A damning report has today described consultation around county council proposals to close a vital short breaks unit for disabled children in Kidderminster as “haphazard, confused and inconsistent.”
The report also expresses “sadness” that the process may have added to the distress of vulnerable families.
It calls for a major review of public consultations carried out by Worcestershire County Council amid condemnation that the consultation was poorly done and lacked transparency.
The critical report will be presented to the council’s Overview and Scrutiny Performance Board on Thursday, with a series of recommendations. Families affected by the proposals have pledged to be present at the meeting.
Amanda Danby, whose teenage son Mason has enjoyed short breaks at Ludlow Road since he was two, said the report was a lot to take in but was a positive outcome for parents. She praised the scrutiny task group for its diligence.
Councillor Fran Oborski led the small group of councillors looking at the proposals, which were first drawn up by the ruling Conservative leadership and presented by Cabinet Member for Children and Families, Councillor Andy Roberts.
The plans, shared with affected families in the week before Christmas, included the closure of a six bed overnight unit in Ludlow Road, Kidderminster.
Families and local political activists launched a petition and campaign condemning the proposals. Their activity was widely covered in local media, including Wyrelife.
As a result, the proposals were called in by the council’s Overview and Scrutiny Performance Board, which is made up of councillors from all parties.
Their report condemns both the background to the proposals, the lack of clear information around the likely cost savings involved, and the subsequent six-week consultation process carried out.
It also points out that the scrutiny team only became aware of an exchange of vital letters about the closure plans, dating back two years, after local Labour activist Stephen Brown put in a Freedom of Information request, as reported here.
Councillor Oborski, in her introduction to the report, says:
“Sadly we have at times found it extremely difficult to get full and frank information both from within Worcestershire County Council and from NHS partners.”
She adds: “It has become very clear that there are serious inconsistencies in the way in which the county council carries out public consultations and I feel strongly that it is imperative that, as a council, we adopt an open, consistent and transparent policy in order that the public can have greater confidence in us.”
“Throughout the process I have been impressed by the courage and persistence of the parents and carers we have met, particularly those who use Ludlow Road.
“I am really saddened that actions of Worcestershire County Council could be perceived as having added to the stress and concerns already experienced by these very vulnerable families. I hope that lessons will be learnt and that our recommendations will be put into practice.”
The team particularly focussed on the potential impact of the proposals on children with disabilities.
To the frustration of families, a final decision on the proposals will not be made until June 2018.
In the meantime the facility at Ludlow Road is in abeyance, with staff unable to promote its summer holiday services or encourage families to use the service because of uncertainty over its future.
The scrutiny task group’s recommendations are extensive. They include urging the council to make its final decision in public at a meeting of the council’s ruling Cabinet group, rather than allowing it to be delegated to Councillor Roberts.
It also calls on the council to “urgently review how it can improve its partnership working with Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust (WHCT) and other service providers involved with the service.”
The group also calls on the council to review its public consultation practices with immediate effect to ensure transparency and openness.
They say: “It is the Task Group’s opinion that the lack of understanding at the start of the process also did much to undermine confidence in the county council and in the overall consultation process. Parents and carers were left feeling suspicious about the county council’s motives.”
The report goes on: “The Task Group regrets the somewhat haphazard and confused way in which the whole consultation process has been carried out by the county council and feels that it is impossible to have either full understanding or confidence in the process.
“Furthermore the task group is concerned that any final decision based on this consultation may be subject to further challenge.”
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