Council breaks its silence over Warwickshire councillors' controversial comments on SEND children

There has been as huge reaction from the public since our article last week shone a light on their comments
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Momentum has gathered behind criticism of three councillors – the former cabinet member for children and families Jeff Morgan (Bulkington & Whitestone) and Conservative colleagues Brian Hammersley (Bedworth Central) and Clare Golby (Arbury) – for remarks made during a Children and Young People’s Overview and Scrutiny panel meeting where cost and demand pressures from SEND were discussed.

As outrage intensified, the wave of statements from rival political groups, Labour MP for Warwick and Leamington Matt Western and national organisations such as Scope increased.

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Shire Hall, WCC's HQShire Hall, WCC's HQ
Shire Hall, WCC's HQ

The council’s stance as late as Tuesday morning (February 6) was that “it would be inappropriate to comment” while monitoring officer Sarah Duxbury – the authority’s lead on legal and governance matters – considered formal complaints from the public.

However, by 6pm on the same day – and 12 days after the comments were originally made – Warwickshire County Council said it was “clear that these comments have caused significant offence, distress and upset to children and their families within the SEND community”.

They were accompanied by apologies attributed to the three councillors.

The statement added: “The council wishes to emphasise that the comments made are not representative of the views of the wider council body including those councillors and officers who work so hard to provide support and opportunities for children with SEND.

“The council has built strong relationships with groups within the SEND community, and we are conscious of the damage this situation may cause to those relationships.”

The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) highlighted the change with leader Cllr Izzi Seccombe (Con, Stour & the Vale).

She was keen to stress that the investigations could – and should – not be prejudiced but said: “I think it was necessary for all concerned, for the parents, carers and people within the SEND community, and for our workforce and us as the administration [the Conservative group of councillors in power], to understand the position of this council.

“This is not Warwickshire, it is not what I or my administration reflect. The comments are not what Warwickshire would recognise and they are certainly not what I would recognise.”

Thanking council officers – the professionals employed to run service areas day to day – and parents and carers, she suggested the comments risked undermining ongoing work to improve services.

“They have done so much in recent years,” she said. “It is a very tricky area, there is increasing demand and we need to try to address it. I know how hard it is for people in that community to access services and we are trying very hard to listen to and hear them.

“That, in a way, is what I feel has been damaged.”

She also insisted she was “not unhappy” with executive director for children and young people Nigel Minns or Lauren Sime, strategy and development officer for the council’s education services team, for challenging the comments during the meeting.

Cllr Morgan, the portfolio holder for children and families until May 2023 and now vice-chair of the council, suggested some children put forward for SEND assessments are “just really badly behaved” and in need of “some form of strict correction”.

In quotes issued by the council’s communications department, Cllr Morgan expressed regret over “the words I used to make a point about demand and need in the SEND area” without reference to or clarification of the point he was trying to make.

Cllr Golby had called for a thorough look into more detailed data to assess whether there were “hotspots” or missed areas, or regions or demographic groups where SEND had become conflated with other societal problems.

In that context, she asked about pathways for cases “that perhaps don’t have a SEND need but do have parenting skill shortages”. She referred to social media pages where “families are swapping tips on how to get their children diagnosed”, concluding that: “We need to not only look at the outcomes but the pathways to how we get to them.”

In the council’s release, Cllr Golby accepted her remarks had been “open to interpretation” and apologised “for any offence caused”, again stopping short of a retraction.

This was different to Cllr Hammersley’s statement where he apologised “unreservedly” and acknowledged “clumsiness and lack of care” when querying a sharp rise in the volume of SEND cases and whether there was “something in the water”. He accepted that “I have some learning to do”.

Cllr Seccombe said any clarification on the wording or interpretation of the apologies would have to come from the individual councillors.

On Cllr Morgan’s statement, she added: “The apology is his apology. He is apologetic and I am grateful for that, I know he is apologetic because he has apologised to me.

“I am glad he has apologised, I would have to await the outcome of the investigation, that’s the next phase.”

Put to her that it could be interpreted that Cllr Morgan had not apologised for or reconsidered his views, Cllr Seccombe said she had accepted the apologies and that it was important for all three councillors “to have their voices heard” during the investigation process.

“I am not happy but I have accepted an apology, this does not reflect Warwickshire,” she added.

“When the monitoring officer has concluded her investigation and allowed all of the complainants to have their voices heard as well, I will look at the outcome and determine whether there is anything I need to do.”

That clarification will not necessarily happen in public, though.

Cllr Seccombe said she had been aware of 11 formal complaints but noted more may have come in since Tuesday, adding that Ms Duxbury would seek to combine them into an overall look at what was said and the full circumstances around it.

“I think she will be seeking an independent examiner,” she said.

“There will be interviews with the three councillors concerned and there will also be interviews with the complainants to understand their full nature and what they are seeking.

“That will all form part of the report that comes together.”

Cllr Seccombe confirmed those interviews and the process that flows from them were set to take place behind closed doors but committed to the final report being published by the council.

The pace at which statements have emerged from political rivals has increased with the backlash.

Labour went first, stating that its councillors “understand why parents and carers are questioning the trust they put in councillors to act wisely on behalf of their children if this is the level of understanding they display”, adding that “disparaging remarks” make collaborative working more difficult.

A statement from Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Jerry Roodhouse (Eastlands) – who was present at the original meeting and did not respond directly to the comments on the day – said the views had “tarnished all councillors and the hard work of officers”.

Calling for “a full public apology”, he urged Cllr Seccombe to “consider removing these members” from the scrutiny panel.

An open letter from the Green Party, published after the apologies were issued, said it “would expect” an investigation by the Conservative party as well as the council, and for the Tory party whip to be withdrawn until the investigations are completed.

It added: “All three councillors can do better than a paragraph in a press release and at the very least expect individual public statements, not hidden by a council press release, as well as a commitment to receive SEND training along with all members of the Children & Young People’s Scrutiny committee.”

Asked whether she considered the surge in comments over the past few days to be political opportunism, Cllr Seccombe replied: “I am not going to go into the politics of it.

“There is an issue about words that were inappropriate, that didn’t reflect Warwickshire County Council. I know a lot of people have been very hurt by that and I am not going to make anything political of it."

Pressed on whether she thought others had, Cllr Seccombe replied: “That is their business. My only concern is the people who have been hurt, the officers who have worked extremely hard and are feeling battered.

“I am incredibly proud of the work that has gone on in Warwickshire, in so many ways, to try to address what is a very challenging problem for people. I know things are not perfect but we are trying to get better, it is very difficult for parents to try to access support.

“There are so many partners in it – too many, you could argue – health, ourselves, schools, and it is really difficult. Life is a battle for families, we have been trying to listen and help where we can within a very challenging budget.

“Demand services – not just SEND, social care as well – take up 70 per cent of the council’s spend and this is at a cost to universal services that are needed by all council tax payers, including parents and carers, with things like libraries, country parks, all the things that are vitally important in a wider context.”