HC Deb 02 March 1976 vol 906 cc1071-5
1. Mr. Penhaligon

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what representations he has received from local authorities regarding the consultative documents setting out proposals for revised arrangements for school transport in England and Wales; and if he will make a statement on the timescale envisaged for implementing the proposals contained in this document.

9. Mr. Ovenden

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he is yet in a position to announce his proposals to amend the system of financial assistance for transport to school.

11. Mr. Michael Spicer

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what stage he has reached in his investigations into the statutory walking distance for school children.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Frederick Mulley)

The local authority associations, as well as four individual authorities, have commented on my consultative document—as have a number of other interested bodies and members of the public. Although I am grateful for the volume of this response, it shows no consensus as to future policy. I shall need now to consider what changes, if any, can reasonably be made in the present school transport system.

Mr. Penhaligon

I thank the Minister for his reply, and am glad that he recog- nises that there is little enthusiasm for the scheme in rural areas. Is it not time that the House recognised that closing primary schools was a great mistake? Will the Secretary of State give me the one categoric assurance that is important —that the reduction in public expenditure for which provision has recently been made will not mean a basic total increase in the cost of the—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is more than enough.

Mr. Mulley

In cash terms, the cost of maintaining children in school will go up, of course, with the increased salaries and other expenses. I can give no assurance that there will be no increase.

Mr. Macfarquhar

Is my right hon. Friend aware that hon. Members on both sides accept that this is a very complex problem, but that the period of two and a half years since the report was published and four months of consultation is more than enough time to reach a decision on even the most complex of problems? Will my right hon. Friend undertake to make a recommendation to the House in the nearest possible future?

Mr. Mulley

With great respect to my hon. Friend, I do not see any point in having consultations with the local authorities without paying some regard to what they represent in those consultations. It has been put to me that at the present time they would see very great difficulties in the basic change that would be necessary—namely, taking away the free entitlement beyond the statutory walking distances and providing transport for shorter distances—without a contribution from parents. The Association of County Councils, principally concerned, is still studying the matter, and I must listen to what it says.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the position of minority groups of parents, such as those living in rural areas or those of a particular religious denomination, is safeguarded, so that unfair financial burdens are not placed upon them?

Mr. Mulley

I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I have had representations from both denominational interests and rural areas. This is one of the very real problems to which there is no easy answer.

Mr. Ovenden

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the present system is causing grave hardship to millions of parents, and endeavour to bring in a revised scheme of some sort by the beginning of the next school year? Will he also give an assurance that any revised scheme will not be affected by the public expenditure review?

Mr. Mulley

I can give no such assurance, because any revised scheme—other than that proposed, which would mean asking a contribution from those beyond the statutory walking distances now and which would require legislation—would, of course, increase the cost to local authorities, and that would increase public expenditure. It is precisely because of the enormous public expenditure involvement that many local authorities do not exercise the powers that they have. It is open to any local education authority now to make such arrangements for free or subsidised transport that it wishes within the statutory walking distances. The reason why authorities do not is the understandable extra cost that it would mean for their ratepayers.

24. Mr. Luce

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science when he hopes to complete his consultations with local authorities on the school transport problem.

Mr. Mulley

I would refer the hon. Member to the replies I have given today to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Ovenden), the hon. Member for Turo (Mr. Penhaligon) and the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer).

Mr. Luce

After consultation with the local authorities, if the flat rate system is found to fulfil the main objectives of providing a fairer system for parents and containing public expenditure, will the Secretary of State keep an open mind about the level of the fixed rate to be provided, and will he at least allow for some variation in local rates to take account of varying local conditions?

Mr. Mulley

That is a reasonable request and obviously I should wish to give it consideration. However, I am not far enough down the road to say what general rate should be charged. There is some opposition to, and certainly no consensus on, the basic proposal that we should get rid of the statutory three mile and two mile limits outside which free transport is provided. Unless that is resolved the hon. Gentleman's question does not arise.

Mr. Loyden

Does my right hon. Friend not consider that some of the methods used in determining the three-mile limit are outmoded? Someone in the town clerk's office may draw a little wheel across a map, which is about 50 years old, to determine whether a child is entitled to free school transport. Is not it about time that this was tidied up, and local authorities were advised to adopt a more practical and simple method?

Mr. Mulley

The actual provision is laid down by Act of Parliament and can be amended only by a new Act of Parliament. Local authorities have a discretion. If they wish to provide free or subsidised transport within the statutory limits, they are quite free and able to do so.

Mr. Michael Spicer

Have the Government formed any view whether safety on the roads, particularly in country areas, is based upon outdated assumptions?

Mr. Mulley

It was because of the outdated assumptions of the 1944 Act in relation to the volume of traffic and what parents thought was a reasonable distance for their children to walk that the Committee was set up, and that I put my proposal to the local authority associations. I found no consensus of support among local authorities for the only kind of changes that would be practical at present, when there is pressure on both central and local government finances.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some parents in my constituency, who live just inside the limits, have to pay about £7 a week for their children's transport to school while others, who live just outside, do not pay anything at all? Would it not be fairer to have a flat rate of, for instance, 10p per ride?

Mr. Mulley

I was not aware of the exact sums that my hon. Friend's constituents pay, but it was because of that discrepancy that I put forward my proposal. At that time we thought that a flat rate of 7p would be appropriate. However among those who would have to administer the scheme there is no consensus of opinion that it is workable.