HC Deb 01 June 1954 vol 528 cc1241-50

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Conant.]

11.26 p.m.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

The subject which I wish to raise tonight is a constituency problem, though not a problem by its nature peculiar to any one part of the country—the problem of transporting children to and from school.

This particular problem is one which deeply concerns parents and children in the Colcot area of my constituency. So deeply concerned are many of these parents that there are, indeed, a group of them in the Gallery tonight listening to this debate, following a house-to-house collection to assist some of them to come here.

The problem arises, as so many similar ones have, from the growth of a new part of the town of Barry, the Colcot area, and consequently in recent years a new school has been built there. But the growth has been so rapid that already that new school is somewhat inadequate for the needs of the area. Quite reasonably, the education authority had to avail themselves of the accommodation available in some of the older schools in other parts of the town. Indeed, the parents are quite aware of the need for that arrangement.

In due course, the South-East Glamorgan Divisional Executive of the education authority through their secretary, circulated to the parents a form of letter which I know my hon. Friend has seen, which gave them notice that some of the children would have to attend the High Street school in Barry and some of them would have to go to the Jenner Park school. As it happens, the High Street school is far enough away for the county council under their regulations to provide transport. The Jenner Park school is not so far away, and the qualification as to distance does not apply. Indeed, if it were just a question of distance, my constituents in this area who are parents would not be so deeply concerned. But rather is it a question of the nature of the route which these children have to take.

The concern of my constituents may be imagined by the response of the parents to this letter. In a short time they were organised into a parents' association. They called a series of meetings and made reasonable representations to the local representatives and councillors and ultimately to the South-East Glamorgan Executive. After very careful consideration, the South-East Glamorgan Executive, with its membership including all the local members, decided that school transport should be provided. I want to stress to my hon. Friend that that was an important decision, based as it was upon the factual knowledge of the local representatives.

Subsequently, the chairman of the education authority, Alderman Llewellyn Heycock, together with the director of education, and the executive officer, paid a visit to the spot, and I make no complaint about that; they had an awkward job to do. They were faced with the necessity of making an interim decision, but what is felt by parents and others concerned with this matter is that, fortunately or unfortunately, these officials saw the site in peculiarly favourable circumstances. They saw it at a time of day when there was not so much traffic, when the weather was dry, and when there was broad daylight.

These children have to go along this route in the dusk and gloom of winter time, and when it is raining, and they have to go at times when heavy vehicles are crossing the tracks—they cannot be termed roads—for purposes concerned with the building operations on the adjacent estates. This heavy traffic has to cross the ways which the children follow.

In due course, the education authority considered and upheld the interim decision of Alderman Heycock. He decided against the provision of transport and, subsequently, the education authority upheld his decision. That was at a very full meeting of the county authority, but the decision was carried by a very slight majority, and the views of those people having factual knowledge were really defeated by people from other parts of the county who had less real knowledge of the circumstances of this case. I do say, with respect to my right hon. Friend the Minister that, in cases of this kind, she should pay more attention to the views of those who are local representatives for, otherwise, we may sacrifice too much in seeking to achieve efficiency with the larger authorities.

I should now like to say something about this particular route. It is a dangerous route, and I know that the Minister is already aware of the views put forward by the parents' association; but some of these are so vital that I would like to emphasise them tonight. The shortest route is some 1⅓ miles, but many of the children have to go 1½ miles. The walking time would vary from twenty minutes to half-an-hour, but the parents are not really concerned with distances or times.

The real submission is that the route is unsuitable by reason of its very nature; it is nothing better than an unmade track, and that is especially so at its first part. At Merthyr Dyfan lane it is narrow and dangerous, and there is no footpath. At one point there has recently been erected a reservoir which, I understand, contains 4 million gallons, and which is unprotected. The route continues along Merthyr Dyfan village, where it is a track with a rough surface and nothing better, as I know from bitter experience, than a sea of mud in wet weather. It then proceeds across two fields surrounded by trees and where, I believe, animals wander. It is an unprotected route, and one can well imagine the dangers of such a spot.

Then it continues through the Witchell Estate to the main Barry road near the school; and this at a particularly dangerous spot, being the junction of four roads. It is an unpleasant place during the hours of darkness and grownup women in the neighbourhood have said that they are not likely to travel this way in the dark. There was, in this connection, some particularly perturbing news a few months ago when a man named Carter was actually convicted and sent to prison for assaulting a child aged five years, and next week, I believe, another man is to be tried for a similar offence. You, Mr. Speaker, can well imagine the apprehensions of parents under such circumstances.

There is an alternative route through a lane called Cemetery Lane, which, again from my own local knowledge, is even worse. It is nothing better than a track. These routes are not roads; they are more properly described as rough tracks. The problem will get progressively worse. Next school year I understand that at least 80 more children will be required to travel from the Colcot area to the Jenner Park school. Progressively more children will need to go that way, with the development of the building estate in the Colcot area. Furthermore, the authority will be faced with the problem of lowering the age at which children will be transferred from the Colcot school to the Jenner Park school, and all in all the problem must be aggravated with the passing of time.

