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Bristol Safety Valve at Full Council Sees Temper Fray From Lord Mayor

Bristol Safety Valve debate at City Hall sees Gavel Banging, Wood-Knocking, Temper Flaring, Backchat Sniding, as Full Council meeting descends into ill-will, when Lord Mayor lost his temper

One man’s temper flared in an undignified display of anger during debate over Bristol’s controversial and secretive application for the Department for Education’s (DfE) Safety Valve programme.

The Bristol Safety Valve made another late added agenda item for Full Council which took place on Tuesday 13 March 2024.

Bristol’s Safety Valve application continued to cause controversy as local councillors spoke out against secrecy surrounding it as well as the long term impact it would have on Bristol’s Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (Send) population into the future.

It saw Labour Councillor for Hartcliffe and Withywood and Lord Mayor chairing the meeting Paul Goggin, losing his temper in two places during the agenda item.

Green Party Councillor Christine Townsend’s opening speech had been scathing in its criticism of Send failure in Bristol which has been overseen by the Labour administration.

Goggin, attempted to bring her speech to a close as she ran over time covering national Labour policy failure on Send in her speech.

Following loud banging with his gavel, Goggin angrily took to his feet, pushing his chair back and standing and staring until she had finished.

“Well there you go. I obviously have no authority in this chamber,” he said in temper.

Bristol Safety Valve Row
Lord Mayor Councillor Paul Goggin stands up in temper

Goggin’s anger flared for a second time.

As Councillor Asher Craig, the Deputy Mayor and Cabinet lead for Children’s Services, Education and Equalities, went over her alloted time, an opposition councillor mimicked Goggin by banging a wooden surface.

Two incidents of Lord Mayor Paul Goggin losing his temper during the heated Safety Valve agenda item

Goggin interrupted loudly: “I’m sorry, can we have a point of order please? I am chairing this meeting not you councillor, knocking on your wood in front of you okay? I know it was red and I was just about to tell Councillor Craig to conclude. I don’t need any help from you.”

Who Said What at Full Council

Councillor Christine Townsend

Green party Councillor for Southville, Christine Townsend said: “The Safety Valve arrangements are not about more money. It’s about deficit write-off in return for restructuring and spending less on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children in order to get an in-year balance over time.

“The product born of a decaying end of life government in negotiation with the ashes of a mayor system long-since rejected by the city’s electorate.

“The Mayoral model in this city has existed for 12 years. Ten of these have seen Labour political leads for education and Send. The current position of this universal statutory service is intrinsically linked, intertwined with the political choices, interest and values of the Bristol Labour Party. Those have now been confirmed to also be those at the national level.

“What these values amount to in practice is choosing to have secret talks with the DfE about signing a Safety Valve contract whilst making public claims that apparent confidentiality was at the behest of the DfE. This was exposed within hours when the DfE issued statements contradicting the very words that came out of the mouth of the mayor last week at Cabinet.

“Any work that’s been done to mend what would be described as fractured relationships with parents – a key element of delivering the better value for Send pathway – the pathway we all thought we were on until last Monday, is likely to have been annihilated by the actions of this chosen approach.

“This latest episode has put back relationship building with families probably beyond the position from which it started.

“Read the room. This culture of secrecy and deliberate deceit must change. It is not possible to co-design something if those for whom it is meant to serve are not included in that said co-design.

“There are still not enough Send school places. There are still huge EHCP backlogs. Mainstream schools still offer or tolerate, some of them, varying levels of Send children within their cohorts. This has been evidenced year on year in mainstream cohort data, the exclusion and suspension data. Even in what were described as ‘better years’ under the Labour mayoral system still saw disproportionality for anyone who cared to look – and I did.

“Not having dealt earlier and more successfully with this has been a matter of political choice. And now we see this at the national level of the Labour Party.

“Since the Cabinet meeting last week, the national leadership of the Labour Party have confirmed that nothing different is going to be offered for the nearly 25 per cent of families with children for whom Send services are needed in our city.

“As we stand on the cusp of a general election, that will apparently see our first national Labour government for 14 years, Labour’s shadow Education Secretary told the Annual Conference of the Association of School and College Leaders last week, that there will be no plan put forward from the Labour Party addressing this Send crisis.

“Bridget Phillipson stated that the challenge was serious but that she needed to see the SEND system so she can better understand it.

