HC Deb 20 November 1979 vol 974 cc184-6
1. Mr. Hooson

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what guidance he intends to give rural education authorities regarding transport to schools.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

My right hon. and learned Friend will consider what guidance may be necessary in the light of the discussion of our legislative proposals.

Mr. Hooson

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that rural education authorities share an exceptional responsibility for transporting children over rural distances to schools? Will he study means of recognising the extra transport costs that they have to incur?

Mr. Macfarlane

I take full note of my hon. Friend's remarks. My right hon. and learned Friend has recognised the problem which has been special to rural areas for some considerable time. They often have inadequate public transport. For that reason, the local education authorities will still, in effect, be required to provide transport for children attending the appropriate school and living beyond the statutory walking distance. Recognising the problems of the rural areas is all part and parcel of our approach for the next few months. Their problems will be kept under review by the Department.

Mr. Beith

Does the Minister expect those rural counties that are unable to meet the full savings that he has asked for from transport to make an equivalent saving in other areas of education?

Mr. Macfarlane

It is up to the local authorities to decide how to make the full saving. None the less, the House must be fully aware that, although we are expecting savings to be made in the next financial year of about 15 per cent.—in other words, near £20 million out of a total cost of £125 million—there is still a sizeable and substantial subsidy available for school transport.

Dr. John Cunningham

Is the Under-Secretary aware that in areas such as Cumbria there is no alternative to the local education authority providing transport to take children to school? Far from there being any leeway, as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has observed, the reality is that, because of energy and other costs, the cost of providing school transport will increase and there will be no opportunity to make savings—quite the reverse.

Mr. Macfarlane

At the risk of covering old ground, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the Bill which is currently in Committee—albeit making slow progress—is not intended to remove the existing provisions. Many anomalies exist and the hon. Gentleman will know what those anomalies are within the term "three-mile limit". I assure the House that it is our intention to maintain the closest review as the legislative proposals are discussed by each local education authority.

Mr. Cormack

Does my hon. Friend accept that anxiety is mounting in rural areas, especially among parents whose children attend denominational schools? Does he accept also that, as a number of rural schools will probably be closed in an effort to rationalise and to save money, many parents will face even greater burdens than they have had to face in the past?

Mr. Macfarlane

Where children are affected by school closures, the local education authorities will continue to be able to offer transport to displaced children. When that happens, they will in general be able to charge for doing so. My hon. Friend referred to another problem that is based upon a large degree of misunderstanding. In the present proposals that are currently in Committee and making somewhat measured progress, there is nothing which is discriminatory.

Mrs. Ann Taylor

Does the Minister realise that the provisions in the Education (No. 2) Bill make a mockery of all that the Minister says about parental choice in education? Many parents will not have any choice because they will not be able to afford to pay bus fares to send their children to schools some distance from their homes? Will he explain why the provisions for school transport are in the Bill if they are not to facilitate public expenditure cuts?

Mr. Macfarlane

They are most certainly in the Bill to enforce public expenditure savings. The hon. Lady talks about the provisions in the Bill being a mockery, but she should consider the position in her constituency. If she does, she will find many mockeries already within the two and three-mile limits. For example, there is the poor family living within the two and three-mile limits that receives no assistance and the better-off family living outside the limit that receives assistance.