I want to stress that my submissions tonight are certainly not based upon distance; they are based upon the nature of the route. By an irony, the children who have to go to the High Street school are provided with transport. If the Children now going to the Jenner Park school went on the road route they, too, would be provided with transport, but they are not, because they are expected to take what I regard—as do most of my parent constituents in the area—as a route which is quite unsuitable for young and even not-so-young children.

I can well understand that my hon. Friend and the Minister do not like interfering with the decisions of county or other education authorities, but I submit that there are special circumstances in this case. I have already referred to the fact that the decision of the South-East Glamorgan Executive to provide transport was unanimous. It was a decision of those people with the greatest amount of local knowledge. That decision was reversed as a result of a visit by the chairman of the education authority, made under very favourable circumstances which, I imagine, could not easily be repeated. His decision was, perhaps naturally, upheld by the whole county authority, but only narrowly, and by a majority of members who did not possess local knowledge.

I can quite understand that the county education authority might feel that the granting of transport in this case would open the flood-gates to similar requests from other parts of the county, but my argument is that the circumstances of this case are somewhat special. I know that in the constituencies represented by certain hon. Members opposite there may be routes which are not dissimilar to this one, but in those cases the communities are rather more homogeneous. In the area of Barry there is a varied and expanding community. My constituents point out that strange sea-faring men come to the town, and this causes many of my constituents to feel apprehensive about their children going along this lonely and undeveloped route, especially in the hours of darkness and gloom in the winter months.

I am not asking my hon. Friend to say definitely that he will reverse any decision, but I earnestly beseech him to ask his right hon. Friend to approach the county education authority with the submission that it ought to reconsider this case in the light of the circumstances to which I have referred. I quite realise the difficulty involved. I know that the Glamorgan standard is particularly high, and that transport is provided for shorter distances than the national average, but we are not concerned about the distance; we are concerned with the danger and unpleasantness of this route. We do not think that children of this age ought to be asked to follow such a route, and we hope that this decision, which was a reversal of what we think was a better-informed decision, will be reconsidered.

11.40 p.m.

Mr. Harold Finch (Bedwellty)

I intervene in this debate because I know the spot to which the hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) has referred. The Parliamentary Secretary, in his reply, will probably refer to the restrictions placed upon the provision of free transport for children travelling less than a certain distance to and from school. I would point out to the Parliamentary Secretary that this frequently places the local education authorities in difficulties. As has been stated, this question of transport is not always a matter of distance. Although the Parliamentary Secretary may feel that he has to keep to the decision made by the Government regarding the provision of transport, I would ask him to realise that there are places where there may be no adequate roadway, where there is a mere path through the countryside which may be lonely, even if there is no danger from animals, for instance. Such places can be particularly lonely in the winter.

I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to consider whether it would not be possible to empower local education authorities to consider the merits of cases apart from the matter of the mileage between the school and the children's homes; I would ask that the authorities should not be strictly limited to the two miles. Education authorities are composed of competent people who know the areas with which they are concerned. If, in the opinion of an authority, the distance the children have to travel is affected by the restriction, I suggest that the authority ought then to consider whether the way is fit and proper for children.

11.44 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Pickthorn)

Perhaps I may be permitted to intervene in this private war. It seems to me that the hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) and the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Finch) are on opposing sides. The hon. Member for Barry said the decision was made by the local education authority, while the hon. Member for Bedwellty seemed to think that the local education authority was bound by the limit on distance. That is a mistaken view.

The history of this matter was, I think, fairly put by the hon. Member for Barry. A large number of houses was built at Colcot before the war and, though the number was not so large, a considerable number was built there after the war. A school, designed for 280 junior and infant children, was built in the 1950–51 programme. Because of the unexpectedly large number of children now reaching school age on the Colcot Estate the school is already inadequate; that is the beginning of the trouble. It may be said that a larger school ought to have been built originally. I do not think we need spend time on that point now: it is clearly difficult to calculate the accommodation so as to keep in step all the time with the number of children. Sometimes it is not physically possible to get things synchronised in that way.

Incidentally, reference was made in the debate to two assaults—or one assault and one alleged assault, for I believe one is still sub judice. This was new to me, and I will inquire into it. I cannot deal with it tonight, because I have only just heard of it. I say that not by way of complaint but to explain why I cannot deal with it tonight.

Now I come to the history of the parents'—I will not say "complaints"—difficulties in this connection. In the view of my right hon. Friend, the local authority's arrangements for transporting schoolchildren are adequate; or, to use a word used in the debate, one might even say they are generous, although I always hesitate to use the word "generous" in connection with public money. The South-East Glamorgan Divisional Executive recommended that transport should be provided for the children who are being transferred to the Jenner Park School, although the journey—along the shortest route, which runs along the Merthyr Dyfan lane—is less than the minimum distance.

