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Police protection for Warwickshire councillors as investigation into SEND comments expected to take months

By Andy Mitchell, Local Democracy Reporter

PARENTS of SEND children who held a protest at Warwickshire County Council’s headquarters are likely to be waiting “months rather than weeks” for complaints against three councillors to be resolved.

Protesters with placards and banners, some accompanied by their children, congregated at the entrance of Shire Hall ahead of today’s (Thursday) budget-setting meeting for all councillors.

It came in the wake of comments made by former cabinet member for children and families Cllr Jeff Morgan (Bulkington & Whitestone) and Conservative colleagues Cllr Brian Hammersley (Bedworth Central) and Cllr Clare Golby (Arbury) during last month’s Children & Young People’s Overview & Scrutiny panel meeting where cost and demand pressures from SEND were discussed.

Cllr Morgan questioned whether some children put forward for SEND assessments were “just really badly behaved”, Cllr Hammersley queried whether a surge in demand was down to “something in the water”, while Cllr Golby was criticised for referring to social media pages where “families are swapping tips on how to get their children diagnosed”. That point was part of her wider set of questions over whether some SEND conditions may be conflated with wider societal issues.

Protesters at a meeting at Shire Hall on Thursday.
Protesters at a meeting at Shire Hall on Thursday.

Selected comments from all three were chopped and compiled to accompany black and white images depicting children in straitjackets, tied to radiators and preparing to be caned. The footage was shared to SEND Reform England’s TikTiok page and has been viewed more than 307,000 times on that channel alone.

The Herald understands that the volume of official complaints to Warwickshire County Council has surpassed 100 with the continuing stream adding to the time monitoring officer Sarah Duxbury – the council’s lead on legal and governance issues – needs to fully consider them.

After the meeting, the council said it was unable to set a definitive timeframe for the investigation to be completed “but we’re looking at months rather than weeks”.

Fellow councillors ‘tainted’

Apologies on behalf of the three councillors were issued by the council on Tuesday (6th February) but Cllr Hammersley has since commented that the person behind the “vile” TikTok video – which features edited comments and images – “needs a kick”. Cllr Morgan and Cllr Golby have yet to respond further.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them attended the meeting which, in a break from tradition, started with each political group addressing the issue prior to the budget debate.

Leader Cllr Izzi Seccombe (Con, Stour & the Vale) struck a conciliatory tone, expressing a desire to repair the “damage to our relationship with the SEND community, and to the confidence Warwickshire children with SEND and their families have in us”.

She said councillors working on scrutiny “should be free to question and challenge” without fear, “but with our responsibility also comes the need to ensure we speak respectfully and sensitively, mindful of the impact of our words on others”.

Labour group leader Cllr John Holland (Warwick West) advocated the inquiry into the comments being held in public, rather than behind closed doors with a public report to follow, plus “mandatory” training for councillors of all parties in this area.

Livid Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Jerry Roodhouse (Eastlands) referred to it as “probably the worst day I have had” in his 30-plus years serving on Warwickshire County Council.

Parents turned out to make the strength of feeling known.
Parents turned out to make the strength of feeling known.

“They need to be off the scrutiny committee, gone, and to seriously consider whether they stay in public office,” he added.

“Today, I feel tainted. What they said taints us all, I find it disgusting and disgraceful and they should stand down.”

Green Party spearhead Cllr Jonathan Chilvers (Leamington Brunswick) spoke of the positive work of all political groups and professionals at the council before reiterating calls for the whip to be temporarily removed – essentially banishing all three councillors from the Conservative ranks – until the investigation is completed.

‘Absolutely appalling’

The absence of the trio prompted one of the protesters, 24-year-old Gabriella Bourne, the parent of a SEND child from Worcestershire, to ask as she exited the public gallery: “Where are they?”

Asked what she made of the meeting, Ms Bourne said: “Absolutely appalling. The councillors themselves didn’t even bother to show up. They certainly had a lot to say on 25th January but where were they today to voice that apology for themselves?

“If anything, it shows they didn’t fully mean it.”

She was happier with the comments from the councillors who were present, adding: “They were quite apologetic in there and I feel bad for them, they didn’t make the statements yet it reflects on the whole council.

“Unfortunately, the councillors that made the statements couldn’t come today.”

She reiterated calls for the three “to step down or be removed”, stating: “We don’t want any of their opinions or views informing the making of decisions.”

Ms Bourne said her child had to wait more than two years to get into the system.

“That’s for any initial paediatrician appointments, before you can be referred for assessments for autism or ADHD. It is disgraceful,” she said.

A protester suggest its the councillors who needs correction.
A protester suggest its the councillors who needs correction.

“They say the first three years of a child’s life is when they create the most brain stems and all the neurons are forming but you spend those years waiting to get any early support, if you get any at all.

“My child is out of education. He should be in but he isn’t because the resources aren’t there for him to be able to thrive.”

On why she had crossed the county border to protest, she replied: “I felt I needed to make a stand. What the councillors said was absolutely appalling, it needs to be stopped here, it cannot spread to any other counties.

“I was looking to move to Warwickshire but this has put me off because I don’t know whether my child would get the support he needs here.”

Police protection

Deputy leader Cllr Peter Butlin (Con, Admirals & Cawston) said none of the absences had been influenced by the council or the Conservative Party.

“I can understand why they were not here,” he said. “They are having to have police protection in front of their homes. We understand the public feeling but some of that stuff is not very nice for anyone to have to deal with.”

He reiterated that due process would need to be seen through in relation to the complaints.

Cllr Seccombe, who during her address in the meeting said councillors “should not (have to) fear personal threats or abuse” echoed those sentiments. She politely declined to comment on the calls for action made by rival political groups.

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