Legal threat over Lancashire short break service for children with special needs and disabilities

Lancashire County Council is facing the threat of a legal challenge over funding for a short break service for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

The authority agreed to redesign its Lancashire Breaktime scheme 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.

Logan and Leila Wilding, either side of their Mum, Miranda Hyman

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. That is just £2,000 less than was spent on the service in the previous twelve months.

However, solicitors representing the Wilding family from Lytham St. Annes, which uses Breaktime, claim that the decision risks short-changing the independent organisations which provide it.

According to cabinet papers, some of those groups raised concerns during a previous consultation that current funding levels “do not allow for staffing to meet complex needs or the needs of children [requiring] high levels of support”.

James Betts, from Irwin Mitchel solicitors said that should have prompted the county council to rethink its budget.

“They should have thought about what level [of funding] was going to be needed to factor in these issues – and we don’t think that’s been considered at all.

“Automatically setting it at [almost] the same amount as last year seems to have been based on what they anticipate the new service will be like – but that seems irrational given that no changes have been made yet,” Mr. Betts added.

As part of the proposed revamp, the maximum entitlement to Breaktime activities will be reduced to 50 hours per year. Last year, 60 percent of users already came in below that bar.

But 10 year-old Leila and 12-year-old Logan Wilding – who have social communication difficulties and, in Logan’s case, severe dyspraxia – enjoy more than double the planned new maximum. Their mum Miranda Hyman fears that the reduced hours will not only have an effect on their quality of life, but also put Breaktime providers under threat.

“If individual children can’t attend for as long as they used to, these places would need to get many more children through their doors to make up for it. I can’t foresee that happening and so they could close.

“Lancashire actually needs more of this type of provision, not less.

“Leila and Logan love going to Stars [run by Blackpool Football Club using Breaktime funding] – they have made friends there and they wouldn’t have the opportunity to do these activities anywhere else.

“Not to mention the fact that they are safe, supervised and the staff remain the same so they get to know each other,” said Miranda.

Under the proposed new arrangements, families can pay to access additional activities beyond the planned 50 hours permitted. But Miranda says that if the top-up payment represented the true cost of the service – rather than the £1 an hour contribution currently required for children using Breaktime – she would not be able to afford it.

County Hall has now been issued with a “letter before action” to which they must respond by the end of the week or risk legal proceedings.

Edwina Grant, Lancashire County Council’s executive director for education and children’s services, said that it would be inappropriate to comment on the letter at this stage.

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.”

Cabinet papers show that the estimated cost of the redesigned Breaktime service – should it be implemented – would range from between £483,000 to £788,000 a year depending on demand, with the higher amount required only if there were a 25 percent increase in current levels of take-up.