The local education authority investigated this recommendation that the route, although only 1⅓ miles long, was nevertheless objectionable in other respects and dangerous to small children. That was investigated by the local education authority; the chairman. Alderman Heycock, inspected the route himself and eventually decided—and the authority agreed with the decision—that transport should not be provided upon that ground, although the divisional executive pressed for it. It is always possible to say of any committee or sub-committee that, the nearer it gets to the ground, the more direct is its factual knowledge. Nevertheless there must be, and there is here under statutory provisions, an authority which is the competent authority for the purpose, and for once in the educational vocabulary that authority is the authority—and that is that. In the House we are accustomed to see those with factual knowledge defeated and those with a logically inexpugnable case voted down, and so we should not use the hon. Member's argument in this case.

What are the arguments put up by the parents? They say that the route is wet and muddy after rain, and I think it very likely is; that it is particularly unsuitable when it is dark, and I have no doubt at all that, however suitable it is when light, when it is dark it is less suitable; that there is a considerable volume of heavy traffic, and that Alderman Heycock saw the road under exceptionally, and my hon. Friend said peculiarly. favourable conditions.

I think we must take it that Alderman Heycock is aware of the climate and the weather in South Wales, is aware that in the winter it rains more and that at night it is darker. I am not treating this in a derisory way, but I am trying to make it quite plain: there is an authority whose business it is to make these decisions, and that authority has made a decision, has made it conscious that to make it this way might not be agreeable to its own immediate convenience, and has made it after personal investigation by people who, if not as locally expert as the persons living in Merthyr Dyfan lane or near it, are much more locally expert than we, as a House, can be.

It was not only the chairman of the education committee, Alderman Heycock, but the divisional executive officer and the deputy director of education who inspected the route, and all expressed themselves as satisfied that, in all the circumstances, and knowing all that they did, the route was reasonable and practicable, and the element of danger was not abnormal or out-of-the-way. Actually there has been some slight physical improvement: I have not seen it, but I am informed that Merthyr Dyfan lane has now got a hard surface, which it had not before, so that it will not be as bad as it was. The authority have also given my right hon. Friend assurances that any discomfort suffered by the children in wet weather, in the way of drying clothes and that sort of thing, is in hand and will be properly looked after. I am also informed that the children leave school not later than 3.30 p.m. in winter, and we are told that the journey takes twenty minutes to half and hour, so that really I do not think it can be said that there are large numbers of small children out for any considerable time in the dark here.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

Is there any lighting at all?

Mr. Pickthorn

I cannot say without further information, but I do not really think that the amount of darkness can be considerable.

Now I come to the actual standing of my right hon. Friend in the matter. Plainly this is primarily a matter for the Glamorgan County Council; they are the local education authority, and it is their business. We are all used to the temptation of spending half our time saying that we want local government to be local, and the other half, the moment anything is about to be done which we dislike, wanting it to be dealt with from Whitehall or Curzon Street, or some other remote and salubrious quarter.

Mr. Finch

I understand there is a restriction that where it is within a certain mileage—under two miles in certain circumstances—the education authority is not empowered to allow such free travel.

Mr. Pickthorn

With respect, the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. However short the distance—and in this particular case it is only 1⅓ miles—the local authority is perfectly entitled, in an exceptional case, to ask, and would undoubtedly get from my right hon. Friend, permission to treat it as an exceptional case. That is so, and always has been so. That is why I began by saying that this was a civil war in which I hesitated to intervene. Here it is not the local authority, but the divisional executive which wanted transport.

My right hon. Friend must plainly deal with the local authority, and not go straight to the divisional executive. It has been argued that divisional executives have more and closer local knowledge than county councils, but of course that argument does not really provide a firm basis for overriding a local authority from London. My right hon. Friend has made it clear in Circular 242, and before that, and repeatedly after that, that she was and is prepared to consider the conveyance of children for distances, however small, where there is something like exceptional danger or a particular kind of unpleasantness.

Mr. David Llewellyn (Cardiff, North)

In cases of moral danger?

Mr. Pickthorn

That might be included sometimes. That is not in dispute at all, but in view of the assurances that the authority, which is not only nominally the authority but which is in every sense the authority, has made every reasonable inquiry, and as it has made its decision within the exercise of what it is under the statute competent to consider, I do not think that it can reasonably be suggested to my right hon. Friend that she ought to interfere. She ought not to be expected to interfere with a competent authority making a decision, reasonable apparently in the sense that care is being taken, and representations and facts have been looked at and taken into account.

It would be less than reasonable to suppose that in those circumstances a Minister ought to intervene. I hope that the local authority, which knows its own divisional executive, its own geography and its own parents, and has every opportunity of consulting all of them, may see that there is no ill-feeling in this matter.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Four Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.