“People in this city and people around our country are really asking what is it the Labour Party stands for? And what exactly is the point of voting for it?”

Councillor Asher Craig

Labour Councillor and Deputy Mayor and Cabinet lead for Children’s Services, Education and Equalities, Asher Craig said: “Firstly I want to make clear that there are no plans to reduce EHCPS or the issuing of them. This is a concern that has been raised by parents who have contacted me and other councillors directly. Our plans remain to have the right provision, at the right time, for the right child.

“This is the fundamental principle of our Send and AP improvement plan. For background, the DfE introduced the Safety Valve as an intervention for councils carrying high deficits in the Dedicated Schools Grant. We have a high deficit in part because Bristol is not immune from Government austerity. But we’re far from being alone in this position. All our neighbouring authorities, Bath and North East Somerset, North somerset and South Gloucestershire entered Safety Valve agreements in 2021/22 and 2022/23 and there are now over 60* local authorities who have entered a Safety Valve agreement with government.

“The information on each authority programme is readily available on the .gov website and you will see that each agreement is unique to the circumstances of each council.

“The scrutiny and rigor we have been through to be able to enter the programme has tested the validity of the plan regarding Send and the main concerns from all was that the experience of young people with Send needs to improve.

“As stated at last week’s Cabinet, the Safety Valve programme report could not be deferred. The DfE invited Bristol City council to join the Safety Valve programme back in the summer of 2023. And we entered a six month development period with DfE advisors who worked with council collegues to provide a robust deliverable DSG deficit management plan and the underpinning financial modelling.

“On completion of this process the council’s Safety Valve application was formally submitted to the DfE on the 12 of January 2024. Following engagement with Cabinet board, council’s finance scrutiny task force and the submission was supported by the CEO, the Director of Education and Skills and the council’s Section 151officer.

“The full details of our SV proposals are under embargo. Hence the Cabinet report only dealing with a high level outlines of the proposed actions and financial contributions requested.

“The DfE decision is expected imminently. There are no guarantees that the minster will support our proposals or offer the amount of money requested – which is approximately £54M. But given the robust underpinning financial modelling, I expect a positive outcome.

“In a local authority not too far away, they too are taking the decision on their DBV proposals in a confidential session of Cabinet due to the key information being embargoed by the DfE. However, our ambition to transform Send services is not dependent on the outcome of the Safety Valve submission and our work on Send improvements have been ongoing…” Interruption from the Lord Mayor

“Improving Send services is a priority for the council, with dedicated staff, Send leaders working alongside our partners in health, education, parents and carers, children and young people, with a deeply held commitment to improving outcomes for children, young people and their families.

“I understand that councillors, parents, schools and partner organisations will have questions about what the Safety Valve will mean for the city. If indeed our proposal is accepted by the DfE, there will be ample opportunity to hear more about the plans and answer any questions you may have. We will be bringing a full report to our April Cabinet in order for you to have a further opportunity to ask any questions.

* This is inaccurate. In January 2024, there were only 34 local authorities with a Safety Valve agreement and 6 new applications

Councillor Graham Morris

Conservative Councillor for Stockwood, Graham Morris Said: “I am incredibly angry by what’s happened. To deliberately and knowingly bypass the democratic process is truly shocking, but not surprising for this regime.

“But it’s clear there are two distinct issues here.

Firstly safety Valve and the views and opinions on the programme. Secondly, how the Mayor and his Cabinet have dealt with this issue in complete lack of transparency and openness.

“As councillors, one of the key things we must do is to assess the risks of any proposal going through. This is one of the biggest ones we’ve seen in recent years and nothing. Absolutely appalling.

“We’ll turn to Safety Valve. In all honesty I had not heard of it until last Monday. It’s clear that other councils who have already used Safety Valve are finding it a challenge. It’s controversial and there are incredibly strong views on both sides. Particularly those who see the target as impacting on the welfare of some of the most needy young people in society. It does though prevent the deficit on the DSG being written off against usable reserves when the override ends in 2026.

“In Bristol, Send is particularly controversial after years of under performance. Be it EHCP, Home to School Transport and provision of specialist school places. That’s not the complete list by any stretch of the imagination.

