Warwickshire councillors who caused outrage over ‘abhorent’ SEND comments stripped of scrutiny roles
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Three Warwickshire councillors who caused outrage with comments over SEND provision will be ousted from the panel they made them on.
Warwickshire County Council leader Councillor Izzi Seccombe OBE (Con, Stour & the Vale) confirmed the move during an appearance on the BBC’s Politics Midlands programme, which aired on Sunday.
However, she resisted calls for the trio to be axed from the council altogether or suspended by the Conservatives, the party in charge at Shire Hall.
Former cabinet member for children and families Jeff Morgan (Bulkington & Whitestone) and Conservative colleagues Brian Hammersley (Bedworth Central) and Clare Golby (Arbury) came under fire for comments made during last month’s meeting of the Children & Young People’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee.
It is the panel of councillors that runs the rule over the council's work and performance and they were discussing the increasing cost and demand pressures from special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) when the comments were made.
Cllr Morgan questioned whether some children put forward for SEND assessments were “just really badly behaved”, Cllr Hammersley queried whether a surge in demand was down to “something in the water”, while Cllr Golby was criticised for referring to social media pages where “families are swapping tips on how to get their children diagnosed”. Her point was part of her wider set of questions over whether some SEND conditions may be conflated with wider societal issues.
Selected comments from all three were chopped and compiled to accompany black and white images depicting children in straitjackets, tied to radiators and preparing to be caned, a video that has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on social media site TikTok.
The backlash that followed has resulted in police being enlisted to protect the councillors from abuse and threats.
The council’s position has changed as the situation has played out, starting with the stance that no comment could be made until formal complaints are investigated in full, followed by Cllr Seccombe and the authority as an entity distancing themselves from the comments in a statement. It included apologies attributed to the three councillors.
Calls for the three to resign and the Green Party’s stance that Cllr Seccombe should temporarily remove the Tory whip – essentially banish them from the party – while investigations take place were met with the response that due process had to be followed.
However, Cllr Seccombe has confirmed they would no longer sit on the scrutiny panel. All three names have disappeared from the expected attendance list for when it next meets on Tuesday, February 27. No replacements are detailed.
Speaking on the programme, Ellie Costello, a co-ordinator with SEND National Crisis Warwickshire, said the comments were “desperately sad”, adding: “For me, it is about recognising why language matters and returning standards and integrity back to politics.
“What we are seeing is perhaps a complacency that is there, that everybody is very used to talking about children and families in this way and I am not satisfied with the deficit-based language that is used.
“Nationally, I would like the conversation (to be) around and about our parents, who do an excellent job by and large with the resources and capacity that they have, to raise the future of the country.
“There is an enormous amount to do and to learn from. I hope this is an opportunity to come together and improve outcomes.”
When asked if she backed calls for the trio to resign, she replied: “Absolutely.”
Cllr Seccombe acknowledged “hundreds of complaints” had been made and reiterated the importance of understanding them all thoroughly.
“I’m doing my very best to read every single one of those because it matters, and it matters to me, a lot,” she said.
“Once again, I reiterate, this is not Warwickshire.”
The council last week confirmed it would likely take “months rather than weeks” for the complaints process to reach a conclusion.
On the timeliness of the process, Cllr Seccombe said: “I’d like it to be as quick as it could be but it has to be thorough and proper. I am grateful for the stories because they enlighten people and it is important to have that.
“The more there are, the longer it takes but I will take certain action that doesn’t fall foul of the process in place.”
Amid further talk of following due process and hearing all voices, Ms Costello threw down the gauntlet to the council leader.
“I think removing the whip would be a very clear decision to draw a line under this incident and actually restore trust,” she said.
“It would be a statement of very strong, courageous leadership which I think is what is needed to take the heat out of what is going on.”
Cllr Seccombe replied: “I am not going to do that at this moment in time, I would add that they are coming off the scrutiny panel.
“I am putting in a programme of training, development, education. I am a believer that the way you try to engage people in your argument is by including them, engaging them, educating them. Excluding them, you will not win hearts and minds.”
Ms Costello went on to question the impact of Warwickshire “making harder than required cuts to services” in 2017 and reflected on “very poor decisions” from the government on financing SEND “which left schools and local authorities hamstrung”.
She did back the council to conduct a proper investigation, though.
“We have met with the lead officer and there is a very thorough process going on,” she said.
“One of the reasons for the time given is because all of the diligence for every single complaint is being done and heard. That is important to recognise.”