Public Statement issued 27 April 2015

SOS Transport Sefton has today issued a public statement in relation to Sefton Council’s recent announcement on post-16 SEN transport provision in the borough:

“SOS Transport Sefton are relieved and delighted that the threat to school transport for disabled over 16s in Sefton appears to have lifted. At Southport Town Hall on 23 April 2015, our petition of 5,583 signatures was presented to the Mayor of Sefton at a full Council meeting. In response, Leader of the Council Peter Dowd gave an assurance, on the record, that there will be no cuts to post-16 transport to any special schools or colleges in Sefton.
We are very happy with this outcome, and are pleased that the worry and anxiety caused by the threat of removal of this vital service has been laid to rest. It is reassuring to know that the daily challenges faced by families of disabled children will not be exacerbated, and that no obstacles will be placed in the way of students with Special Educational Needs attending Sefton’s excellent specialist schools and colleges.
We still have serious concerns about the manner in which Sefton Council conducted their public consultation, in particular, the skewed and misleading questionnaire which was issued to parents, carers and young people. On 19 April we sent a parody consultation questionnaire to every councillor in Sefton in order to highlight these concerns (http://twitdoc.com/43LI).  At the Council meeting on 23 April, the flaws in the consultation process were acknowledged, and the committee of SOS Transport Sefton was invited to assist in efforts to improve the way future public consultations are carried out.
If this particular consultation is typical of all public consultation exercises carried out by Sefton Council, then, in our view, there is a deeply disturbing failure in the democratic process in local government in this borough, which needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency in order to restore local democracy and public confidence.”

Our Petition: Endgame

This evening, on 23 April 2015, our petition was presented to the Mayor of Sefton at a full Council meeting. In response, Leader of the Council Peter Dowd gave an assurance, on the record, that there will be no cuts to post-16 transport to any special schools or colleges in Sefton. So, on St George’s Day, the dragon of cuts to transport to specialist provision has been slain, and the worry.caused by the threat of removal of this vital service laid to rest.

Here is the text of the speech which was read out to the Council in support of our petition:

Mr Mayor and Members of the Council

This petition was started on 4 March in response to a public consultation exercise initiated by Sefton Council on post-16 school and college transport for young people with Special Educational Needs. By the close of the public consultation period on the 30 March, in the space of less than four weeks, 5,338 people had signed, the vast majority of whom are Sefton residents. Since then a further 245 signatures have been gathered, bringing the total to 5,583.

Before discussing the petition, I would like to say a few words about the public consultation. Last weekend, every councillor in Sefton received from our campaign group an email attached to a parody consultation questionnaire. I’d like to make it clear that this was not intended as a stunt or a practical joke but as a means of conveying a serious message. It reflects the anger and frustration felt by every parent we have spoken to who has attempted to complete the Council’s original questionnaire. It isn’t appropriate to go into detail about the shortcomings here, but suffice to say that if this consultation is typical of Sefton Council’s public consultation exercises, then there is a deeply disturbing systemic failure in the democratic process in local government in this borough.

In the questionnaire and other documentation associated with the consultation, reference was made to the possibility of “the Council ceasing directly provided home to school transport for post-16 students”. As a replacement for transport, the Council proposed a ‘Travel Training’ scheme with a tracking device to help young people with Special Educational Needs to travel to school or college independently, using public transport.

It is our view that this scheme is not suitable for the overwhelming majority of young people attending Sefton’s specialist schools and colleges. Some of these young people are wheelchair users, others, like my own son, have severe learning difficulties. Many with milder issues would still have problems negotiating public transport in the rush hour, sometimes over considerable distances, as special schools and colleges are often located a long way from home. We feel there would be very serious safety concerns if students were expected to travel independently to special schools and colleges on a daily basis. It would be “an accident waiting to happen”.

If the Council ceases to provide transport for disabled over 16s, the burden will fall on parents to escort their children to school or college. This will cause significant additional problems for families who are already under pressure, be it financial or stress or health related. Parents who do not have access to a car might well have long distances to travel each day by public transport, in some cases escorting a young person in a wheelchair. Some parents who work have told us that they would have to give up their jobs in order to take their children to school or college, which would cause their family hardship.

