Councillor won’t resign over SEND stand

CONTROVERSY: County Hall, Maidstone, with (insets) Sarah Hudson and Simon Webb

A COUNTY councillor has refused to resign over controversial remarks made about families whose children have special educational needs (SEN), as parent groups and experts pile on the pressure.

During a Kent County Council (KCC) SEND Sub-Committee meeting on March 22 2023, two Conservative councillors, Simon Webb for Maidstone and Sarah Hudson for Tonbridge and Malling, made ‘offensive’ comments that were widely condemned.

At the most recent SEND meeting on Tuesday June 6, a statement from Simon Webb confirmed his resignation from the committee and included an apology for his comment that parents apply for the extra support as it is “the in-thing to do”.

In his statement, Mr Webb wrote: “Colleagues will be aware that during the last SEND Sub-Committee on March 22, 2023, I introduced phraseology which clearly caused hurt and distress to parents, which was never my intention.

“I wish to apologise for the statements I made and as such after a period of reflection, I believe it is absolutely correct for me to resign from your committee.”

However, Sarah Hudson said she would not resign over her comments, in which she claimed parents choose not to take their SEN children to school in order to claim extra benefits.

Ms Hudson told the Times: “I have no intention of resigning. There is clearly much work to be done and I have a role to hold the executive to account, in the best interests of all taxpayers.”

She told the committee in March: “There are families who have never, even once, taken their own child to school because the state pays for a cab to take them.

“They are deliberately choosing that route because they see all the add-ons that go with it and they think, ‘This is b***** good. Let’s go for it.’”

However, a neurodiversity specialist from Tunbridge Wells questioned Ms Hudson’s continued presence on the committee.

Liz Hawker, founder of SEN consultancy, One in Five, told the Times: “Families should be hearing about how SEND services for their children are getting on the right track – not Mr Webb claiming that his offensive comments were down to a linguistic slip.

“It’s time for KCC to wake up to its responsibilities and speak to Ms Hudson about the suitability of her involvement.”

Kent PACT, an SEN parent representative group, first raised issues with KCC.

In an open letter in May 2023 to the committee’s chairman, Mr Perry Cole, they called the comments ‘derogatory and disparaging’ and requested a formal apology to the SEN families and for changes to be made.

The parent group said they would not attend meetings until those changes were made.

In an emailed reply to Kent PACT, Mr Cole said: “I recognise that during any such debate, there will be exchanges which some people will find challenging or uncomfortable.

“I believe that the greater harm is done by creating an environment where members feel unable to express challenging views.

“From where I sat, it seemed to me that the opinions expressed at the sub-committee were expressed in a calm and thoughtful way, even if there were opinions expressed and/or in a way with which not everyone would have agreed.

“It is right that I permit challenging views to be expressed in a calm reasonable way.

“In line with the codes that apply to other debates at the Council, I will not permit gratuitously offensive, personally disrespectful or otherwise inappropriate comments in debates or enquiries of this sub-committee in particular.”

The Times approached KCC but said it would not comment on political issues.

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