pa. West Berkshire Council has publicly stated that it does not require this as a condition, so it needs to stop this being required as a pre-condition by officers.

Associated with this, over £20,000 of budgeted grant funding  (in accordance with WBC’s own grant-funding formula) to ReadiBus has been withheld over the course of the last three years on the basis of this apparent falsely-written pre-condition for its release. ReadiBus’ Trustees consider that in the interests of fairness and justice, these funds must be released.

From the Trustees of ReadiBus

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

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