Opinion

Councils wasting millions in taxpayer cash fighting families of disabled kids – and losing

Councils wasted £60 million fighting parents over support for disabled children, writes Disabled Children’s Partnership’s Stephen Kingdom. It could have funded 10,000 mainstream school spaces for kids with additional needs

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The Big Issue has been shining a light on how the disability benefits system is forcing disabled people to fight the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to survive.

Our recent coverage showed how the DWP is wasting millions of pounds in taking disabled people through an appeals process that the majority of claimants win.

Following the story, Stephen Kingdom, campaign manager at the Disabled Children’s Partnership, says parents of disabled children are also forced into a tribunal system that sees councils waste millions on legal defences that ultimately fail.

Families of disabled children are fighting a David and Goliath battle with councils in which local authorities tool up with barristers but still lose.

Councils wasted £60 million in a year on unsuccessful court disputes with parents and carers seeking support for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.

The money spent in 2021-2022 would have funded 10,000 places in mainstream schools for children with additional needs.

Tribunal battles came when parents and carers disputed the fact their child had not been assessed for an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) meant to guarantee additional support, or that once assessed, the authorities fail to issue that legal document or fail to put the right support or school in place for the child.

A massive 96% of cases were won by families.

These figures come just days after freedom of information requests from the Big Issue revealed that the government spends tens of millions each year fighting disabled and ill people who are appealing a benefits decision – only to have the majority of those overturned in favour of the claimant.

Even those who believe benefits are over-generous have to stop and think why taxpayers’ money is spent fighting losing battles.

It is both immoral and fiscally irresponsible to expect parents who have often given up work to support their disabled children and who might be providing 24-hour waking care, to go up against council-employed barristers to make their case.

The latest research from Pro Bono Economics, commissioned by the Disabled Children’s Partnership, also found that fewer than half (45%) of single parents with disabled children are in work, compared with two-thirds (67%) of single parents with non-disabled children. Of those in work, couples with disabled children earn an average of £274 less each week than couples with non-disabled children.

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It is likely these families will be especially impacted by the strain of going through the special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) tribunal process.

If you are not one of the 1.5 million families in the UK who has a disabled child, it’s easy to imagine you receive all the support you need to ensure they achieve their best.

Nothing could be further from the truth. A blue badge isn’t a free pass to enjoy life.

England’s most senior social worker, Dame Christine Lenehan, said this week: “If you had to design a SEND system from scratch you would have to be on mind-altering drugs to come up with what we have now.” It can take years for a child’s diagnosis, once diagnosed parents are frequently left with a leaflet explaining the condition but no suggestion of where to find help. Traumatised parents are suddenly on a completely different path than the one they imagined.

At home a disabled child might need speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, equipment like wheelchairs or standing frames. Older children might require the chance of a short break so that they can socialise with other children and their parents have the opportunity to concentrate on siblings and reenergise to better care for their disabled child.

They should attend a school that could meet their needs – one with wheelchair access or teaching assistants that can sign, or a visual impairment unit.

In an ideal world this would all be guaranteed and uncomplicated. However even before the pandemic only 4% of families felt they had sufficient support to safely care for their children, according to a DCP survey.

Many services that closed during lockdown never reopened. Just this week Oxfordshire, Oldham and Plymouth were slammed by Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspectors for “widespread, systemic failings in SEND services”. One in four areas visited under a new framework now have these failures, leading to significant concerns about outcomes for disabled and neurodivergent children.

This is where parents deploy the language of the battlefield to describe their scrap for services. Everything is a fight. Parents already worn down by caring are expected to plead for everything that most non-disabled families take for granted – a decent school and teaching and support that allows them to flourish.

The 2014 Children and Families’ Act was meant to make things better. It created the EHCP process, designed so that all the agencies involved in a child’s life came together to decide what would meet the child’s needs. Parents became explicitly aware of what their children needed but cash-strapped councils bent the rules to avoid paying.

The rise in diagnoses of conditions has been empowering but has increased demand for EHCPs. More than twice as many were issued in 2022 than in 2015.

Hence the legal battles.

Not all parents have the time or knowledge to go to tribunal, so built into councils’ decisions to fight parents must be the hope that most won’t press that nuclear button.

The system is now running hot and angry. Trust between families and authorities has broken down.

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Since the government’s SEND green paper was issued in March 2022 we have had five ministers for children and families, the role responsible for seeing those reforms through.

Something has to give. Government has to take the needs of our children seriously, local authorities must be properly funded and their staff trained to make the best decisions for the people at the heart of this dysfunctional system – disabled children.

Stephen Kingdom is campaign manager at the Disabled Children’s Partnership

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