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Posted by: John Brace | 7th September 2014

The 25 ways in which the Wirral Council Cabinet decision about Lyndale School is flawed

The 25 ways in which the Wirral Council Cabinet decision about Lyndale School is flawed

                                                                  

Councillor Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services) at the Special Cabinet Meeting of 4th September 2014 to discuss Lyndale School L to R Cllr Stuart Whittingham, Cllr Tony Smith, Cllr Bernie Mooney and Lyndzay Roberts

Councillor Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services) at the Special Cabinet Meeting of 4th September 2014 to discuss Lyndale School L to R Cllr Stuart Whittingham, Cllr Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services), Cllr Bernie Mooney and Lyndzay Roberts

Here are my thoughts on a few aspects of the recent Cabinet decision last Thursday evening about Lyndale School.

Q1. So who was the decision with regards to Lyndale School made by?

A1. The decisions about Lyndale School were made by Cllr Phil Davies (Labour, Birkenhead and Tranmere), Cllr Tony Smith (Labour, Upton), Cllr Bernie Mooney (Labour, Liscard), Cllr Stuart Whittingham (Labour, Upton), Cllr Chris Meaden (Labour, Rock Ferry), Cllr Chris Jones (Labour, Seacombe), Cllr Adrian Jones (Labour, Seacombe), Cllr George Davies (Labour, Claughton) and Cllr Pat Hackett (Labour, New Brighton).

Q2. But that’s only 9? I thought the Cabinet had 10 councillors on it!

A2. Cllr Ann McLachlan (the tenth Cabinet Member) wasn’t present at the meeting.

Q3. So does the fact she was missing alter things?

A3. No, nine out of ten is still enough to be quorate (enough councillors there to make a decision). One less councillor means one less vote to be counted, one less person possibly speaking and therefore a shorter meeting. There is no deputy system for Cabinet Members. There was no vote held during the meeting where her vote (one way or the other) would’ve made a difference to the outcome anyway. According to an email, Councillor Ann McLachlan is “away” from 29th August 2014 to the 8th September 2014 which covers the evening this meeting was held on the 4th September 2014.

Q4. So what’s she Cabinet Member for anyway?

A4. Cllr Ann McLachlan is the Cabinet Member for Governance, Commissioning and Improvement

Q5. Sorry I’m too busy laughing that Wirral Council has a Cabinet Member for “Improvement”. You’re joking right?

A5. No, I’m not.

Q6. So what was the Cllr Phil Davies’ amendment (seconded by Cllr Bernie Mooney) to the original recommendation?

A6. The recommendation (as amended) is here. Cllr Phil Davies’ amendment to the original recommendation is as follows:

Add new additional item to recommendation after paragraph 1.2:

  • 1.3 That the Director of Childrens’ Services to ensure that Education, Health and Care Plans for all pupils of the Lyndale School are completed by the 31st October.

As Cllr Phil Davies said at the time of proposing his amendment, “It’s really important we have them in place as soon as possible.” I am presuming here that implies 31st October 2014 rather than 31st October 2015 as he didn’t specify a year at the Cabinet meeting.

Q7. So what’s an “Education, Health and Care Plan” anyway?

A7. It’s a legal requirement on Wirral Council to produce an “EHC needs assessment” (an assessment of the educational, health care and social care needs of a child or young person) on request because of the legal requirements placed upon them by the Children and Families Act 2014 c.6 (sections 33-34, 36-60).

Q8. So who can make such a request for an EHC Plan?

A8. Either parents, the young person his or herself, a person acting on behalf of a school or a person acting on behalf of a post-16 institution.

Q9. Does Wirral Council’s Cabinet fall into one of these categories?

A9. No, but Cabinet has other legal powers to make recommendations to the Director of Childrens’ Services who is Julia Hassall if they so wish.

Q10. OK, so going back to the Cabinet decision. What is the first legal concern you have about it?

A10. Well it relates to Regulations 8-11 of SI 2012/2089.

Q11. Interesting so what are Regulations 8-11 of SI 2012/2089 about?

A11. It is about key decisions, publicity in connection with key decisions, general exception and cases of special urgency.

Q12. OK, so is the decision about Lyndale School a “key decision”?

A12. Yes, key decisions are defined in Regulation 8 as a Cabinet decision (executive refers to the Cabinet) which is defined as follows:

“8. (1) In these Regulations a “key decision” means an executive decision, which is likely–

1 (a) to result in the relevant local authority incurring expenditure which is, or the making of savings which are, significant having regard to the relevant local authority’s budget for the service or function to which the decision relates; or

(b) to be significant in terms of its effects on communities living or working in an area comprising two or more wards or electoral divisions in the area of the relevant local authority.

