SOMERSET Council has been fined nearly £1,900 over disruption surrounding paid support to a deaf child.

The current council and its predecessor Somerset County Council have been reprimanded on numerous recent occasions by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) over delays in ensuring that children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have access to quality schooling.

Over the last 12 months, the ombudsman has served up several hefty fines on the councils to reflect their poor performance – including £2,000 in both October 2022 and March 2023, £3,300 in August 2023 and £1,000 in late-October 2023.

In its latest ruling, the ombudsman has found delays and confusion in social workers’ assessments led to months of aggravation for Mr Y and his mother surrounding the issue of direct payments to support his needs.

The council has apologised and agreed to pay nearly £1,900 in compensation, as well as reviewing how its different assessment teams communicate with each other.

The ombudsman exists to investigate allegations of “maladministration” and “service failure” in the public sector – in other words, instances in which it is claimed councils have not fully carried out their legal duties to taxpayers.

Under UK law, it is not mandatory that any child with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) must be provided with an education, health and care plan (EHCP).

However, any child which does have an EHCP must have this plan reviewed on at least an annual basis by the council, the parents and the school where the child is receiving education.

Mr Y had special education needs relating to his deafness, and had previously attended a specialist school.

Before mid-2019, Mrs X had received a direct payment from the council to provide Mr Y with a communication support work – a payment which was included in his EHCP.

In early-July 2019, the council reviewed Mr Y’s support, with its allocated social worker noting that he still needed an interpreter to “support his understanding” – though he was “beginning to developer some coping strategies” which allowed him to communicate with others.

The review also concluded that if Mr Y remained at his preferred school in September 2019, the school would be able to meet the needs currently provided through the direct payment – including helping him with his driver theory training and securing work experience.

Shortly after this review, the council issued Mr X with an amended EHCP, indicating that he would remain at his preferred school from September 2019 and then transfer to a mainstream college in September 2020.

However, the new EHCP included direct payments still being made for the 2019/20 school year – because the council’s social care team had not shared its findings with its special needs team before the new plan was issued.

The council wrote to Mrs X in August 2019 to inform her that the direct payments would be stopping – a decision which she said she did not accept and did not understand the reasons for doing this.

In February 2020 – following a review of Mr X’s EHCP by the school – Mrs X took the council to a formal SEND tribunal.

For the next seven months – which coincided with the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic – the council worked with Mrs X’s representative to decide what support needed to be included in Mr Y’s ECHP, with six different drafts being exchanged during this period.

The final tribunal ruling in mid-November 2020 concluded that the final draft of the EHCP should be implemented – which included four hours a week of direct payments to support Mr Y’s communication needs.

However, the council did not restart the direct payments since its social workers believed that Mr Y “did not need that support”.

In light of this impasse, and the school falling short in providing the support it had promised, Mrs X paid for some of her son’s support out of her own pocket – including help with teaching him how to drive.

Mr Y’s ECHP was reviewed again in January 2021, which identified that he once more needed extra help with his communication skills – but the council did not propose any changes to his plan until three months later, with the final plan being agreed in August 2021.

The ombudsman criticised the council for not speeding up the assessment process, even with the restrictions of the pandemic, which led to “avoidable frustration” for Mrs X.

By the time of his next review, in February 2022, Mr Y had left full-time education and was assessed by the council’s adult social care teams – though he declined further support following what Mrs X described as a “very narrow” assessment process.

The ombudsman concluded that there had been “poor communication” by the council throughout the complaint period, and that its social workers had “failed to properly consider Mr Y’s communication need” both within the EHCP and during the review process.

The ombudsman has ordered the council to apologise to both Mrs X and Y for the “injustice” caused to them, and to pay £1,875 in compensation – comprising £1,525 to Mrs X for “avoidable frustration, uncertainty and confusion” (along with associated costs) and £350 to Mr X in recognition of “the avoidable uncertainty and worry it caused.”

The council has also been ordered to review communication arrangements between its various teams to ensure it has “a joined-up, cooperative approach to assessing the needs of children”.

A council spokesman said: “In this case we have accepted the findings and apologised to the family for any distress caused to them.

“We have accepted the remedy actions in full – these will be delivered within the agreed time-scales.

“We recognise the importance of services working together across the local authority area to overcome duplication and delay for families as noted in this situation.

“Our most recent feedback from Ofsted recognises the improvements we have made across children’s services, but we know there is more to do and are committed to learning from all complaints.”