The bottom line is that, without transport, many disabled young people would simply not be able to get to school or college. Considering that Sefton has some outstanding special schools and colleges, it doesn’t make sense to place obstacles in the way of young people attending.  And anyway, it is just plain wrong. Councils have a legal, as well as a moral obligation to ensure that young people with disabilities have the same access to opportunities as their non-disabled peers. The age of participation in education has just been raised to 18, and for the majority of pupils in specialist provision for whom apprenticeships are not an option, this means staying on at school or college. There is no doubt that removing transport would deprive some disabled young people of their education, which is a legal requirement up to the age of 18, as well as a fundamental human right.

On behalf of the 5,583 people who have signed our petition, I am calling on Sefton Council to continue providing free post-16 school and college transport for children and young people with special educational needs.

Public Consultation Parody Questionnaire

This is a parody version of the questionnaire that Sefton Council asked parents and carers of disabled children and young people to complete in their public consultation on post-16 disabled school and college transport. Here is a link to the original: Sefton Council consultation questionnaire  Adjectives and phrases (the printable ones, that is!) used by parents and carers in relation to the questionnaire include ‘loaded’, ‘not relevant to my situation’, ‘offensive’ , ‘patronising’. Public consultations are very expensive, and a questionnaire which is not fit for purpose represents a significant waste of public funds. This parody version, based on the Council’s questionnaire, was sent to 70 councillors and council officers in Sefton on 19 April 2015, although we have yet to receive any completed forms, for some reason!

http://twitdoc.com/43LI

Press Release 20 April 2015

Battle in Bootle

Grassroots challenge to political elite in super safe Labour seat

20 April 2015

Liverpool, UK –Fledgling campaign group SOS Transport Sefton, founded by parents of disabled children, is taking on the local political ruling class in the ultra safe Labour seat of Bootle, in the borough of Sefton, North West England, over the issue of school and college transport for over 16s with Special Educational Needs.

Local parents are up in arms over a recent public consultation carried out by Sefton Council, which presented their proposed changes to transport provision as an opportunity for disabled young people to “be independent and lead fulfilling lives”. SOS Transport Sefton claims this is a smokescreen for the axing of the post-16 school and college transport service that is a lifeline for many families of disabled children. Without this service, some parents say their children will be unable to get to school or college. (Copy of Council’s consultation questionnaire available from sostransportsefton@gmail.com)

An election pledges leaflet (copy available from sostransportsefton@gmail.com) recently issued by Peter Dowd, who is both Leader of Sefton Council and Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Bootle, has added fuel to the fire. Parents have reacted strongly to three of Mr Dowd’s election pledges:

  •  Work with schools and colleges to give our young people the best start in life
  • Fight to get a fairer deal for the most vulnerable
  • Demand better environmental standards and protect our precious green spaces

A spokesperson for SOS Transport Sefton said “This is sheer hypocrisy. How can disabled young people have the best start in life if they can’t get to school or college? How is removing school transport from the most vulnerable a ‘fairer deal’? And what will be the impact on the environment of removing school buses and potentially putting more cars on the road? As Leader of Sefton Council, Mr Dowd should practise what he preaches as prospective MP for Bootle.”

SOS Transport Sefton has taken steps to mobilise opposition to what is seen as a flawed public consultation process and Mr Dowd’s controversial election pledges by:

  • Gathering over 5,000 signatures in on-line and paper petitions, which is above the threshold required to force a full Council debate
  • Organising a peaceful demonstration march to present the petition to the Council
  • Setting in motion a legal challenge against Sefton Council
  • Sending an open letter to Mr Dowd (available on runawaybus.wordpress.com)
  • Sending a parody ‘Councillor Consultation’ questionnaire to every councillor in Sefton, satirising the consultation process which many parents see as patronising and disingenuous (copy available from sostransportsefton@gmail.com).
  • Setting up a Facebook page, a Twitter feed @SOS_Sefton and a blog, runawaybus.wordpress.com
  • Using a mixture of critical comment and humour (but NOT abuse) to challenge Mr Dowd on Twitter, resulting in Mr Dowd blocking their Twitter account

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Open Letter to Peter Dowd, Leader of Sefton Council and Labour Parliamentary candidate for Bootle

Peter Dowd election pledges

Dear Mr Dowd

I am a parent of a disabled teenager living in Waterloo, in the borough of Sefton. As Leader of Sefton Council, you recently authorised a public consultation on removing post-16 school and college transport from young people with special needs. This was disguised as an offer of support “for young people and their parents and carers, to help them be independent and lead fulfilling lives”.

