Taxi boss in wrangle with SBC over ‘free’ journeys for pupil escorts

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the region’s largest private taxi operator is engaged in a bitter wrangle with Scottish Borders Council over the cash it receives for transporting children with special needs to and from school.

Colin McLaren, who runs Galashiels-based Mobility Assist (Scotland) Ltd and Five Star Taxis, claims the council “appears to have moved the goalposts” after he signed a three-year contract under a new framework agreement introduced this summer.

He claims his firm, which has a fleet of more than 80 wheelchair-accessible vehicles and employs 100 full and part-time staff, is losing so much money as a result of the new deal that he may be forced to pull the plug on the service.

And he believes the terms of the agreement are so disadvantagous that no other commercial operator will be prepared to step into the breach.

One of the many contracts his company fulfilled during the last scholastic session involved transporting a child, along with an escort – a council employee – on the 55-mile journey from Kelso to Edinburgh’s Royal Blind School. The vehicle would then return the escort home and pick them up again in the afternoon before heading back to the city. The service is completed when both student and escort are driven back to the Borders.

“The contract price which we submitted and was accepted covered the 220 miles for the four journeys this service involves,” explained Mr McLaren.

But he claims that under the new framework agreement for the procurement of taxi services, he is only being paid a mileage rate for two of the four journeys.

“In essence, we are now only being paid for taking the pupil to and from the school, while the transport of the escort up and down is being done for free.

“This is just one example of what is happening to my company under the framework agreement and it is certainly not what we understood when we accepted the new price-per-mile rate. It would be commercial suicide for any operator not to factor in the transport of escorts when taking on such a contract.”

Mr McLaren claims that the council is aware that he believed the agreed price-per-mile rate was to cover total mileage and that its interpretation of the framework agreement is not consistent with the terms laid out in the tender document.

He has now engaged a prominent procurement lawyer in a bid to resolve the issue, although correspondence he has received from Newtown indicates, he claims, little room for manoeuvre.

SBC leader Councillor David Parker, who has been lobbied by Mr McLaren, told us: “We introduced a framework agreement earlier this year which introduces a consistent process for awarding contracts/service delivery for a range of taxi transportation, including that of children with special needs.

“The pricing structure for journeys involving a client and an escort has not changed and remains in keeping with previous practice ... all our suppliers are aware of this practice and work on this basis.

“We are not aware of any legal action being taken against the council on this matter. If any operator does have a concern, they should contact the appropriate council department so we can answer any specific queries.”

Mr McLaren told us: “I can only assume that Councillor Parker has been ill advised because that response is far from accurate.

“My lawyer shares my view that the tender guidance does not reflect the wording of the framework agreement and that nowhere in the agreement does it state that suppliers would be required to carry escorts without receiving payments.

“I have tried to negotiate a compromise, but SBC has refused to discuss any of the issues, claiming any discussions with me as a service provider could place me in a position of advantage compared to other providers.

“The local taxi operators’ association has also emailed the council to say its members were unhappy with the misrepresentation of the framework. They asked for further discussions, but there has been no response from SBC.”