What exactly is going on in Bristol?

In ‘Clustered Injustice’ I refer to one of the key insights gained from working on the Cerebra research programme with disabled children and their families.  It may be obvious to many but what I realised was that the support families consider to be of greatest value:

is support from people who have personal experience of trying to work through the same impossibly messy problems – complex administrative public sector challenges that may materialise as a result of the most simple of requests for assistance.  External support of this kind not only provides those in need, with practical advice on how to proceed, it also gives them a sense of ‘external validation’ – that (for example) they are right to trust their senses: right to feel that they have been treated badly by the system.  In so doing, it empowers individuals to persevere – to believe that they are not being unrealistic.  …

The section goes on to explain that:

Given that ‘independence’ is one of the most highly valued characteristics of user-led support groups, it might appear that the state has only a limited ability to nurture their development.  This perception is open to challenge on a number of counts, but in the context of those experiencing clustered injustice there is perhaps one thing above all others that public bodies can do.  It is to find some way to understand, at a fundamental level, how institutionally unreceptive their systems are to independent voices of this kind; how wilfully deaf they are to evidence of ‘systems failures’; and how hostile they can be to those that have the temerity to deliver this news.

Instead of nurturing and valuing independent support groups, the approach of many public bodies can be characterised as exploitative, to the extent that (objectively) they actively undermine their values and independence.  As the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has observed, groups developing close working relationships with government can find themselves compromised and state funding can create ‘pressure for self-censorship’.[1]

So why Bristol?

If the BBC[2] and other media outlets are to be believed, Bristol City Council staff have been checking social media posts of parents critical about the Council’s special educational needs and disability provision.  Although this is seriously troubling, unfortunately it is almost certainly a widespread practice – as many parents of disabled children can testify.  It appears that when the Council was challenged about this form of surveillance, it stated that it had taken place at the request of the local Parent Carer Forum.  The Forum denied this.

The Council has announced that it will no longer fund the Forum (the funding in fact comes from the Department for Education and is earmarked to support a local Parent Carer Forum). The council suggests that this decision and the furore over its surveillance activities are unconnected.


[1] NCVO What we believe about independence and values (NCVO 2020).
[2] BBC Bristol City Council probe requested over social media checks 26 July 2022.

Posted 12 August 2022.