HC Deb 16 December 1975 vol 902 cc1142-3
3. Mr. Beith

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what recent representations he has received from rural community councils and other bodies representative of rural areas on the proposals of the Working Party on School Transport.

Mr. Mulley

The hon. Member presumably has in mind the consultative document of which copies were placed in the Library in October. I have received 16 representations from bodies in rural areas, and I will take them into account in considering the future of school transport.

Mr. Beith

Will the Secretary of State take particular note of the deep opposition among parents in rural areas who live more than two or three miles from the schools that their children attend to the idea of having to pay a charge? Will he recognise that in many cases these children are travelling long distances to school not by any choice, but because of the closure of village primary schools and the consequences of the reorganisation of secondary education?

Mr. Mulley

I am aware of the problems. It is precisely because of the difficulty of balance that I thought it right not to take any steps until I had had full consultations with the local authorities, which are likely to take some considerable time. It may well be that we shall not find a solution which will be acceptable to everyone.

Dr. Edmund Marshall

How soon does my right hon. Friend expect to be in a position to bring to the House fresh proposals for legislation on this subject?

Mr. Mulley

Until the consultations are concluded—local authorities rightly have a key part to play in this—I am not at all sure that there will be a basis upon which legislation can proceed. However, I stress to my hon. Friend and to other hon. Members that if they so wish local authorities may make transport arrangements for any distance. They are not limited to the three and two miles to which the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) referred.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

How can the Secretary of State justify the assertion in his consultative document that a flat-rate charge of 7p would be sufficient to secure equality of treatment for all those schoolchildren who need transport at no extra cost to public funds? Surely on the Department's own figures, which have been given in a number of Written Answers, the charge would probably be nearer 14p than 7p, and that would need a contribution from each parent of £1.40 a week for each child.

Mr. Mulley

The figure of 7p was the figure that was worked out on the best information that we had as to the likely number of people affected. Obviously, it will need updating since the time the consultation document was prepared, because, unhappily, bus fares are rising in different parts of the country and at different dates. If the hon. Gentleman is interested, I shall see whether we can update the figure.

Mr. George Rodgers

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that the fares of many bus companies have increased for children from half to two-thirds of the full adult fare and that this is imposing terrible burdens on low income families? In some cases it is taking a substantial part of the available income of the £6 a week. In these circumstances, does not my right hon. Friend consider that the report should be expedited?

Mr. Mulley

It is a conflict between those who, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, now have free transport and who are unwilling, even if they could afford it, to make a contribution, as against those under the statutory distance, where the local authority does not seek to exercise its discretion to provide free transport, who are having to meet these increased fares. One key part of my proposals, which were only tentative, is that there would be arrangements for remission of these charges in cases of hardship, as with school meals. But it is a very difficult decision for all concerned and until local authorities feel able to advise me as to their conclusions, I do not think that I can make any further progress.

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