Why did it take Warwickshire Tories 51 days to answer a question related to SEND storm councillors?

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The Conservative group in charge of Warwickshire County Council has been slammed for taking 51 days to answer a question related to SEND storm councillors – only to provide it within hours of media involvement.

At a council meeting on Tuesday, March 19, parent and Nuneaton resident Elissa Novak and Green Party leader Councillor Jonathan Chilvers (Leamington Brunswick) asked for clarity on who was responsible for Tory party discipline, including the temporary removal of the whip – party membership – while the matter was being investigated.

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Ms Novak said there had been “confusion about what is a political decision, for example removing the whip, and what is a council process, for example the complaints procedure” and asked leader Councillor Izzi Seccombe OBE (Con, Stour & the Vale) “whether it is her decision to remove the whip or whether that decision is made by the local group”.

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Shire Hall in Warwick, which is home to Warwickshire County Council. Photo by Mike BakerShire Hall in Warwick, which is home to Warwickshire County Council. Photo by Mike Baker
Shire Hall in Warwick, which is home to Warwickshire County Council. Photo by Mike Baker

With no clarification forthcoming, Cllr Chilvers later picked up the baton.

Cllr Seccombe had left due to a prior engagement with her deputy Councillor Peter Butlin (Con, Admirals & Cawston) prompted by chief executive Monica Fogarty to offer a written answer.

On Thursday morning, May 9, Cllr Chilvers confirmed he had yet to receive that answer despite having “chased it multiple times”. Ms Novak said the county council had not been in touch with her either.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service approached Cllr Seccombe and Ms Fogarty for comment ahead of Thursday’s cabinet meeting, which started at 1.45pm.

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Ms Fogarty said she did not feel it would be appropriate for her to comment on a matter relating to a political party. Following the cabinet meeting, Cllr Seccombe said she did not wish to comment but that she had responded to Cllr Chilvers "today".

Cllr Chilvers has since confirmed he received an answer at 2:55pm, which would have been towards or at the end of the cabinet meeting chaired by Cllr Seccombe and attended by Ms Fogarty.

He is currently in the process of checking with staff at the council whether anything precludes him from making public the answer but pulled no punches over the delay.

“I think the fact I hadn’t had a response until now probably indicates inner turmoil and conflict within the Conservative group,” he said.

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“They couldn't answer a straightforward question about who is responsible for making a decision on suspending the Conservative whip from these three councillors, something that should have happened straight away and should still happen.

“It is bizarre that the Conservative party has taken no action while the investigation is ongoing. My guess is that there is disagreement within the Conservative ranks about what should be done and how serious these comments are.

“With the party not taking the appropriate action themselves, they are risking staff at the council, who are doing an amazing job in trying to sort out some of these problems, being tarred with the same brush.

“If the party had taken the appropriate action and not tried to hide behind the council, that wouldn’t have happened. That is my concern.”

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Speaking prior to the answer being issued, Ms Novak said: “I haven’t had any feedback myself.

"I spoke to some Conservative canvassers who came to my door (ahead of last week’s local elections) and asked the same question, they couldn’t answer.

“I think it is a continuation of what we have seen throughout. Things haven’t been offered in response to questions or complaints, it has needed continuous pressure to have statements, apologies or explanations and this is just another example of that.”

In the days after the March meeting, Cllr Seccombe was invited to clarify the process behind any such decision, and whether she had sole responsibility for it.

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She confirmed she would “have to go through the group” of Conservative county councillors but declined to comment further, including on whether any such decision would be led by her in consultation with other councillors, other than to say that it would be an internal Conservative process.

Invited to offer an explanation as to why she could not provide more clarity at that point, Cllr Seccombe replied: “I don’t feel I need to offer one.”

The saga relates to comments made by three Tory councillors – Clare Golby (Arbury), Jeff Morgan (Bulkington & Whitestone) and Councillor Brian Hammersley – while discussing a surge in demand for SEND provision during a council meeting in January.

Widespread outrage and hundreds of complaints followed Cllr Morgan questioning whether some children put forward for SEND assessments were “just really badly behaved” and in need of “some form of strict correction”, Cllr Hammersley asking whether the increase was down to “something in the water” and Cllr Golby referring to social media pages where “families are swapping tips on how to get their children diagnosed”.

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As calls for the trio to resign, be sacked or at least have their party memberships suspended intensified, apologies from all three were sent out by the county council’s communications team but they have each declined to comment further.

Cllr Seccombe has resisted calls for action, saying the council’s investigation must be concluded first.

Ms Novak added: “All three of the councillors have been quite clear that they are not going to stand down themselves.

“From my point of view, and for other families, it is important that political discipline plays its role. That hasn’t been forthcoming yet, the Conservatives removing the whip if they feel those comments don’t align with their values.”