Deputy council leader Les Ford has apologised for offending parents of special needs children by calling their loved ones ‘a burden’.
Parents, Mencap and the National Autistic Society have complained about Cllr Ford’s remarks during meetings where Cheshire West and Chester Council decided to bill parents of special educational needs (SEN) children £880 a year towards the £5,200 school transport costs.
Pupils up to four-years-old or between 16 and 19 years or with medical needs are eligible for the charge from September, which is reduced to £660 for the first year only. Low income families pay half.
Cllr Ford (Con, Helsby), who has since apologised for any offence, told the April executive meeting: “We have a burden, as everybody does, when you have a person like this in one’s family.”
Parents were also offended by the phrase ‘the state of that child’, when he told the March executive meeting: “Every parent has a duty to get their children to school, irrespective of the state of that child, whether it be SEN, autism or whatever.”
Explaining why he used the term ‘burden’, Cllr Ford told The Chronicle : “It’s our burden, not theirs, because we have to pay for these people.
“I was trying to be as careful as I could but obviously I didn’t quite succeed in their terms. They are very sensitive about it and I understand why.
“I am making no reflection whatever on their children. It’s nothing to do with that. It’s all to do with money, isn’t it?”
The deputy leader added: “They have misinterpreted what’s been said. I had my officers listen to the tape recording and they didn’t think there was anything untoward but at the same time there’s no reason not to say sorry.
“Why would I want to offend anybody? I would have no intention of doing so.
“My nephew is in the same boat. He is looked after permanently by Wandsworth Borough Council.
“He needs 24-hours-a-day care because my brother died some time ago so I know what it’s about.”
Michelle Jones, from Saughall, whose 17-year-old autistic son attends Greenbank School in Northwich, said in her official complaint: “I am not taken to being emotional in public but this man has reduced me to tears at both meetings by his clear lack of compassion and understanding of our children, despite our efforts to educate him during our speeches.
“This is not what I expect from any councillor, let alone one that has a very important position on the council.
“It is made even worse by the very fact that this is a public meeting, broadcast live on the internet and now available for viewing on the council’s website.
“This is clear prejudice towards people with disability and it has clearly influenced his decisions on the 16-19 SEN transport issue, seeking to blame people with disabilities for the pressures that his budget is under.
“I do not consider my son to be a burden, he makes our family life more challenging but we have all learnt from him and his sense of humour.
“I am still very upset and shocked that a high profile figure can be allowed to get away with such blatant prejudice.”
Emma Shepherd, from the National Autistic Society, said: “We've been contacted by many local families affected by autism who have been offended by Cllr Les Ford’s descriptions of disabled people as a “burden”.
“People with disabilities, including autism, can and do make huge contributions to society.
“But they are too often let down by outdated and damaging attitudes and perceptions about what they can achieve.
“The mark of a good society is how it supports its most vulnerable members. Rather than stigmatising disabled people, we should be supporting them to reach their full potential.”
Stephen John, Mencap campaign officer for the North of England, was given an apology after emailing Cllr Ford “with reference to a number of complaints”.
He said: “On April 2 at another meeting broadcast over the internet, you referred to disabled children, on more than one occasion, as a burden.
“This derogatory and misinformed language is certainly not a reflection of the love, affection and happiness that disabled children bring to their families.
“It is particularly worrying if you, in a position of trust and influence, have such a view of disabled people and I would certainly hope that it was a poor choice of words rather than the misguided view it portrays.”