Your Council has set up a ‘Travel Training’ scheme, which is supposed to enable young people with special needs to travel independently to school or college. My problem is that my severely autistic daughter, who turns 16 in two years’ time, is too disabled to take part in the scheme, or to have any chance of travelling to school independently.  I am deeply concerned that you have given me no assurance that the school bus in which my daughter enjoys travelling to and from her special school each day will continue to be available to her.

The nature of my daughter’s learning disabilities mean that she has no language and few social skills- she simply could not safely use public transport, and certainly not alone. When she is distressed by busy environments, loud noises and jostling (you know, like public transport during rush hour), she can run away, throw herself to the floor, or even physically lash out at people around her in her panic. No “travel training” can guarantee her safety or the safety of other passengers.

If I am forced to take on responsibility for escorting my daughter to and from school, this will cause my family severe hardship. You might be aware that four out of ten children with disabilities are living in poverty. In my own case I have been forced to give up work to care for my daughter and meet her high needs, which has stretched my physical and mental health to the limit. There would be days when I would simply not be capable of leaving the house to accompany her on public transport, and it would push my straitened finances past being able to afford the basic essentials of life. My family, sadly, is far from unusual in this regard. As far as my daughter is concerned, ironically, far from promoting independence, your proposed ‘support’ would in fact have the opposite effect, if she were forced to rely on me to get to school rather than travelling on the school bus with her peers.

As well as being the Leader of Sefton Council, you are also Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Bootle, reportedly the second safest Labour seat in the country, so you are virtually guaranteed to be my MP after 7 May. Three of your recently published election pledges are:

  • Work with schools and colleges to give our young people the best start in life
  • Fight to get a fairer deal for the most vulnerable
  • Demand better environmental standards and protect our precious green space

Can you not see what a travesty it is for you to push through this particular set of cuts? It really calls into question your basic integrity.

How is it giving our young people the best start in life by making it practically impossible for them to attend education? How are they supposed to arrive at school or college relaxed and ready to learn after being put through the stress and potential dangers to them on public transport? Do you realise how many of them will simply drop out rather than battle with impossibly complicated/expensive travel arrangements to the specialised establishments which are generally many miles from their homes? Do you appreciate that the rates of school phobia and depression are already higher among teenagers with learning disabilities than the general population? So why make it harder rather than easier for them? All we are asking for our children is that they are given the same opportunities to learn as others, but you are putting obstacles in their way when daily life is often already a struggle.

Why is this, you ask? Well, it’s because they are vulnerable. They don’t have the same privileges and advantages that go with having the good fortune to be born non-disabled. So it is beholden on all of us to do our very best to ameliorate this- most decent people hold the mark of a civilised society to be the way it takes care of its most vulnerable members. Your election pledge claims you share these values, but by removing the support of safe travel to school or college, you clearly don’t. You aren’t even being neutral and walking on by like the proverbial Pharisee: you are actually attacking the vulnerable, which is even worse.

I also want to point out how ridiculous it is for you to make environmental concerns a cornerstone of your election pledges, when you can surely not be ignorant of the likely result of  cutting the SEN transport: those parents who can financially and logistically manage to get their teenagers to school or college will be forced to transport them individually themselves. All those extra cars driving long distances twice daily at peak times…not exactly green, is it?

This hypocrisy means that in the forthcoming election I will have no choice but to break the habit of a lifetime. I will be forced to vote for a party other than Labour. This kind of breaks my heart a little bit, if I’m honest, but I simply cannot morally justify to myself the act of knowingly voting in a politician I believe to be duplicitous and cynical. The people in our ward have a long and proud history of taking care of each other through difficult times and real hardship, and I think they deserve better than lies and somebody only pretending to care. I have always believed that people go into public service for the best of reasons, but I have been bitterly disappointed over this course of action taken by Sefton Council, and am staggered that you yourself can act as its Leader in pushing through these cuts while claiming in your election material to stand for an entirely different set of values.

Won’t you restore my faith in the basic goodness of people and locate your moral compass? Will you give me and the other voters some faith that you are a person true to your word?

Mr Dowd, as Leader of Sefton Council, please practise what you preach as Parliamentary Candidate for Bootle. I am asking you to protect the service that young disabled people like my daughter rely on to get to school.

Sincerely,

A Sefton Parent

Peter’s Pledges

Peter Dowd election pledges

Peter Dowd is both Leader of Sefton Council and Labour Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Bootle, one of the safest Labour seats in the country. As Leader of the Council, he has presided over what many see as a sham public consultation on changes to post-16 disabled school and college transport. The proposed policy change was presented as an opportunity for disabled young people to “be independent and lead fulfilling lives”. Many parents consider this to be a smokescreen for the axing of the transport service which is a lifeline to a large number of families.