In determining the meaning of “significant” for the purposes of paragraph (1) the local authority must have regard to any guidance for the time being issued by the Secretary of State in accordance with section 9Q of the 2000 Act (guidance).

Q13. So do Wirral Council regard it as a “key decision”?

A13. Yes.

Q14. So what’s the problem then?

A14. Well the regulations state in relation to a key decision that “that decision must not be made” unless certain requirements in Regulations 9-11 are met.

Q15. So what are the requirements in Regulations 9-11?

A15. That Wirral Council has to either “28 clear days” before the Cabinet meeting of the 4th September 2014 both publish a document on its website (and have that document open for inspection) which states the required information outlined in 9(1)(a) to 9(1)(h), or inform Cllr Moira McLaughlin and publish a notice on its website 5 clear days before the meeting or get Cllr Moira McLaughlin’s permission that the meeting is urgent and publish a notice to that effect on its website.

Q16. So did Wirral Council publish a document 28 clear days before the meeting containing the information in 9(1)(a) to 9(1)(h)?

A16. No, however it did publish a document 28 clear days before the meeting containing information in 9(1)(a), 9(1)(b), part of 9(1)(c) and 9(1)(d).

Q17. So they didn’t publish the information required by part of 9(1)(c), 9(1)(e), 9(1)(f), 9(1)(g) and 9(1)(h)?

A17. Yes.

Q18. Did they get Cllr Moira McLaughlin’s permission and publish a notice to that effect then?

A18. No.

Q19. Did they inform Cllr Moira McLaughlin and publish a notice to that effect then?

A19. No.

Q20. So what happens then if they don’t do these things?

Q20. They’re not allowed to make the decision. The regulations are quite clear on that “the decision must not be made”. Therefore the decision is unlawful/ultra vires.

Q21. So you’re alleging the decision on Lyndale School is unlawful, but they’ll just go ahead and implement it anyway?

A21. Yes.

Q22. Are there any other grounds too on which it could be challenged?

A22. Yes. The decision was made by the wrong people.

Q23. Why’s that?

A23. It’s an education matter and they didn’t have the parent governors and Diocesan representatives as part of the Cabinet making the decision.

Q24. But I thought Cabinets didn’t have to have such people as their decisions could be “called in” to the Coordinating Committee that does?

A24. The Coordinating Committee does have parent governor representatives and a Catholic representative (as of February this year) but is missing an Anglican representative.

Q25. But does it really have to have an Anglican representative?

A25. Yes it does. It’s a legal requirement, see s.9 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 c.31 / s.499 of the Education Act 1996 and the underlying regulations  such as Regulation 5 of The Local Authorities (Committee System) (England) Regulations 2012 and Regulation 5 of The Education (School Organisation Committees) (England) Regulations 1999.

The Anglican representative has to be decided by the Diocesan Board of Education (Chester Diocese) not Wirral Council.

Q26. Well why doesn’t it have one?

A26. Well the Coordinating Committee made a recommendation to Council to add an Anglican representative on February 5th 2014. The Coordinating Committee suggested Mrs H Shoebridge and Mrs Nicola Smith as parent governors representative as well as Damien Cunningham (Catholic representative) but left the decision over who the Anglican representative would be to Council.

Council met on 25th February 2014 and chose to add Mrs H Shoebridge, Mrs Nicola Smith and Damien Cunnigham to the Coordinating Committee. An extra place for the Church of England representative was added to the committee but nobody was appointed to it.

Q27. So who proposed and seconded this motion at Council?

A27. Cllr Phil Davies proposed it and Cllr Ann McLachlan seconded it.

Q28. Well surely there was some scrutiny from the 63 councillors present as to this oversight?

A28. No, it had been a long meeting by then to decide the Budget for 2014/15 with many card votes and councillors were getting tired. 63 councillors voted unanimously to add the three named representatives to the Coordinating Committee and the extra place for the Church of England representative but failed to decide on who the representative for the latter was.

Q29. So basically they had one job to do (pick a name) and they bodged it due to a lack of scrutiny and oversight.

A29. Yes.

Q30. So what are the consequences of not having a properly constituted Coordinating Committee?

A30. The legislation is clear that if the Coordinating Committee doesn’t have the required two parent governor reps, Catholic and Anglican representatives then Cabinet has to when considering education matters (in my interpretation).

