Court case could loom over cash for Lancashire special needs respite service

A legal challenge over funding for a respite service for Lancashire children with special educational needs and disabilities has stepped up a gear.
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Solicitors acting for a family from Lytham St. Annes are seeking a judicial review of the budget that Lancashire County Council set aside for its Breaktime scheme this year.

The authority was sent a so-called ‘letter before action’ in May, but the Local Democracy Reporting Service understands that County Hall maintained its position in relation to the process used to calculate the cash which would be allocated to the service.

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Lawyers have now lodged papers at the High Court in Manchester seeking permission to have the case heard.

Miranda Hyman with two of her children, Logan and LeilaMiranda Hyman with two of her children, Logan and Leila
Miranda Hyman with two of her children, Logan and Leila

The authority agreed to redesign Breaktime earlier this year – reversing a previous plan to scrap it altogether.

The service provides group activities for children, giving their parents and carers a few hours’ respite from their caring responsibilities during evenings and school holidays.

The new incarnation of the scheme has yet to be implemented, pending further consultation with the families which benefit from it.

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But at a cabinet meeting back in March, members set a budget for Breaktime – in its current and any future form – of £765,000 for 2020/21, a similar level to the amount spent over the previous 12 months.

However, James Betts, the solicitor leading the legal challenge, said that failed to take into account responses from last year’s consultation, in which respondents claimed that there were insufficient places to meet increasing demand.

“They have not asked themselves the question as to whether this level of funding is sufficient to address those concerns,” Mr. Betts said.

“[The process] is also flawed because they have based the figure on a new model which hasn’t been implemented yet. Nobody knows what the new service will look like or the timescales for it.

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“It also raises concerns that they’re potentially pre-empting the decision that they’re going to make [about the redesigned service], at the point where it’s still at a formative stage.”

Papers presented to a cabinet meeting back in March presented a range of cost estimates for the service during 2020/21 – from £483,000 to £788,000, with the higher figure representing a 25 percent increase in demand.

However, Miranda Hyman, a Lytham mum-of-four who is bringing the case, said she was worried about a new rule which limited use of Breaktime to 50 hours per year – unless families pay a top-up fee. Last year, 60 percent of users accessed Breaktime for less than that time.

“It’s just not sufficient – you go swimming for more than that amount of time per year. It’s meant to be helping social interaction, as well as offering respite to parents and carers – but it won’t even tick the box at that level.

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“We actually need more funding to increase the range of activities on offer. My 16-year-old used to go, but is available doesn’t stimulate him anymore,” explained Miranda, two of whose children have an autism diagnosis.

“It needs fighting for even more with Covid-19, so that they can’t turn around next year and say they only used half the budget in 2020 – and decide that it won’t be needed in future years either.

“I’m not saying that they’d do that, but you just never know.”

Edwina Grant, Lancashire County Council’s executive director for education and children’s services, said it would be inappropriate to comment on the legal proceedings.

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However, she added: “As a council, we are determined to make improvements to the service and have set out a range of proposals to do this in a fair way that benefits young people across Lancashire.

“Members of the cabinet voted to consult on these proposals but the planned consultation has been paused until we are out of the current crisis.

“We remain determined to have a high quality and consistent service for those families who need it.”