HC Deb 24 May 1976 vol 912 cc235-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]

1.37 a.m.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I am grateful for the opportunity, even at 1.40 in the morning, of raising a burning issue in the Burton division, as I know it is in nearly every constituency in Britain today—the problem of school transport.

The trouble is that it was a burning issue four years ago when my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), who was then Secretary of State for Education and Science—and a mighty good one at that—set up a working party to consider the problem. It was still a burning issue when the working party reported two and a half years ago, and nothing has come of it. I shall not say it has got buried: rather has it been kicked around, up and down, backwards and forwards. It is burning still, brighter than ever and it will probably explode in the hands of the Secretary of State who, as sure as God made little children, will be left holding the problem when it blows up if he does not do something soon.

If the problem was burning four years ago and one thinks of what has happened in the four years that have passed, one sees how the problem has been aggravated. With the oil crisis, inflation all but doubling costs, cars beyond the reach of many more families, bus companies giving up country routes, and with 70 per cent. labour operating costs, fares have had to be raised violently as Government subsidies have become more and more restricted. Add to this the educational reorganisation that has meant children travelling greater distances to new all-purpose comprehensive schools. and the seriousness of the problem and the urgency of a solution becomes apparent.

Three fine villages just outside Burton-on-Trent in my constituency provide me with what I think is a typical example of the problem that exists now all over the country. The villages are Tutbury, famous for its castle. Mary Queen of Scots and Tutbury glass, Stretton, which is also famous, both of which send their secondary schoolchildren to the Forest of Needwood School at Rolleston-on-Dove.

About the problems of these schoolchildren, parents, local authorities and bus operators have been in endless correspondence. There have been private and public meetings. I visited the Secretary of State 10 months ago, and much good it did me. He visited the Labour Party in my constituency. No good did it do it or him. No good has it done anyone. The problems remain and grow in seriousness.

What are they? First, there is the unfairness of the three-mile limit. Why should parents, sometimes taking their children to the very same bus stops, get totally free or totally paid bus fares for their children depending upon whether they lie just inside or just outside the three-mile boundary? Secondly, while children between 14 and 16 years of age have to pay full fare all the time, children up to 14 pay half fare but only after 9.30 a.m. Since schools start at 9 a.m. concessionary fares are nothing but encouragement for the poorer-off families to miss the early morning assembly and part of the first class. What on earth is the educational sense of such an absurd situation? Are we really so incapable of devising a more sensible use of our transport resources?

The Headmaster of the Forest of Need-wood School, Mr. Wraight, has provided me with a breakdown of the situation as it affected his pupils coming from Tutbury and Stretton on Tuesday last, 18th May. I have handed a copy of this document to the Minister. There are 151 children on the roll from Tutbury. Fifty go by bus to school in the morning—10 travel on the 8.24 a.m. and 40 travel on the 9.24 and are late for school. Why? Because the full fare from Tutbury Castle Inn to the school is 23p single, 34½p for a day return, because half fare is charged before 4.20 p.m. on the return journey. This is £1.72½p a week for a parent. If a parent has four children, it amounts to a cost of £6.90p a week. This is a rather extravagant price to have to pay for State education.

A further apparent absurdity, certainly an unfairness, is that if one goes to Burton, a journey which is four miles further on, the fare is the same—23p by the State bus—the Motor Traction Company—and 15p by the private enterprise bus run by Stevensons. Why is there this discrepancy in the fares? The parents ask why nothing is being done about it. The answer is that the Government will not actually do anything about it.

There are 280 children on the roll at Stretton. Eighteen go by bus to school in the morning, six pay the full fare and get there on time and 12 pay half fare and get there late. Why? The Stretton full bus fare is 19p from one point and 14p from another, which costs a parent £1.37p or £1.05p a week per child.

These examples raise the third problem, that of safety. About 100 children out of the 280 from Stretton walk or cycle to school. But the road is potentially dangerous, particularly on dark mornings and evenings. The footpath changes from one side of the road to the other. There is a dangerous bend. There are no street lights for some of the way and there were no warning lights, pedestrian crossing or crossing warden last winter.

The parents conducted a traffic survey between 8.15 a.m. and 9 a.m. one morning and 276 vehicles, 29 of which were heavy lorries, hurtled along the road, and 66 cars and buses pulled into the school yard. Is that safe for children who are encouraged, or made, to walk or cycle because the buses are too expensive? Do we have to wait for injuries or even deaths before something is done?

Is the clamour for action, of which my constituency provides but one example, not now growing so loud that the Government will have to act? I know that the Government have been taking soundings and that the Secretary of State, since he has not had agreement from local education authorities, is proposing to do nothing. That is just not good enough. The working party produced some sensible proposals. The Government then produced a consultative document which, following the working party proposals very closely in the main, improved upon some of the matters of detail.

It is surely right that we should implement a number of those agreed proposals—first, that the statutory walking distance of three miles for those over 8 and two miles for those under 8 should be abolished; second, that local education authorities should have the duty to provide or arrange transport to and from the appointed schools; third, that there should be a flat-rate charge, regardless of distance from the school or age of the pupil, for all children; fourth, that the flat rate should be a uniform proportion of the adult fare, which would allow for local variations; fifth, that in needy cases there should be relief or a rate rebate; sixth, that handicapped pupils should have special or free arrangements; finally, that in some areas some relief could be obtained by a closer integration of school buses and other public services. I understand that rural services in some parts of the country are being maintained, although subsidised, where an operator has been able to combine his services with profitable school journeys.

