HC Deb 18 December 1979 vol 976 cc265-8
6. Mr. Armstrong

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what was the total cost of school transport in the last financial year; and what is his estimate of the flat fare required if costs are transferred to parents.

Mr. Macfarlane

In 1978–79, local education authorities' expenditure on home-to-school transport was about £130 million in England and Wales. It is not the Government's intention that the total cost should be transferred to parents. The national average flat fare needed to achieve the savings next year set out in Cmnd. 7746 is estimated to lie between 10p and 15p for a single journey.

Mr. Armstrong

Will the Minister confirm that the real purpose of the proposal on transport is to cut public expenditure? He must admit that someone must pay and that in the main it will be the parents. Is he aware that in the non-metropolitan counties such as Durham—where, because of secondary reorganisation, the catchment areas are much larger, particularly with regard to the reorganisation of denominational schools—he is presenting parents with no other option than to choose the nearest school to their homes? How does he square that with his constant reiteration about freedom of choice?

Mr. Macfarlane

The House must remember that at present the majority of families receive no help at all from their LEA with the cost of getting their children to school. All the points that the right hon. Gentleman has raised have been communicated either by word or by letter, to my right hon. and learned Friend and other Ministers. We are certainly aware of the difficulties that exist in many areas, but by and large elected local representatives understand fully the problems of their own communities. If the passage of the Education (No. 2) Bill is unchecked, I hope that all local authorities will understand quite fully the problems that exist in each community.

Mr. Farr

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government's present proposals would make the cost of school transport fall heavily upon children from rural areas? Will he consider that point to see whether some alleviation of the impact of that cost can be made during the passage of the present Bill?

Mr. Macfarlane

The Committee, and the whole House, will at some future stage have the opportunity to consider what may be necessary. At the moment, the indications are that local authorities are beginning to adopt a policy of charging a flat rate. That is what is happening so far. The Department is monitoring the reports from the local authorities, which indicate that a flat rate charge will be applied. But as I indicated at Question Time on 20 November, all these points will be discussed and keptunder review.

Mr. Flannery

Why does the Minister fail to understand the intensity of feeling throughout the country with regard to this reactionary aspect of a totally reactionary Education (No. 2) Bill? Does he not realise that those of us serving on the Committee have literally been bombarded with petitions and letters from all over the country, particularly from Church schools and so on, asking us to intervene and do something? Will he not react to that democratic pressure from throughout the country and kick out that clause, which we have not quite reached but hope to reach some time today, when we further consider this nefarious Bill?

Mr. Macfarlane

The hon. Gentleman's last observation will, I believe, bring a pang of dyspepsia to the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock). If we make that progress this afternoon and this evening, we shall indeed be happy. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) has spent many hours in Committee and I am dismayed and disappointed that so far he has not fully read and understood the legislation. I do not believe that he understands the legislation that is before the Committee. I do not believe that he owes it to his constituents to exaggerate the situation, as he has again done this afternoon.

7. Mr. Pawsey

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will issue a circular advising local authorities on the level of charges they might make to school transport under the provisions of the Education (No. 2) Bill.

Mr. Macfarlane

As I told the House on 20 November, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Hooson), my right hon. and learned Friend will consider what guidance to local education authorities may be necessary in the light of the discussion on the Government's legislative proposals.

Mr. Pawsey

Does not my hon. Friend agree that many local authorities are in the throes of introducing various plans of varying quality and that guidelines given now will save a lot of heartache and trouble in the future? Furthermore, does he not agree that the wide catchment area of denominational schools means that children will be travelling great distances and that there is an argument for specific guidelines being given?

Mr. Skinner

And money.

Mr. Macfarlane

As I said earlier, and as my right hon. and learned Friend also indicated, that is one of the matters that we are keeping under review. We have certainly discussed it. As my right hon. and learned Friend said, he has met the Cardinal Archbishop and Bishop Emery, and yesterday afternoon I met the Catholic Teachers Federation. We certainly undertake to the House that we shall keep the matter closely under review.

Mr. Beith

The Minister keeps referring to the fact that under present arrangements parents within the three and two-mile limits get no help at all with regard to transport. Can he say how, under the proposed Bill, they will get any benefit whatever, when those beyond the limits are being penalised?

Mr. Macfarlane

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not understand the inequality that has existed for many years. One of the attractive features of the clause is that it will be a far more equitable distribution, and that the flat rate charge, which many local authorities are now beginning to adopt, is by far the best way of approaching the matter.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Is the Minister aware that in some parts of the country, particularly in my own constituency, the decision as to what these charges will be will not be taken by local representatives at all, but by representatives who come from a wider area—that is, the Conservative-controlling majority on the Cumbria county council? Inasmuch as those people are not aware of the problems of my constituents, does not the hon. Gentleman feel that some action should be taken during consideration of the Education (No. 2) Bill to protect the interests of my constituents and the constituents of other hon. Members?

Mr. Macfarlane

To listen to the hon. Gentleman one would assume that all subsidy on rural transport was to be withdrawn. I must remind the House that well over £100 million will be left in for the next financial year, and that will surely assist his constituents.

Mr. Dudley Smith

Does my hon. Friend agree that where school reorganisation has taken place, and children are bussed compulsorily from one town to another, the parents should not be penalised financially?

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Macfarlane

I am glad to have the support of Labour Members, because that will be of inestimable value when we reach this clause in Committee. I certainly shall not forget it. The commitment and undertaking which we hope that local authorities will give when school closures take place was set out at the Dispatch Box on 20 November, and I hope that local authorities will bear that in mind.

Mr. Kinnock

We note that the hon. Gentleman is now taking refuge in the 15p gimmick that has been introduced—which is the estimation of the flat fare. Is he aware that whether parents now pay is related to the distance they live from schools, whereas, under this proposal, they will have to pay a minimum of £1.50 a week per child, and, of course, £3 and more if they have more than one child? Those who live nearer to schools will not benefit, except by the tiniest margins.

Mr. Macfarlane

Once again the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) exaggerates the case. I should have hoped that he would use some of his influence—if he has any—in Mid-Glamorgan to urge are consideration of the vote that took place last week and of the prejudice and discrimination that resulted from that vote.