Green Party says Shropshire Council’s ‘Big Conversation’ is seriously flawed

21 December 2015

Shropshire Council has initiated a ‘Big Conversation’ with this announcement on its website:
'This idea seeks to address the financial challenges we face as a result of years of cuts by central government to our funding. Have your say on how you think services should be prioritised in future.'

The Green Party strongly believes that the Council should carry out all its statutory duties in an efficient and effective manner and that this is a non-negotiable obligation. These statutory duties are listed in Note 1 below. They do not appear anywhere on the Shropshire Council ‘Big Conversation’ website and it is completely irresponsible to invite comments on prioritisation of services that the Council must provide by statute.

To make matters worse, Shropshire Council has a very poor record of taking notice of the results of its consultations. Just one such example of the Council taking no notice of the clearly expressed views of residents is the case of Church Stretton library. Over 1000 people signed a petition to keep the library in its current building in the centre of Church Stretton and the Council decided to close the library in that building and relocate it to the secondary school on Shrewsbury Road, at the outermost edge of the town and beyond walking distance for most residents.

In the case of the ‘Big Conversation’, it is also clear that the questionnaire that Shropshire Council has created is loaded with leading questions that deny people the opportunity to clearly express their views on the subject.

South Shropshire Green Party e-mailed the Chief Executive of Shropshire Council, Mr Clive Wright, on 11th December to request that the 'Big Conversation' website have a section listing those services that the Council must provide. The Council's Commissioning Support Manager, Tom Dodds, responded that "We do not agree that it is necessary for the Council, as part of the Big Conversation, to list every statutory duty it has to comply with. Not only would the list be extremely long but it would also be difficult for most people who are looking at and taking part in the Big Conversation to make use of it."

Commenting on the ‘Big Conversation’, John Whitelegg, Press Officer for the South Shropshire Green Party, said:
"The big conversation is deeply flawed. Its starting point should be the list of things that MUST be done, associated with an unambiguous commitment to continue to carry out those duties in an efficient and effective manner. This means no cuts to these services or their budgets. There will then be a lot of things that don’t have to be done at all - e.g. funding the ‘University of Shrewsbury’ - and the responsible approach would be to make a list of currently funded services that fall into this category and ask the public for comments on that list only. The majority of Shropshire residents are intelligent and engaged and would like to know what duties and services must be provided and what need not be provided.  Not to make this clear is perverse and unreasonable. As it is also clear that Shropshire Council does not listen to feedback from its residents, it would be helpful if the Council explained exactly what it will do with the comments it receives on the ‘need not be funded’ list. Will the Council’s actions reflect what Shropshire residents have told it?

 

Note 1

Shropshire Council has a large number of statutory functions and duties that it must provide.  These are not optional and they include:

  1. The duty to meet all ‘eligible’ needs for disabled adults and their carers under the Care Act 2014
  2. The duty to meet ‘eligible’ needs for disabled children under section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970
  3. The duty to provide free suitable home to school travel arrangements for all ‘eligible’ disabled children under section 508B of the Education Act 1996
  4. The duty to secure special education provision in education, health and care plans for disabled children and young people in section 42 of the Children and Families Act 2014
  5. The duty to provide advocacy to disabled people and carers during the care and support assessment and planning process under section 67 of the Care Act 2014.

Will the council be able to meet its ‘sufficiency’ duties to have a sufficient level of particular services to meet local needs? For example:

  1. Childcare, including childcare for disabled children up to the age of 18, under section 6 of the Childcare Act 2006
  2. Short breaks for disabled children under regulation 4 of the Breaks for Carers of Disabled Children Regulations 2011
  3. Education and care services for disabled children, under section 27(2) of the Children and Families Act 2014
  4. Children’s centres, under section 5A of the Childcare Act 2006
  5. Services for disabled adults and their carers, under the ‘market shaping’ duty in section 5 of the Care Act 2014

Has the council had ‘due regard’ to the needs specified in the Public Sector Equality Duty PSED – for example, the need to advance equality of opportunity for disabled people (children and adults)?

Will the proposed cuts give rise to unlawful discrimination between different groups, contrary either to the Equality Act 2010 or Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights?

Has the council had regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children under section 11 of the Children Act 2004?

Has the council treated children’s best interests as a primary consideration in its decision making, as required by Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?*

Has there been ‘fair’ consultation on the proposals? In particular (quotes are from the leading consultation case of ex parte Coughlan):

  1. Has consultation taken place at a ‘formative stage’, i.e. sufficiently early in the decision-making to influence the outcome?
  2. Have consultees been provided with ‘sufficient reasons for any proposal to permit of intelligent consideration and response’ – i.e. do residents know what cuts are being proposed and why?
  3. Have consultees had ‘adequate time’ for consideration and response?
  4. Once the consultation has finished, has ‘the product of consultation’ been ‘conscientiously taken into account’ in the final decision?