Camden Council school buses on the road without MOTs: Apology over safety blunder
PUBLISHED: 06:30 23 November 2017
Copyright permission in place but name withheld to protect source
Camden Council has been forced to apologise following revelations that buses used to transport children with special needs to school have been on the road without valid MOTs.
A Ham&High investigation has found at least 12 council vehicles missed MOT safety checks in the last two years, in a mix-up described as showing “catastrophic levels of incompetence” by one union rep.
Evidence shows three council buses were on the roads from April to July this year without essential documents to certify road-worthiness. At least one was used to transport school children.
A damning email sent to Camden Council transport bosses by a GMB union rep in June says: “It was brought to my attention by a worried and frightened member of staff that one of our fleet buses (CO37), or bus number 10, appears to have been on the road for a large number of weeks without a valid MOT.
“This is one of our larger buses which is assigned to Swiss Cottage School, transporting young and vulnerable children and young adults to and from their homes to school on a daily basis.”
The email says one school bus was on the road for up to 10 weeks with worn-out brake pads that were “crumbling and disintegrating”.
It goes on: “I dare not think what will happen in the event of a buses [sic] failure to stop and injuring or worse killing a member of the public or individuals onboard.”
Driver Grant Bennett, the GMB union health and safety rep who wrote the email, fears there are “endemic failings in the systems of MOT and maintenance checks” at Camden’s York Way depot, where its fleet of vehicles is based.
He resigned over the scandal, claiming bosses did not treat concerns about “umpteen missed checks” sufficiently seriously, and has accused management of a “blasè attitude towards health and safety”.
The council this week said a small number of vehicles had missed their annual MOT due to recording errors, but all 200 of its fleet vehicles now have valid MOTs.
A spokesman said: “The council apologises for this error, which clearly fails the high standards that we and our residents expect. We have undertaken a full review of our processes and put additional controls in place to ensure that this does not happen again.”
The Ham&High has been told up to five vehicles without MOTs were first discovered in October 2015.
Council bosses carried out a full incident investigation report, published in March last year, which revealed three buses had been on the road without up-to-date certificates.
The report said: “The principle cause for this was the fleet management officer, who schedules MOTs, being on extended leave due to health issues. Other members of staff were not sufficiently knowledgeable and aware of procedures to manage the system and expected standards.”
The buses had been used to take pensioners and people with disabilities to day centres and were on the road for a total of 21 days without valid MOTs.
The report stated systems had already been put in place to prevent a reoccurrence.
Yet this summer, three more buses were on the road without MOTs, a breach which could see the council liable for prosecution under the Road Traffic Act 1988.
“The question you have to ask is why this has happened,” said Mr Bennett. “There needs to be a proper public inquiry. In my view this isn’t just incompetence, it is negligence of catastrophic levels.”
Swiss Cottage School, an internationally renowned centre for children with complex learning difficulties, said it was unaware of the safety breaches until the Ham&High got in touch this week.
Headteacher Vijita Patel said: “We weren’t informed of any of the MOT issues. School transport for pupils at Swiss Cottage is organised through Camden local authority. We did contact them to get clarification on the current status, because the safety of our children is paramount, especially because of their vulnerable needs.
“We have been reassured that currently all of the MOTs are valid.”
The council said it was confident its service was operating as it should be.
A spokesman for Camden Council said: “The council gives the highest priority to ensuring the safety of passengers and drivers on our vehicles. To ensure this, our mechanics carry out 10-weekly safety inspections on all our buses at our on-site garage workshop and we have an ongoing service schedule for the fleet of over 200 vehicles, all of which have a current MOT.”
------------------------------ Unison supports calls for inquiry into missing MOTs
The largest trade union representing workers in Camden has supported calls for an investigation into MOT safety blunders at the council.
Philip Lewis, health and safety officer for Camden Unison, said it had raised concerns about vehicles in the councils’ fleet at health and safety meetings alongside GMB union reps.
He said: “I do agree with the GMB that there needs to be a proper investigation.”
He confirmed vehicle inspectors had checked the fleet since safety issues were raised in the summer.
“All the paperwork and everything was up to date and in order,” he said. “That was about two months ago before the vehicles went back to school. It was all checked and above board.”
He said pressure on the council due the Chalcots Estate evacuation, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, may have impacted on the situation.
“It’s quite right that we need to look back just to make sure that we haven’t missed anything, because we’ve never had this problem before, it is extremely unusual,” he said.
The email trail
- October 21, 2015: Union rep Grant Bennett emails fleet depot bosses with concerns that a vehicle has been driven without a valid MOT.
- January 7, 2016: He again emails bosses saying the explanation for missed MOTs “doesn’t cut the mustard” and requires a full investigation.
- March 14, 2016: An incident investigation report is published, which finds three Camden Council vehicles have been on the road for a total of 21 days without MOTs.
- June 28, 2017: Mr Bennett emails bosses saying a council bus taking children to Swiss Cottage School has been on the road for a large number of weeks without a valid MOT.
- July 20, 2017: Concerns about MOTs and maintenance checks are raised at a health and safety meeting.
- July 24, 2017: A senior boss overseeing the fleet network emails union reps saying the council takes health and safety very seriously.
- August 1, 2017: The boss of Camden’s fleet vehicles says in an email that six vehicles, approximately 2 per cent of the fleet, have missed their MOT inspections and that work is underway to improve systems.
* Do you have a story for the investigations unit? Contact journalist Emma Youle on 020 7433 0122 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Ham&High. Click the link in the yellow box below for details.