Cash cuts blamed for threat to free transport for Sunderland special needs teens

The families of students aged over 16 who have special needs or disabilities might have to play for their transport
The families of students aged over 16 who have special needs or disabilities might have to play for their transport
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A proposal which could see the families of hundreds of teenagers with special needs pay towards their college transport bills is down to Government cuts according to council leaders.

A consultation will now be held about scrapping free home-to-school taxi for 245 learners over 16 with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) and instead ask families to contribute £651 towards annual costs.

This is another sign of the cuts from central Government and the impact they have on people.

Councillor John Kelly

The council, which faces budget reductions of £110million by 2020, currently provides transport for 926 SEND youngsters, aged from three to 25 years, although it is not legally obliged to fund it for those over 16. It provides taxis for 245 students with SEND over the age of 16 at an annual cost of £591,797. A report to the latest cabinet meeting said the average cost of transporting a post-16 student by taxi is £2,415 and proposed a contribution of £651 from those families from September, which reflects the cost of an all-zone Nexus pass for travel within the city. Such a move would save the council around £100,000 a year.

Cabinet members say their hands have been forced by funding reductions by the Government, meaning it now has no option but to review costs it has no legal obligation to meet .

Any affected families will be means tested, should the change be introduced.

The council covers the travel costs for 926 children aged from three to 25 with special needs or disabilities (Send), but it does not have to fund for over 16s.

Pat Smith, the council’s portfolio holder for children’s services and learning city, told a meeting of the cabinet: “Apart from a saving, it will also teach young people important life skills.

“Legally, the council is not required to meet this cost for home to school transport as we have done in the past.”

Councillor John Kelly added: “This is another sign of the cuts from central Government and the impact they have on people. We now have no other choice.”

Councillor Michael Mordey said it showed how the Government’s approach to cutting the deficit was hitting on a local level: “It is not something we want to do. It’s disgraceful.”

Council leader Paul Watson said the council should be “commended” for staving off such decisions in the face of “dire consequences” of the cuts, which were hitting the most vulnerable in the community.

“This is the position we have been put in, because it’s not a statutory duty and if it were, we would make our best endeavours to ensure it was covered, but this is clearly because of the Government cuts.”

The council has said those who have bought a travel pass will also benefit from using it at other times, as well as to and from their place of study. Liberal Democrats in the city had urged the council to rethink the proposal after the party was contacted by concerned families.