Q31. So does Cabinet have two parent governor representatives, a Catholic and an Anglican representative?

A31. No.

Q32. Are there other reasons (other than the two above) why this decision about Lyndale could be unlawful?

A32. Yes.

Q33. What are they?

A33. Well they relate to Wirral Council’s responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010 c.15, Disability Discrimination Act 1995 c.50, Disability Discrimination Act 2005 c.13 and Human Rights Act 1998 c.42. There may be others I haven’t thought of.

Q34. Wow that’s a lot! Can you be a little more detailed?

A34. S. 6(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998 c.42 in relation to Protocol 1 (Article 2) “Right to education”.

In relation to the Equality Act 2010 c.15 there would be legal concerns about Section 13, section 15, section 19, section 26, section 27, section 85, section 86, section 112, section 149, section 150 and section 158.

In relation to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 c.50 there would be concerns about sections 19, 21, 21B, 21D, 28A, 28B, 28C, 28F and 49A.

In relation to the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 c.13 there would be concerns about sections 2 & 3.

Q35. So there are in total legal concerns about four different Acts of Parliament, two different sets of regulations comprising 25 different legal concerns?

A35. Yes.

Q36. So what’s the first step in the legal process?

A36. Someone involved in the Lyndale decision, whether staff, parents, children, a person who submitted a consultation response, attended a consultation meeting or signed the petition should write a letter to Wirral Council’s Cabinet and Wirral Council’s legal department stating that if it isn’t sorted out then court action will follow. The general protocol is that Wirral Council then have two weeks to provide a response.

Q37. And if Wirral Council says no, what happens next?

A37. It would result in multiple cases would be filed in the courts with jurisdiction to hear such matters. Two examples would be the Birkenhead County Court and Royal Courts of Justice (sometimes referred to as the High Court).

It would then be up to the courts to decide who was right and wrong in this matter if Wirral Council was in the wrong, appropriate compensation and possibly quashing of all or part of the original Cabinet decision.

Based on my past experience of such cases (which I will point out at this stage that none of this is not to be construed as legal advice) some of the many legal grounds listed above (on their own) would not be sufficient for a judicial decision to be made against Wirral Council.

Some however are stronger than others.

My opinion is based on other reported cases, being personally involved in at least one involving one of the pieces of legislation and knowing that in a civil matter it would be decided on the “balance of probablities”, that this is a highly complex and hard to predict legal matter that boils down to both subjective and objective matters, interpretation of the facts and other matters. The legislation as written opens up wide opportunity for Wirral Council to claim various defences to their actions and undoubtedly Wirral Council would hire an experienced barrister to do this.

Some alleged breaches are just purely technical and in the past the judicial viewpoint has been that caveats in the legislation provide defences to those sued. Some would depend on the judicial interpretation of the various law as there are multiple interpretations of the same words. The external costs of Wirral Council defending such a legal action could go to tens of thousands of pounds with internal legal costs possibly being a similar amount (officer time, resources etc). However the costs of bringing such an action (solicitor, barrister, court fees, postage, documentation preparation etc) would also come to a similar sum.

Obviously if the cases were won, such legal costs (if a judge agreed to it) could be claimed back from Wirral Council. It would not be something to be considered “lightly”. Cutbacks made in recent years by the government to the courts system mean that cases now take far longer than they used to. Fees for court cases have also been increased.

However if something isn’t done soon, any case (whatever its merits) would be rejected by the courts for being out of time. Judicial reviews have to be brought “promptly” (and within three months of the decision although it is not advisable to wait so long as permission will be denied). Disability discrimination cases have to be brought within six months of the action complained about. Outside of this time it is up to the Court whether they accept them or not.

It is also possible that there are legal matters that I have not contemplated that could be grounds for challenging the Cabinet decision.

The Cabinet decision could also be called in by opposition politicians once the Cabinet minutes are published in draft form. However as the Coordinating Committee does not have an Anglican representative it would have to again refer a recommendation to a future meeting of the Council and then adjourn its meeting until after Council has decided. Pending legal action would also possibly complicate the call in process (which would not be quick).

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Responses

  1. I don’t think labour Will get meney votes in the next election. I certainly won’t bee voting for them

    • In May 2015, the local elections to Wirral Council will be combined with the General Elections (for electing an MP).

      As Labour are currently in opposition to the Coalition government, you would expect their local council candidates to get a boost in areas (Birkenhead, Wallasey and Wirral South) where there is a Labour MP.


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