Education Secretary Michael Gove has lost a High Court battle with Essex County Council over government cuts to nursery funding.
The council claimed Mr Gove breached equality laws when he slashed part of its budget by £10m in 2010 – hitting the county’s disabled children.
The High Court ruled Mr Gove’s decision was unlawful and must be reviewed.
Mr Justice Mitting found Mr Gove had not met his legal obligations under equality laws.
Andrew Sharland, for Essex County Council, told the court the council was told its budget for nursery and primary school building projects would be about £27m for 2008 to 2011.
‘Duty of equality’
It said it had allocated more than £26m of that money, by June 2010, to building projects aimed at improving pre-school education, particularly for the disabled.
But when Mr Gove announced his cuts in July that year, the council was told to review its spending and identify any “uncommitted” funds, the court heard.
A dispute then arose between Westminster and Essex over how much money had been allocated – with government accountants estimating more than £12m was still in the pot, but the council insisting they had less then £2m left.
Essex County Council argued that by not consulting it before cutting funding by £10.7m, Mr Gove breached his “equality duties”.
Mr Sharland told the court: “The grant was expressly aimed at meeting the needs of disabled children. Further, the level of funding was calculated taking into account the level of deprivation in a particular area.”
He added: “It is clear that equality issues were neither ‘central’ to the decision making process nor exercised in substance with rigor and an open mind.”
Government lawyers insisted the decision making process was correctly handled.
Mr Justice Mitting ruled: “Local authorities obviously would have greater knowledge of the impact the cuts would have on families in their areas and it would be reasonable for the Secretary of State to assume that any such detailed assessment would be carried out by the local authority.”
He added: “Accordingly, I do not accept that the Secretary of State, either personally or through his officials, fully discharged the duty upon them.”