Who By Fire

Nigel, Oily Rags and Engineers.

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I spent part of my paid working life in the Chief Executive’s department of a Local Authority and one of my duties was to arrange Council Committee meetings and organise agendas and reports for circulation to statutory deadlines. Official papers had to be circulated at a prescribed minimum interval in advance of the meeting, or it could not lawfully take place. Copies of the agenda and non-confidential reports had to be made available to the public, although for most meetings, the only person who wanted to see them was Nigel, the twenty-something junior reporter from the local paper who was tasked with reporting on Council matters.

I spent many an hour sitting in the same Council chamber as Nigel, he in the public seats, me in my Committee-clerk’s place next to the chairperson, listening to debates of varying coherence, but sometimes Nigel didn’t turn up. If he couldn’t make it on the day, he would phone me the following morning to ask if any of the resolutions had varied from the officers’ recommendations. Usually they had not, which meant he could file his report, written in advance of the meeting on the basis of the agenda papers. Any variations meant he just had to do a little tweaking and could still make his copy deadline.

The Members were always a bit miffed when Nigel failed to show up. They seemed to think it was cheating to report on a meeting he hadn’t attended. I, on the other hand, had a sneaking sympathy for him: why should he spend two or three hours of his life listening to people laboriously make the decisions that someone else had already written out for them? I did not mention to Members that I found using the Nigel method of writing – in my case draft minutes – in advance of the meeting, was an excellent way to earn a reputation for diligence and efficiency.

Then the Council found itself in a legal pickle and various senior officers and leading Members were required to attend the High Court for several days. The Members were very miffed to discover that Nigel had gone to the trouble of catching the same early train as themselves, in order to report live, as it were, from the proceedings.

My sympathy for Nigel blossomed into frank admiration. He seemed to me to be doing things just right, journalistically speaking: he knew his stuff; he did his research and double-checked it; he made no bones about doing anything and everything he had a right to do; and he had the savvy to realise that if you stand by your rights and ignore the ‘unwritten rules’, they will just have to be rewritten not to include you.

After Annual Council one year, I managed to corner Nigel over a pint and got him to expand on his journalistic principles.

“This stuff matters. It may be ‘only local news’, but there’s tens of thousands of people with a vital interest in it. Do your leg-work. Ask some questions to which you already know the answers so you can check for truthfulness. Always look as if you know what you are doing. Never ask permission – know what you can do and just go ahead. Cultivate your contacts at all levels, but don’t let yourself be fobbed off with oily rags (here he looked rather apologetic) if you need to speak to the engineer. You can’t refuse to dig over dirt, the gold is often buried. And if you think a piece might need to be shown to legal, then it definitely needs to be shown to legal.”

With all that in mind, and with a nod to Nigel, here is a letter to a local Authority that I was annoyed into writing last week on behalf of a distraught fellow-parent. The specific Council shall remain nameless; it could be anywhere in England.

To: Chief Legal Officer
NE Whare Authority
Council Chambers
Whareabouts.

Copy to: Manager, SEN Transport
Copy to: Lead Member, education & children’s services

Re: SEND Transport Services to <schoolname>
<Child’s name> <Child’s date of birth>

Dear <CLO’s name>

I have recently been having somewhat fruitless discussions with your colleague <SEN transport manager’s name> and I wonder if you may be more successful than I in explaining to him that the course of action he proposes to take is not within his legal powers as an officer of the Authority? I feel he and his department have failed to grasp the undesirable consequences for N. E. Whare of persisting in their current practice.

He contends that if my child is in receipt of mobility allowance or has a Motability car, I am expected to provide his/her transport to and from school. Apparently this is in pursuit of something called ‘least restrictive transport options’. I cannot find any reference to this entity in the relevant legislation, namely Section 508B of the Education Act 1996. As you will know even better than I, any guidance, statutory or otherwise, and any Authority policy, MUST be held subsidiary to and operated in accordance with the provisions of primary legislation.

The obligation under S.508B EA 1996 is that eligible children – of whom my child is one, by reason of disability – must be provided with free transport to school arranged by the Local Authority. Subsection 4 states that certain other arrangements may be made with parental consent. I refuse consent to any such arrangements and I require the Authority to fulfil its statutory duties forthwith.

While I am sure that <local Nigel’s name> would welcome a change of scene from the Council chamber to the High Court for a day, I’d be surprised if NE Whare Authority will relish being reported as one that has obliged the family of a disabled child to go through the trouble, stress and expense of bringing judicial review proceedings, in order to force the Authority to fulfil its statutory duty by providing transport in accordance with legal requirements, as it should have done in the first place.

I trust therefore that from now on, neither I nor any other parent in NE Whare’s area will find the Authority trying to land us with obligations whose imposition is ultra vires.

I look forward to receiving transport proposals for my child that are consonant with the relevant legislation.

Yours sincerely

<Parent’s name>

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