(UK) NI: Reporter attacked for saying SPED costs 'unsustainable'

Oct 3, 2020, NI Newsletter: Ben Lowry: The hysterical response to my tweet shows how Northern Ireland could become ungovernable Thank goodness for the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO). Sometimes the NIAO examines big scandals such as Cash for Ash (RHI) or smaller ones such as the Bioscience and Technology Institute, which lost £2.2m of taxpayer funds. Sometimes it looks at things such as publicly owned sites flipped for profit. Remember the site on Belfast’s Malone Road sold for a £1m below its value, then resold the same day? Or the one on St George’s Street near the Westlink, resold hours later for a £3.2m gain? Often the Audit Office is dealing with wider aspects of public expenditure such as why procurements in NI go over budget. Bad use of public cash in Northern Ireland keeps happening, despite an Audit Office to expose it, so I shudder to think what would happen if there was no such scrutiny. This week the Audit Office released a report on provision of Special Educational Needs (SEN). It was damning stuff I tweeted out our story on NIAO report and said: “This is another colossal expenditure. It’s been brewing for years. It’s plainly not sustainable yet Stormont says little about it because it sounds harsh to curb it. Like welfare reform and NHS reform it’s easy to duck it and let it soak of vast amounts of precious public funds”. It was the beginning of an almost unending Twitter storm. As it happens I strongly agree with the auditor, Kieran Donnelly, who said: “Support for pupils with SEN is a vital and valued service and the educational achievements of children with SEN are improving, which, of course is to be welcomed.” The rise of, for example, autism in recent decades is a complex issue, and like everyone else I know families for whom it has caused immense challenges and anxiety. I could have phrased my tweet more softly, but there is limited space in a tweet, and I was attacking the rising cost, not the children…. All three cases — disability, NHS, SEN — are part of the welfare safety net that is the hallmark of a decent society. But all are potentially limitless expenses that need monitored. Yet thousands of people attacked my tweet or liked other tweeters who did. Two Sinn Fein MPs joined the fray: Chris Hazzard accused me of “spouting bile about vulnerable children” (a contemptible misrepresentation of my tweet) and Michelle Gildernew said I had “hit a new low”…. Given such stupidity and hysteria, it is no surprise that politicians rarely admit (let alone confront) a spiralling and unsustainable cost. David Goodhart, a commentator who has become sceptical about the impact of some liberal views, has warned that permanent outrage on social media (Twitter, Facebook etc) could make society ungovernable. On P8 today Sam McBride writes about the inability of our leaders even to install a head of the civil service. Meanwhile, fiscal responsibility at Stormont is a remote prospect. I hope that our fine western civilisation never becomes ungovernable, but if it does then I fear Northern Ireland will be first to fall…. • The Audit Office Report into special educational needs …The report is 70 pages long, and the full PDF of it is in the link below. If you do not have time to read it, then it has a good five page executive summary. And if you don’t even have time for that, you only need to read a one-page media release. Auditors concluded that “an urgent review and overhaul of SEN policies and processes is needed to respond to rising costs and increasing demand”. The report pointed out that nearly one in five pupils in NI has a reported special educational need, with 5.5% of the school population having a statement of SEN (a legally binding document that confirms the need). “This is significantly higher than the 2% of the school population anticipated by the department,” says the report. The Audit Office in a 2017 report outlined the need for the Education Authority to show value for money as to the provision of SEN amid rising costs and it made 10 recommendations. It identified inconsistencies in the assessment of children and unacceptable delays. Now the Audit Office says that, three years later, “the significant issues in our 2017 report persist”. In fact a department of education review into SEN has still not been finished 13 years later.