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The Bristol Cable

Council scraps funding support for special needs charity amid surveillance row

The council is expected to face questions this week over the surveillance operation of parents with disabled children, but it denies that the removal of funding support for a charity involved in the row is related.

Reports

Bristol City Council is attempting to block the funding for a special needs charity caught up in a surveillance row.

Last week it was revealed that council staff were monitoring the social media posts and photos of some parents of disabled children, who were critical of special educational needs and disability (SEND) provision in Bristol.

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The council said the surveillance took place following a request by the Bristol Parent Carer Forum, but the charity later denied asking the council to monitor parents critical of SEND provision. It has now emerged that council chiefs are no longer supporting government funding for the local charity – but say the decision is not related to the social media surveillance row.

The Department for Education (DfE) grants up to £17,500 annually for a parent carer forum in each council area. But now the council has pulled its support from the forum, that money will now most likely go elsewhere next year.

DfE guidance states that if more than one application is submitted from a local area, the grant will be awarded to the parent carer forum or organisation that meets criteria including that they “have the support of the local authority”.

Liberal Democrat councillor Tim Kent tweeted: “Probably one of the worst things I have seen come out of Bristol City Council in the last 10 years. Truly disgusting behaviour – the Parent Carer Forum dared to not go along with the council spin and now parents of disabled children are to suffer the council’s vindictive wrath.”

Council denies links between funding and surveillance

A council spokesman said the decision was actually made last month and denied that it was linked to the recent dispute. Cabinet member for education, councillor Asher Craig, said the council would “explore new ways of working” to represent the voices of local parents and carers.

She said: “The voices and experiences of SEND parents and carers is integral to our understanding and ongoing improvement of SEND services in Bristol. Our aim is always to work with SEND parents, carers and community organisations in a positive and collaborative way, with the best interests of our city’s children and young people at its heart.

“In our parent and carer engagement, we have been exploring new ways of working with communities and organisations across our local area, in an effort to be more inclusive and to ensure we have diverse parent and carer contributions, and for those voices to be heard.

“Our new community of groups is one example of this, which comprises 21 different organisations which I have met with on several occasions. Working in this wider, collaborative way is really helpful for gaining a better understanding of the lived experiences of SEND families and for creating positive, meaningful change.”

In a letter sent on Thursday 21 July, seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, councillor Craig said the council was asking the Department for Education to keep hold of the grant this year, so new models of parent participation could be explored. It’s unclear exactly how large the grant was, but the DfE awards up to £17,500 for parent carer forums.

But claims the withdrawal of funding is due to the surveillance row are “incorrect and demonstrably untrue”, according to the council. The executive director of people wrote to the forum on 23 June about the decision, and the mayor was not contacted about surveillance claims until 1 July.

Surveillance tactics under fire

However, this week the council will face further questions and mounting calls for an investigation into the monitoring of social media carried out last year, which even saw personal wedding photos shared among council chiefs. Meanwhile, other SEND groups in Bristol have criticised the council’s surveillance.

Bristol SEND Community Alliance said: “We are shocked and saddened by recent allegations and stories about Bristol City Council monitoring and profiling the social media of SEND parents. We are also concerned to see our name in leaked documents. We have had constructive conversations in the past with those responsible for SEND in the local authority.

“We hope that a full investigation is forthcoming so that we can continue to have a transparent and constructive dialogue, to ensure that the interests of children and young people with SEND in Bristol are always at the heart of Bristol City Council’s actions and decision-making.”

A spokesperson for the Bristol Parent Carer Forum added: “We understand that in September 2021, Bristol City Council (BCC) officers approached the former BPCF officers with a complaint that Forum Steering Group members had breached the Forum’s code of conduct. The previous Forum officers asked the council to provide evidence to support the complaint BCC had made against the specific Steering Group members.

“For the avoidance of doubt, previous officers did not ask for investigations or surveillance to be carried out against any parent, carer or SEND organisation. BPCF determined that no breach of the Forum code of conduct had taken place. This decision was shared with BCC and the Forum Steering group members on October 19. We are deeply saddened by recent events and allegations and want to reassure SEND parents that on July 1, we asked for an official investigation into the conduct and remit of the BCC’s potential surveillance.”

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  • Very murky business… And something smells rotten.

    At the centre of all this is this question: How, specifically, did those Steering Group members breach the Forum’s code of conduct? Were they critical of council policy/methods? (Is that now deemed a breach?) BCC won’t say. We, the public, are left floundering in the dark on this.

    Also, how does it make sense to withdraw funding from the existing system of provision, if a new system is not ready to be implemented? And what, specifically, is so unsatisfactory about the present service provision? Again, we’re being left in the dark.

    That word ironic springs to mind again. Breaching codes of conduct, eh?

    Reply

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