System change for disabled children – the Local Offer and SEND reforms one year on

We are now one year on from implementation of the SEN and disability reforms introduced by Part 3 of the Children and Families Act 2014 (‘CFA’). To no-one’s surprise the picture on progress is at best mixed. Introducing wholesale system change at a time when local authority budgets have been reduced by 40% over the past five years was never going to be straightforward. As the report on the pathfinder programme was only published this July I imagine we will need to wait a while before any official evidence on progress made under the CFA.

At an individual level I continue to hear utterly depressing accounts of the new Education, Health and Care Plan (‘EHC Plan’) process resulting in absolutely no benefit for children and families. Plans are being issued with no outcomes or outcomes drafted in the blandest terms, social care sections simply saying ‘not known to social care’ and no engagement at all from health. This survey by Special Needs Jungle should help show how widespread are these problems. While there may well be excellent EHC Plans being issued, flagrantly unlawful ones are certainly far from unique.

The Department for Education has just issued new advice to confirm that local authorities are being given longer to complete the transfer process and produce EHC Plans – as introduced by secondary legislation. The main change is that the maximum time for a transfer review for the move from a statement to an EHC Plan has been extended from 14 to 18 weeks. As I suggested this as an urgent action the new government needed to take, I obviously welcome this as a sensible move. However it remains to be seen whether local authorities will now be able to carry out proper EHC assessments and take new advice in every transfer case unless all parties including the parents agree that previous advice is sufficient, as the regulations require; see IPSEA’s summary of the transfer process.

The focus for this post though is one of the key system level reforms introduced by the CFA 2014 – the ‘Local Offer’, as required by section 30 CFA. I’ve written previously about the delays in introducing a lawful Local Offer in many areas. However since that time a number of local areas now have Local Offers which are highly compliant with the statutory requirements and as a result provide a valuable guide to local provision for children, young people and families. Other local areas, shall we say, haven’t done this.

The next question is whether these Local Offers can fulfill their second purpose – ‘To make provision more responsive to local needs and aspirations’ (see the SEND Code of Practice at para 4.2). The mechanism to achieve this is the requirement for local authorities to publish comments on the Local Offer. This requirement is imposed by regulation 56 of the SEN and Disability Regulations 2014.

Regulation 56 imposes a positive duty on local authorities to ‘seek’ comments on its Local Offer from children, young people and parents. Importantly, comments should be sought not just on the Local Offer itself (e.g. is it searchable, is all the information accurate) but also on ‘the content of its local offer, including the quality of the provision that is included and any provision that is not included’. These comments must then be taken into account when the local authority carries out its review of the sufficiency of provision in its area, as required by section 27 CFA.

Why is this particularly relevant now? Because regulation 56 requires that local authorities must publish the comments they receive on their Local Offers ‘at least annually’, on an anonymised basis. Given that Part 3 CFA and the regulations came into force on 1 September 2014, that means every local authority should now have published its first set of Local Offer comments ‘on its website, with the local offer’.

If you are a child, young person or parent who has made a comment on your Local Offer, then now would be the time to check that it is up in lights. If it isn’t, then you may want to highlight to officers and Members that publication is overdue.

If you haven’t yet commented on your Local Offer but have something to say about ‘the quality of the provision that is included and any provision that is not included’, please do comment. It seems to me that effective use of the Local Offer comments facility is the best tool we have to hold local authorities to account in the services and support provided to children, young people and families.

Two important points to note on the Local Offer comment facility. Firstly, it must not be used as a way to make complaints about ‘services provided to a particular individual’. The local authority and NHS complaints process exist for this purpose. Secondly, a local authority is not required to publish any comment which it ‘considers to be vexatious’. The term ‘vexatious’ is not defined in the regulations; under the general legal approach a vexatious comment would be one where the purpose is purely to annoy the local authority and its officers. This is plainly a high bar and means that the vast majority of comments which relate to services generally, including highly negative comments, should be published.

I would be keen to hear about experiences of using the Local Offer comments facility – whether you could find out how to make a comment on your Local Offer easily, whether your local authority sought your comments as the regulations require whether your comment has been published and whether you have seen any difference as a result. Please leave any feedback on these issues below.