HC Deb 25 January 1978 vol 942 cc1409-12

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Hal Miller (Bromsgrove and Redditch)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend Sections 39 and 55 of the Education Act 1944; and for connected purposes. For the benefit of the few hon. Members who are not aware of the problems of school transport, I should make it plain that the sections I have referred to are those identified by the Hodges Committee as being of central importance in the whole subject of trying to bring about some amendment of the present system of school transport. The Hodges Committee was appointed by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and reported on 25th October 1973. I obtained the leave of the House to introduce a Bill in the same terms two years ago, but since that time we have not been able to make a great deal of progress.

The central item in the Hodges Committee's recommendations was that there should be a break in the connection between the school attendance requirement and the provision of transport. These subjects are linked by the device of the walking distance. The Hodges Committee recommended doing away with any statutory limit. This occasioned some disquiet among local authorities, because they had found this provision a useful hook on which to hang any actions for truancy. My Bill does not go so far as the recommendations of the Hodges Committee in this respect. I merely seek to reduce the statutory distances of two miles and three miles by one mile in each case.

I follow the Hodges Committee in seeking to introduce a flat rate of charge right across the country for all those who wish to take advantage of the provision of school transport. The Hodges Committee, in its report, gave three main reasons for this recommendation. Safety of the children was the paramount reason. It also referred to integration with public transport and the cost to the parent and the local authority. In that part of its report on the safety of children, it referred to the large numbers of mothers tied to homes by small children or having to go to work to maintain the family income. It referred to the increase in motor traffic and to the dangerous condition of footpaths, particularly in country areas. The report also referred to the menace posed, regrettably, in some secluded areas, to the personal safety of the children.

I cannot believe that anyone in this House could imagine that since 1973 any of these factors I have set out has improved. My postbag has been full of complaints about the absence of footpaths, the unlit condition of many roads and the dangers to children from malicious-minded perverts. The position has been made worse by the cut in the rate support grant for shire counties which has reduced maintenance on all forms of highway.

The cost of providing school transport in England and Wales in 1971 was about £35 million. By 1975, when a circular was eventually issued to local authorities on the subject, it had risen to £68 million. In my own county this year, the expenditure envisaged under this heading is £2.3 million, which was the total amount spent at the time of the Hodges Report on the transport of children under the age of eight. Costs are increasing rapidly. My proposal for a flat rate of charge will admittedly require that parents whose children now receive free transport because they have to travel distances over the statutory limits, will have to contribute something towards the cost of getting their children to school. But the proportion of children so affected is about 3 per cent. in the case of primary pupils who live beyond the limit of the statutory walking distance.

The statutory walking distance has become totally discredited in modem conditions, not by the laziness of the children but by the safety factors to which I have referred and by the increasing element of discrimination, because of the increase in costs, against those children who live, for instance, 2.99 miles from their school. The feeling of anomaly has been exacerbated by the differing practices between local authorities and the varied use of discretionary powers in this area. It is simply no longer tolerable to many parents that these discrepancies should be allowed to continue. They have been made worse since the time of the Hodges Report.

I have a new reason, in addition to those I have put forward, for seeking to introduce this Bill. It is that it will provide parents with an additional element of choice over the school which their child is able to attend. Once the principle of the flat rate of charge is accepted, children will no longer be tied to having to attend the nearest available school. In this way we shall be making some contribution towards making a reality of parental choice and at the same time doing something to preserve the wishes of those who seek to send their children to denominational schools.

When I first sought the leave of the House to introduce a Bill in the same terms two years ago, I quoted a letter from my county council which referred to the determination we all share about the need to try to break the present impasse nationally on school transport. It is in that spirit that I ask the leave of the House to introduce the Bill, quoting the words of the Hodges Committee: We have been acutely conscious both of the urgency and of the wide range of the problems. Action groups have been set up to cope with this problem, in counties as far apart as Cumbria and Hampshire. There is a wide realisation of the need to do something urgently to remedy the situation.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science, who has had the courtesy to explain that she would be unable to be present this afternoon, is due to receive a report from the local authorities' management advisory committee which has been studying the administrative problems. I believe that it will now be possible to give effect to the provisions of this Bill, which I seek the leave of the House to introduce.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Hal Miller, Mr. Robert Boscawen, Mr. David Crouch, Mr. Fred Evans, Mr. Ian Gow, Mr. Roderick MacFarquhar, Mr. Charles Morrision, Mr. John Watkinson and Mr. William Wilson.