West Sussex councillors have been told they overstepped the mark when they refused to accept an ombudsman’s findings in the case of a teenager who wouldn’t go to school.
The Local Government Ombudsman launched an investigation after the child’s mother complained about the lack of support or alternative education offered while her daughter – who had ‘high levels of anxiety’ – was off school.
The ombudsman said the council should apologise, carry out a review of its procedures and pay the family £400.
But members of the standards committee were unhappy with the findings.
At a meeting in March, they said the ombudsman had ‘not listened to one shred of evidence from our officers’ and predicted that ‘if we were to agree to this recommendation, it would open the floodgates for a lot of people who don’t want to go to school’.
They refused to accept the recommendations.
At their latest meeting, Tony Kershaw, the county council’s director of law and assurance, told members: “That’s not a process you are entitled to conclude.
“The Local Government Ombudsman’s findings are final. They are matters that you have to accept as their findings.”
Mr Kershaw said the council could challenge the findings in court if it was felt the ombudsman had made mistakes or acted irrationally or unreasonably – but it would be ‘very rare’ for him to recommend such action.
His advice to the committee was to pay the £400, apologise to the family and review the council’s procedures.
While the committee agreed with him, there were still some concerns that the payment would set a precedent.
Lionel Barnard (Con, Henfield) said: “I have great difficulty with this notion of a payment. I think it will be seen as a precedent and we will get people saying ‘you’ve paid her so you can pay me’.
“I find this sticks in my craw somewhat.”
Mr Kershaw also confirmed that the committee had considered the wrong report in March, having been given the draft version rather than the final report.
Apologising for the mistake, he assured members that there were ‘very minor differences’ between the two which made ‘no difference’ to the substance of the report, the recommendations or the findings.