There are questions about whether Cambridgeshire County Council got value for money from a law firm it hired to fight cases against parents with disabled children, after close ties were revealed between the council and the firm.
The county council dropped Baker Small last week, after its official Twitter account posted a number of tweets that appeared to gloat about victories over parents whose children have special educational needs (SEN).
But further investigation into Baker Small reveals close ties with Cambridgeshire.
Baker Small’s managing director Mark Small was Cambridgeshire County Council’s principal solicitor and head of adults, education and employment between January 2009 and May 2010.
He left to set up Baker Small.
The council’s own payment data then shows Cambridgeshire commissioning services from Baker Small as early as July 2010, when it paid the firm £24,000 for ‘specialist equipment for service provision’.
What councils paid Baker Small in 2015/16
CAMBRIDGESHIRE – £144,000
Buckinghamshire – £144,000
Hertfordshire – £122,500
Norfolk – £92,590.50
Hammersmith & Fulham – £87,000
Worcestershire – £82,068.85
Barnet – £64,634
Hillingdon – £60,680
Croydon – £55,000
Kensington & Chelsea – £50,370.41
All figures from these councils’ own payment data for 2015/16
Analysis by the News also shows Cambridgeshire paid Baker Small the joint highest amount of any local authority in the 2015/16 financial year.
Cambridgeshire paid Baker Small £36,000 every three months, according to council payment records.
Only Buckinghamshire County Council had the same deal. Other councils have long-term contracts with Baker Small which work out at a smaller annual spend, or appear to pay the firm on a case-by-case basis.
A council spokesman said this sort of regular payment “represents much better value for money than paying on a case-by-case basis”.
Council records show Cambridgeshire has paid Baker Small almost £550,000 the past six years.
Cambridgeshire County Council is one of two owners of LGSS Law – a law firm tailored to the public sector. A press release last year announcing its creation said LGSS Law had access to 85 lawyers and support staff.
Cambridgeshire’s payments to Baker Small (all figures from the council’s own payment data)
We would have preferred to use in-house lawyers, but at the time there was no-one with the required expertise in SEN,” said a council spokesman.
“LGSS Law did not have any SEN expertise or experience at the time, but are currently developing this. We will shortly be putting the service out to tender.”
Cllr Lorna Dupre was the first to write to the county council demanding action in light of Baker Small’s tweets.
“The immediate decision to cease to engage Baker Small for new cases is welcome – there is no place here for the attitudes towards local families displayed in the Twitter messages of 11 June,” she said.
“But there may well be more questions still to be answered, about the large sums of money used by Cambridgeshire County Council to pay for external representation at special educational needs tribunals, how these choices were made, and whether they represented value for money and fairness to parents.
“It seems to me that those are questions we as councillors have a duty to ask.”
Baker Small managing director Mr Small did not respond to requests for comment.