Councillors’ attitudes to special needs children branded ‘deeply ignorant’ and ‘Dickensian’

The attitudes of councillors whose comments on special needs children sparked outrage have been branded “Dickensian” and show the need for more education in this area, a coalition of charities has said.

Three Conservative members of Warwickshire County Council have issued apologies and an investigation has been launched after remarks at a council meeting were shared online.

In a montage clip of the January meeting, councillors asked if there was “something in the water” regarding more cases of Send (special educational needs and disabilities) and remarked that some children might need a “form of strict correction”.

The MP for Warwick and Leamington, Matt Western, wrote to the leader of the council “to express my profound concern over the comments” and said he was “seriously concerned” that the councillors had not been immediately suspended.

A mother who shared the footage online said the councillors’ apologies were not sufficient and that they should do the “decent thing” and resign.

In the meeting, one councillor, Brian Hammersley (pictured left), in an apparent reference to a recent rise in Send cases, can be heard to ask “is it something in the water?”

He also questioned why there are “so many people now jumping out with these needs”, asking “where were they in the past when I was at school? I’d never heard of Send.”

Someone explains that children with special needs were not seen in schools in the 1960s and 1970s because they were placed in institutions.

Later in the clip, Mr Hammersley said: “I don’t know what the fix is, I just look back at years gone by. Those people were dealt with by whatever means, it was right at the time.”

Councillor Clare Golby is heard to ask: “What comes down to parenting and what comes down to Send issues?”

She told the meeting she had seen sites where families were “swapping tips on how to get their children diagnosed”.

Councillor Jeff Morgan (pictured right) described how rather than a child having ADHD, they might be “really badly behaved” and “need some form of strict correction”.

The council said it had received a number of complaints about the comments which were made during a meeting of the Children and Young People Overview and Scrutiny Committee on January 25.

The council said the remarks had caused “significant offence, distress and upset to children and their families within the special educational needs and disabilities community” and insisted they “are not representative of the views of the wider council body”.

The complaints are now being considered as part of an investigation by the council’s monitoring officer.

Mr Morgan said he regretted “any offence caused by my choice of words” while Mr Hammersley said he regretted his “clumsiness and lack of care in choosing my words” as he committed to being “more thoughtful with my questions and words in future”.

Ms Golby also apologised for the offence caused and accepted “that the words I used at the meeting were open to interpretation”.

The Disabled Children’s Partnership, a coalition of more than 100 organisations, said: “Unfortunately, the Warwickshire councillors’ Dickensian attitudes are not unique.”

Its campaign manager, Stephen Kingdom, said: “This lack of understanding is astonishing in 2024 and shows how much education is required for people making life or death decisions about vulnerable children.”

A protest outside the council buildings has been organised by a parents’ group to take place on Thursday against “the disgusting language” used at the meeting.

Elissa Novak, whose four-year-old son is non-verbal and has mobility issues, saw the “frightening” comments had been made and was moved to find the footage and share it online.

The 33-year-old from Nuneaton told the PA news agency: “I think you have to actually see the words be spoken to get the full impact.”

She insisted the “only decent thing to do” is for the councillors to resign.

She said: “I don’t think those apologies are anywhere near sufficient to cover what was actually said and how harmful what they said was.

“They also waited nearly two weeks to say (sorry), it was only the fact that it got to this level of outrage that anything was said. If that hadn’t happened, would they gave apologised?”

Hearing such views came as no real surprise, she said.

“I think we (in the Send community) all know those beliefs are held but actually having proof, I think that was a big part of why it (the footage) was shared,” she said.

Amanda Allard, director of the Council for Disabled Children, described the remarks as “deeply ignorant” but said they “reflect a wider attitude that partly explains why so many parents and children feel like they have to fight the system to receive the support to which they are entitled”.

She added: “We are aware that many councils are facing budget pressures but pretending that Send does not exist is the very opposite of an evidence-informed response.”

Mr Western said he had received a response from the Conservative leader of the council, Isobel Seccombe, but urged her to do more.

He said: “She should take the action these outrageous comments deserve and remove the Conservative whip, ie sack them.

“I don’t say that lightly – but I believe this is so serious that it demands such action if the Tories are to restore confidence in their leadership of – and the authority of – the county council.”

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