Following an Ofsted report that found "widespread and systemic failings" in Hertfordshire County Council's (HCC) services for children with special educational needs and disabilities, Labour parliamentary candidates are calling for changes.

Kevin BonaviaAndrew Lewin and David Taylor sent a public letter this week to Cllr Richard Roberts, HCC's leader.

Mr Bonavia, Mr Lewin and Mr Taylor are the Labour parliamentary candidates for Stevenage, Welwyn Hatfield and Hemel Hempstead respectively.

The candidates describe the recent report as "devastating", and say that "urgent [and] wholesale change is needed".

They have asked HCC to give a number for the additional staff necessary "to bring about the EHCP quality and timeliness improvements HCC has identified as necessary and provide quarterly updates on progress".

The Comet: From L to R: Labour candidates Andrew Lewin, Kevin Bonavia and David TaylorFrom L to R: Labour candidates Andrew Lewin, Kevin Bonavia and David Taylor (Image: Andrew Lewin/Kevin Bonavia/Labour Party)

They have also asked HCC to publish quarterly updates on the longest current wait time for an EHCP (Education, Health and Care Plan), the average waiting time for an EHCP assessment, and on progress towards meeting HCC's goal of 1,000 new SEND school places.

With HCC funding in the news recently, and the council receiving less money per child with SEND than comparable councils, the candidates also suggest that Cllr Roberts could ask his "Conservative colleagues in parliament why this is not a priority for them".

Cllr Roberts, the Conservative leader of HCC, told us that it's "a really important issue", but questioned Labour's commitment to increasing SEND funding in Hertfordshire.

He said: "It is all very well lambasting the county council for what it has or hasn't achieved, but where is your commitment to improving the funding for Hertfordshire? And that's just absent. I haven't heard anything in a Labour party manifesto or from these three candidates."

He said that he thinks HCC is "already going over and above these requests", and that their new Priority Action and Improvement Plan - published days after the letter was sent - "more than addresses the points raised in the letter".

Cllr Roberts pointed to a total of £7m in additional annual funding for SEND services in Hertfordshire, and added that £5m of that funding had been committed "earlier in 2023, long before Ofsted turned up".

He said that the funding will mean they are "better able to cope with what is a huge demand for SEND services".

Other initiatives Cllr Roberts pointed to included the appointment of Dame Christine Lenehan as chair of the new independent SEND Priority Executive for Hertfordshire, and the new SEND Academy which "will help new recruits to be able to be trained up to get to the frontline".

He also said that HCC has so far provided almost 600 of the extra 1,000 SEND school places that have been promised by 2027.

Asked about the specific demands made by the Labour candidates, Cllr Roberts said that following the funding increase HCC has "already recruited more than eighty" new staff members, and that they "will bring those into the frontline, fully-trained, in the spring".

He said that he thinks that will make a "huge difference" to the processing of EHCPs, that the speed of processing is "already improving", and that he is "expecting quite a significant improvement from the spring".

The High Court recently found that HCC is acting unlawfully every time it fails to process an EHCP within 20 weeks, and we asked Cllr Roberts whether the improvements would mean that all are processed by the deadline.

He said: "I don't think that's likely.

"There is such a demand and there is such complexity across education, health and social care that I think we'll always have a number that fall outside of those timelines.


"Those are really quite tight timelines and, for example, if we're waiting for an assessment from the NHS .. then it may well be that the timescales are not met.

"But I'm already seeing a big improvement, and I would expect to see us reaching much higher levels, which is what parents want."

In 2022, just 33 per cent of EHCP assessments in Hertfordshire were completed within the legally required 20-week period. Nationally, an average of 51 per cent were completed within that period in the same year.

On the possibility of publishing quarterly updates tracking various data, Cllr Roberts said that the SEND Priority Executive will be providing monthly updates directly to senior managers. He said that it would be up to Dame Christine Linehan, chair of that group, whether she wanted to publish the figures. He said he would be "fully supportive" if she decided to do so. 

On data specifically for longest wait times, Cllr Roberts said that he would be "surprised" if our readers were interested in "that level of detail".

The council leader concluded: "I'm really positive that we will make the difference that parents are looking for, which is that we need to give them the confidence that we care about their children, and we're going to find the services for them. And I think we're well on the road to doing that."