HC Deb 30 March 1976 vol 908 cc1080-3
4. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will give an assurance that, in framing proposals for school transport, he will take account of the needs of parents whose children attend Christian and Jewish schools.

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

I would always have due regard to the needs of parents whose children attend denominational schools, but at present I am in no position to make further proposals for changing the existing system.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Has the Secretary of State had brought to his notice the widespread apprehension in the Epping Forest constituency and, I believe, in all constituencies since the publication of the consultative document? May we take his reply to mean that he will take sympathetically into consideration the special anxiety of parents living far from the nearest appropriate denominational school?

Mr. Mulley

I have had a large number of such representations. There has been some misunderstanding. The charge, if it had been made, would have been the same whether the pupils travelled one and a half miles or 11½miles. It would have been a standard charge. The greater distance would not have made any difference, and arrangements would have been made for remission in cases of hardship. There is no unanimity in local authority circles and it is, therefore, unlikely that we can make much progress in this direction.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his reply, so far as it goes, will give great relief to many parents whose children attend denominational schools not within easy walking distance? Is he aware that following the publication of the consultative document there has been considerable apprehension that steps may be taken to impose additional penalties on parents which they may find it hard to afford?

Mr. Mulley

Yes, I accept that, but when the consultative document went out I issued a Press statement making clear that there would be a uniform charge. One motivation in making the proposals for charging was the hardship suffered by parents of children in denominational and other schools who had to pay for journeys of, say, two and a quarter miles.

Mr. Lawrence

Bearing in mind that the Hodges Committee reported about five years ago, when does the Minister propose to take action to reform the present rules for school transport?

Mr. Mulley

The hon. Gentleman is wrong about the time. It is about two and a half years since the Hodges Committee reported. Consultations have been going on. Because I believe in local democracy, I think that the local authorities, which have to run the scheme and contribute to its cost, should be consulted. I must take into account the fact that none of the local authorities wants to make a change.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Would it be a fair inference to draw from the lukewarm replies that the Secretary of State has given this afternoon that the Government, in effect, have abandoned their attempted to secure implementation of the recommendations in the Hodges Report?

Mr. Mulley

It is not a question of the Government's seeking to secure implementation. Soon after I had the honour to be appointed Minister, I was pressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House to make proposals, as none had been put forward. That is exactly what I did. In response to the reactions which we have received, I find it difficult to see how we can go further, because the local authorities cannot agree on a common policy.

8. Mr. Michael Spicer

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is his estimate of the total cost or saving to local authorities of abolishing the statutory walking distance for schoolchildren, and introducing a maximum fare of 7p per journey for all pupils.

Mr. Mulley

If the hon. Member has in mind my revised proposals of last August, which included provision for remissions of charge in cases of financial hardship, these would at the then prevailing prices have maintained costs at broadly the existing level.

Mr. Spicer

Surely, in spite of his Answer to the Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison), the Secretary of State must accept ultimate responsibility for the absurdities and unfairnesses of the present statutory walking limits. Can the Secretary of State go on for ever hiding behind local authorities on this matter?

Mr. Mulley

With great respect, it is not a question of hiding behind local authorities. It is only right, where the local authorities on the one hand have to administer and on the other to contribute to the cost of the scheme, that they should be fully consulted and have their views taken very seriously. That is why I do not think I am in a position at the moment to ask the House to change the law. The present position is that for distances beyond three miles and two miles there is free travel according to age. Local authorities already have absolute discretion to have subsidised or free travel for journeys less than these distances if they want to do so. Most of them do not want to do so. That is the problem.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

Will my right hon. Friend give urgent consideration to framing new proposals for school transport, and make them equitable, so that in the case of families living just inside the limit the children do not have to walk a long way, or the parents to pay an enormous amount, whereas those living outside the limit pay nothing at all?

Mr. Mulley

It was entirely to meet that point that I put forward the proposals, but all those who now have free travel do not want to pay. We have heard today from hon. Members opposite eloquent testimony to that effect. I have to take notice of the local authorities and the ratepayers concerned.

Mr. Madel

Is the Minister aware that bus fares are likely to go up yet again between now and the beginning of the next school year in September? Is the Minister saying that the disagreement between local education authorities is so serious that it is impossible to imagine changes in the school transport rules for the next two years?

Mr. Mulley

I have been advised by the local education authority associations which have been consulted that they do not want a basic change in the existing arrangements.

Mr. Noble

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, given the enormous increase in bus fares in recent years, there is now a charge on State education for many parents, and that there is a link between truancy and the cost of sending children to school? Could not the suggestion from the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) be looked at in that light? Will my right hon. Friend take early steps to enable working-class families in particular to get their children to school at reasonable cost?

Mr. Mulley

I am aware of these problems. It was for that reason that we made proposals which, for the first time, provided for remission of charges in cases of financial hardship. As I have repeated, however, every local authority now has power, if it wishes, to provide free or subsidised transport for any of its pupils for any distance. The difficulty is not lack of power on the part of local authorities; it is lack of resources.