A couple of weeks ago, he published his election pledges, three of which are as follows:

  • Work with schools and colleges to give our young people the best start in life
  • Fight to get a fairer deal for the most vulnerable
  • Demand better environmental standards and protect our precious green spaces

The hypocrisy of these pledges has enraged parents. How can disabled young people have the best start in life if they can’t get to school or college? How is removing school transport from the most vulnerable a ‘fairer deal’? And what will be the impact on the environment of removing school buses and potentially putting more cars on the road?

Over the Easter weekend, SOS Transport Sefton, along with two local parents, took to Twitter to challenge Mr Dowd over his election pledges, using the hash tag #PetersPledges.  The objective was to hold him to account; he is standing in an ultra safe Labour seat, and it was felt that his conduct was suggestive of complacency and arrogance, not to mention hypocrisy. A mixture of critical comment and humour–but not abuse–was employed to highlight the disparity between Mr Dowd’s actions as Leader of Sefton Council and his election pledges. These examples give a flavour of the kind of tweets that were sent:

Which are hollower, Easter eggs or PetersPledges? Clue: @Peter_Dowd plans to axe disabled school/college transport!

Q:Can election pledges be broken before you’re even voted in? A:Ask @Peter_Dowd about disabled school buses in Sefton

This is the council leader behind cuts to DISABLED TEENS’ SCHOOL BUSES. Check out his last 3 pledges!

Initially, several tweets were sent to Mr Dowd, who did not respond, and subsequently a lively discussion ensued with other Twitter users, including local politicians and their followers. Mr Dowd was, of course, copied in to this debate and every further retweet.

A couple of days later, Mr Dowd BLOCKED the  accounts of SOS Transport Sefton and both parents who had taken part in the Twitter challenge. The tweets which provoked this aggressive response, though blunt and critical, were not abusive or threatening; many were, in fact, quite humorous. Mr Dowd is a public figure who will almost certainly be the next MP for Bootle. It is his job to listen and respond to the concerns of Sefton residents. By blocking Twitter accounts of Sefton parents of disabled children, what kind of message is Mr Dowd sending out? Not that he’s approachable, nor that he is capable of defending his policies, nor that he has understood that councillors and MPs work for the people and are accountable to them.

A charitable interpretation of Mr Dowd’s  response might be that he found the number of Twitter notifications he received that weekend a bit overwhelming. Perhaps he doesn’t quite understand the way social media works?  It is to be hoped that he’ll be up to speed by the election! It begs the question, how will he cope with the rumbustious exchanges at Westminster, let alone an interview with the likes of Jeremy Paxman, if he can’t handle a few parents barracking him? What would he do, after a ‘rude’ interview with Paxman–block him on Twitter?

Our Campaign

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SOS Transport Sefton is a campaign group founded by parents of disabled children in the borough of Sefton, in North West England. We are fighting to save post-16 school and college transport for young people with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND).

In their recent public consultation, Sefton Council presented their proposed changes to transport provision  as an opportunity for disabled young people to “be independent and live fulfilling lives”. The Council is offering a programme comprising a ‘Travel Training’ scheme and a security/tracking device with the aim of enabling children and young people to travel to and from school or college independently.

However, many disabled children and young people in the borough, such as wheelchair users, children with profound and complex difficulties, do not have the necessary skills to access this support, nor will they be able to travel to school or college independently. The Council has not proposed any alternative provision for these young people, and we can only assume that parents will be responsible for getting their children to school.

It is ironic, given the Council’s expressed interest in promoting independence skills, that the proposed changes will in fact have the opposite effect for many children and young people with SEND, if they have to be escorted to school by their parents rather than travelling by minibus or taxi.

Removal of transport will cause huge problems for many families, particularly if the child uses a wheelchair, if both parents work, if they live a long way from the school, have other children at different schools or don’t have a car. Many parents are extremely worried, and some say that, without transport, their children will not be able to go to school. As children now need to participate in education until they are 18, this means their parents could be taken to court if their children do not attend.

Sadly, it appears that the most severely disabled children and young people in the community will be the most adversely affected by the proposed changes, and their already hard-pressed families will be put under even greater pressure. We feel it is patently unjust to target cost-saving measures at the most vulnerable in society, and that it is tantamount to discrimination to penalise families because their children’s disabilities prevent them from accessing the support offered by the Council.

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