None of these suggestions is original or novel. They have been kicked around these past four years. I appreciate that there are difficulties, especially the fact that many parents who now pay nothing for their children's transport would have to start paying. But the wit of man has overcome greater challenges and there should be no incapacity to overcome these, even if it requires a change of Government to do so.

But at the very least all these measures would achieve the merit of fairness. I believe that the experts say that they would bring in no less money than now and so would not be expensive. If the county councils cannot agree, an act of real government is required. The question is whether we have such a real Government.

1.48 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Miss Margaret Jackson)

I am touched by the faith of the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) in his own prospective Government, but since it took the last one many more years to sit on this study than it has taken this Government to try to implement it, his faith may turn out to be misplaced.

Mr. Lawrence

May I remind the hon. Lady that the Hodges Committee reported on 25th October 1973 and that her Government came into office on 28th February 1974?

Miss Jackson

Yes, and six weeks after taking office, we set in motion consultations on this report.

However, the point at issue is the case which the hon. Member has raised. His interest is well known to us. He put his constituents' problems very well, but, as his speech has shown, this is a very difficult and thorny problem to which no solution is readily available. The existing system is riddled with inconsistencies and injustices, based as it is on a walking distance, which is rigidly defined and within which children must walk to school or pay fares and outside which they must be provided with free transport. That situation has become much worse in many ways in recent years.

First, local authorities already have discretionary powers to provide free transport for children who live inside the statutory walking distance. But, because of general financial constraints and the effects of inflation, they have become less willing and certainly less able to use their discretionary powers.

Secondly, bus companies, perennially beset as they are by financial problems, are increasingly, as in the instance which the hon. Gentleman quoted, ceasing to offer cut-rate fares to school children. In other parts of the country they are not even offering the sort of mixed service mentioned by the hon. Gentleman which involves children being late for school but at least being able to travel at cut rate. In some parts, even this option is not open to them. They are treated like other peak-hour travellers. Although there is no educational sense in this, it is not the function of the bus companies to make educational sense. They do not have any obligation under law to give concessionary fares to children and, much though we regret this, we must take account of it.

It is against this background, where both free transport and cut-rate transport are decreasing, that we have tried to find new, more flexible and fairer means of dealing with the problem, based perhaps on a flat rate system locally determined and with relatively generous remission of charges. The response has been, to say the least, discouraging. There has been a scream of protest. There has been wave after wave of letters from those who now benefit from the free system, particularly from those whose children attend denominational schools. It is a protest with which one cannot but sympathise since parents, facing inflationary costs, do not wish to have an extra cost added to their weekly budget.

But there have been delegations of those who, like the hon. Gentleman, see the other side of the problem. I quote two examples to show that we are aware of the issues. Recently I received a letter from a family with three children, all travelling free, pointing out that the suggested standard charge would increase its living costs by £2.10 a week. The family found it hard to face. But in almost the same week I received a delegation from an area even worse off than that represented by the hon. Gentleman where children are paying full fares and a family with three children is paying £6.30 a week in fares. Under the proposed system the families might be eligible for remission of the flat-rate charge on the ground of financial hardship. Under the present system, the poorest family in the area from which the delegation had come is paying £2.10 a week per child—£6.30 in total—with no hope of getting the charge reduced or any immediate reduction.

Perhaps the most difficult feature of the problem—and the hon. Gentleman rather dismissed this in his closing remarks—is that the associations which we have consulted are worried about the upheaval involved in any change and about the administrative costs as well as the administrative difficulties which would be involved in what would be a more complex scheme. There is no consensus among them about whether to settle for the existing scheme or to change, or how to change.

The hon. Gentleman says that it is up to the Government to make up their minds about what to do, but we have not had all the replies to our consultative document, and I do not feel that we can proceed until we have all the information before us. But even when we have all the replies the fundamental decision whether we should stick with the existing scheme or look for something new will have to be made. If we stick with the existing scheme, we can offer no assistance to the hon. Gentleman's constituents or to many others who, like them, are seriously affected.

If we decide to pursue the idea of new school transport arrangements there will be a need for further consultations, for complicated administrative arrangements and, last but by no means least, there will be a need for legislation before changes could be introduced. Therefore, it is not likely that we shall be able to help the hon. Gentleman's constituents in the near future.

Mr. Lawrence

Which counties have agreed to the working party's proposals or the consultation document, which have refused both suggestions, and which county or metropolitan authorities have failed to make any response to the consultation document having requested consultation? If the hon. Lady is not in a position to answer now, perhaps she will undertake to answer if I put down a Written Question.

Miss Jackson

There is no need for the hon. Member to put down a Written Question, unless he particularly wishes to do so; I undertake to write to him about the matter.

First, it is not a matter of authorities having failed to respond. Secondly and simply, I think that the hon. Gentleman will find very little encouragement in the response from any of those who have been formally consulted by us about these proposals.

On that, I am afraid unhopeful, note we must draw the debate to a close. I should not like the hon. Member to imagine that I am anything other than extremely sympathetic about the problems presented by his constituents and many like them and many a great deal worse off, but there is certainly no easy answer and, even more certainly, not likely to be any speedy one.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Two o'clock.