HC Deb 20 November 1979 vol 974 cc195-6
8. Mr. Whitehead

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many representations he has received concerning the decision to cut back on free school transport and how many have been in support of his proposals.

Mr. Macfarlane

About 3,200 letters have been received, almost all opposing—in similar terms—any change in the law. But local authority associations and a number of individual local education authorities have expressed their support for removal of the inflexible requirement that where an authority provides transport it must be provided free.

Mr. Whitehead

Does not the hon. Member see that those 3,200 letters are 3,200 reasons why there is great public outrage at the removal of free school transport under section 23? Does he not agree that this is a violation of all the undertakings given to denominational schools under the 1944 Act? Will the hon. Gentleman take it from me that, in the largest Catholic secondary school in my constituency, over half the pupils are dependent upon free school transport? What is he going to say to the parents of those children, since these measures will prevent them from sending their children to the school of their choice?

Mr. Macfarlane

I do not believe that the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) was here when we developed this question earlier. I will go over it for his benefit. Of those 3,200 letters, at least two-thirds were representations from persons writing as members of the Roman Catholic Church. I understand their anxieties, but I cannot agree with the hon. Member when he says there is deep public outrage. I do not believe that that is the case. What I believe—and I think that it is worth taking up the time of the House in order to explain it—is that there has been a degree of misunderstanding. The issue is one of how local education authorities might decide to use their new powers to charge. There is no statutory requirement on local authorities under the Education Act 1944 to provide free transport for children attending a denominational school unless there is no nearer appropriate school. All I can say is that my right hon. and learned Friend will keep the matter under review as the legislative proposals develop.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

Bearing in mind the extreme unfairness of the present "all or nothing" approach, which bears no relationship to the danger of a journey, does not my hon. Friend agree that it would be much fairer to have a flat rate of, say, 10p per journey, or £1 a week, which would increase choice rather than diminish it?

Mr. Macfarlane

My hon. Friend raises an important point. This is something which may be considered in Committee. It is up to each local education authority to determine what it wishes to do.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Does the Minister appreciate that his proposals are causing considerable consternation among governing bodies not only of Catholic schools but of bilingual schools which have large catchment areas? It is working-class parents who, very often, are potentially affected. Will the Minister reconsider his proposal?

Mr. Macfarlane

If the hon. Member wishes to convey anything to my right hon. and learned Friend, it would of course form part and parcel of the review during the next couple of months.

Mr. Sainsbury

Does not my hon. Friend agree that it is an anomaly that, of two children waiting at the same place, one can be taken free on the school bus and the other must pay to travel on public transport, merely because their homes are 100 metres or so apart? Would it not be much more sensible to give local authorities the discretion that the Government intends?

Mr. Macfarlane

Yes. I fully agree with my hon. Friend and I am grateful for his remarks. I suspect that his observations are shared by most hon. Members in all quarters of this House.