“The relationship with parents has been broken and needs to be rebuilt urgently after the election. This broken relationship is most clearly underlined by the Mayor and his Cabinet not engaging with parents, their groups of support, their advocates or councillors. And just shows the administration’s disdain of Send, both for young people and their advocates. Send campaigners are renowned fighters, not because they want to, but because they have to. And this is why.

“And then to be told by senior officers that this is an exceptional report hence the lateness of publication. And then on the evening before Cabinet to receive an email which reads: ‘Bringing about the level of change outlined by the Safety Valve agreement will require a whole city approach which is why as a key stake holder we are contacting you before an agreement is confirmed. I understand you may have questions about what this will mean for the city and in the coming weeks we will be offering opportunities for you to hear more about the plans and answer any questions you may have.’

“This message is six months too late. We should have had it ages ago. A chance to understand what’s going on. But it just seems the insecurities of the Cabinet win again. I think it’s shameful.”

Councillor Tim Kent

Liberal Democrat Councillor for Hengrove and Whitchurch Park, Tim Kent said: “It seems extraordinary that we are here debating what is a very important decision but only after it’s been made because knowledge of this decision was kept secret. The council used urgency rules to bring this decision forward. It was invited to join the Safety Valve process last July. We now know there was no confidentiality provision around this stopping consultation with people about this decision or around adding this decision to the decision pathway.

“We know this because the Department for Education has said this. We know this because other councils in the same process have not been as secretive as Bristol has been. We know, as an example that Bournemouth made very clear in January that its involvement with the Safety Valve and made clear some of the key asks in their proposals to the DfE. So now we know that Bristol is the only authority that seemed to think the process had to remain so confidential.

“We also don’t know what the Mayor and his administration have signed us up to. We know that the published papers talked about making savings – that’s less money spent of services for Disabled children, of up to £59M over the next five years.

“We do know that millions has been cut from Top Up funding. This is non-statutory support for 1,000 children in this council. Each of these children will be on the Send register. Each of these children had been accepted as needing additional support. so it seems likely, we will see 1000 additional EHCPs now being applied for. As funding for Top Up plans has been greatly restricted, but those for EHCPs far less so, it seems possible that this will cost the local authority more overall.

I fully understand the financial concern the council has. I understand the desire to access up to £53m to fund the deficit from Government. But is it wrong to ask at what cost? Is it wrong to ask can we really do this? I ask this because other councils have tried and failed and found their situation worsen when on the Safety Valve. If you fail to hit the targets, then DfE may withhold their deficit reduction funding. They may even impose new stricter targets upon you.

“I note that we appear to have negotiated a time frame to deliver this over five years, a very short delivery time frame. I note that Bournemouth in January asked for a 15 year time frame to deliver. Did Bristol ask for the same in January? We don’t know. Has any Cabinet member actually seen the detailed agreement? Do they really believe that such savings can be found without having a fundamental and possibly unlawful impact upon children in our city. If so, why have such savings not been brought before.

“I am concerned that the machinations to keep this secret…” Interruption from the Lord Mayor

“… has allowed us reasonable chance to scrutinise and ask the questions that should have been asked.

“This is a lesson in how bad decisions are made. I simply hope this will not be one of those.”

Councillor Gary Hopkins

Knowle Community Party Councillor for Knowle, Gary Hopkins said: “I won’t repeat a lot of the expressions of concern that have been made, I’ll agree with them. It’s been an appalling process.

“What I would say, one extra little thing to consider is that we went through a budget process. We all voted knowing that if we didn’t come up with the budget that was acceptable that we face potentially severe penalties as councillors. And yet, most people in this room had no idea of the change of this scale that was actually going on. No ability to actually check it and decide to take that into account when placing their vote on the budget process. Disgraceful.”

Mayor Marvin Rees
Mayor Marvin Rees

Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees said: “Firstly, I’m sure Members will be pleased to hear that you can actually, when you come in, you can refuse the money and not proceed with the system. We will take it up because we think it’s the financially responsible thing to do. In a world in which Local Authority finances, and again we may be in a different world but you may be, but I am in a world in which two major cities have actually filed a 114. Demand for public services going up just at the time at the cost of providing those public services is going up. And so, this is a solution. But if you choose, and it sounds like you are intending to, it’s your inclination to refuse to participate in this when you’re in charge, then you would be at liberty to do so.”

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