HC Deb 23 July 1985 vol 83 cc1013-20

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

1.59 am
Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise this very important issue, and I am sorry that so many hon. Members have decided to leave. I apologise to the Minister, because 2 am is not the happiest time to make a speech anywhere. I thank my hon. Friends from the Greater Manchester area who are here tonight supporting me, because they agree with me that we are discussing a very important question of principle.

This is not the first attack on independent schools that we have had from the Labour-controlled Greater Manchester council. A few years ago, that council planned to axe local authority bus services to private schools. As one Labour councillor said on that occasion, "If they can afford the fees, they can afford the fares". That is a pathetic statement from an ignoramus who is apparently unaware that not every child that goes to an independent school comes from a wealthy home. That Labour councillor could not be more wrong. The children are in the schools because they have won scholarships. They are there on merit and not by power of the purse.

At that time sanity prevailed and the committee did an about-turn. The director general of Greater Manchester passenger transport executive said: The committee had decided that the services in question will continue until further notice. The decision to continue is in accordance with our views". There speaks the voice of sanity. That was the official who perhaps knows more about transport than any member of Greater Manchester council.

However, the about-turn by the Labour councillors was quite extraordinary, because at one time they claimed that by cutting out all the special buses taking children to independent schools would save Greater Manchester about £200,000 a year. After the about-turn the amount had dropped to between £40,000 and £43,000 per year. Whatever the actual sum, when the decision was announced the parents of children in independent schools heaved a sigh of relief, but that was not for long. In June this year that same council suddenly announced that scholars' permits to pupils aged between 16 and 19 will from August 1985 be issued only to pupils at state schools.

Councillor Hickman, the chairman of the Greater Manchester passenger transport committee, has said that the cost saving was not significant; it was a very small amount of money. I wonder what the reason can be for that very strange decision. I can only describe it as an act of political malice. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) is here and has agreed with me on the issue, because most decent people in the area are horrified by what Greater Manchester council is doing.

Councillor Hickman is totally opposed to independent education. That is his opinion and he is entitled to it. In a free society, people who pay taxes and rates to support the state system of education, and who then opt to pay for their children's education out of their net income, must also be entitled to their opinion. It is all part and parcel of the Labour party's aim to abolish independent schools. The removal of scholars' permits is just one more example of the Labour party's willingness to make children suffer for the sake of political dogma.

I talked earlier about the ignoramus on Greater Manchester council who believes that children in the independent sector all come from rich homes. With the help of the Independent Schools Information Service, I have some cases which present a different story, and I shall give three examples of girls who all live in the Greater Manchester area. One has a father who is a graduate and worked in the textile industry but is now unemployed and on supplementary benefit. Her bus fares will go up from 40p a day to £1.40 a day. Another has a widowed mother with a total income of £3,000 per annum. Her fares will go up from 40p a day to £1.52 a day. The third girl has a mother who is a widow and works as a cleaning lady. That girl's fares will go up from 60p a day to £1.20 a day.

Those three examples show clearly that the decision to remove scholars' permits will seriously affect families who will have difficulty in finding the extra money. As one parent said in a recent television interview: As ratepayers we are entitled surely to the same council services that every other ratepayer is entitled to. The fact that we happen to choose to spend our money educating our children is entirely our own affair and is totally unconnected to this issue about bus passes. You surely can't discriminate against a certain percentage of the population, on an item like this, that's totally irrelevant. That lady was right. It is amazing that no Labour Members are present. They claim to be the champions against discrimination of any sort. They are up there shouting on any issue of discrimination, but when there is blatant discrimination against children who go to independent schools, not one Labour Member can be bothered to stay to listen to the debate.

It is unfair that the parents of nearly 3,000 children—the vast majority of those parents are ratepayers and taxpayers—should be penalised by the GMC decision. If they want to send their children to independent schools, that is their right in a free society. If the GMC is allowed to get away with its proposal, it will be the thin end of the wedge. I believe that there will be further attacks on independent schools. Councillor Hickman said in an interview: it was a decision that we made on the grounds that we felt we were not, as a passenger transport committee, in a position to judge on the value or not of certain schools receiving those concessions. It started way back in '83, when we were asked to extend our concessions, and it arose again in 1984, when we were asked to extend our concessions, and what we found is that we were working on a list that was based on 1970, and that list was getting increasingly out of date. In fact of the 53 schools originally on it, there were now only 40, and are increasing, and we found we were discriminating against people who were not on the list. The grammar was not all that one would expect and I found part of those comments difficult to understand. No doubt Councillor Hickman and God understand and at times I think that only God can understand. Councillor Hickman based his arguments on a list that he said was issued by the Department of Education and Science in 1970. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science will investigate the claim and find some way of protecting parents with children at independent schools from acts of blatant political discrimination by elected representatives of a political party which is pledged to abolish independent education.

2.8 am

Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)

With the kind permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery), I add my strong support to his plea for a thorough investigation into what the Government can do to stop this discrimination.

The principle goes well beyond the Greater Manchester area. I guess that the GMC's action is illegal under existing law and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has had a chance to investigate that possibility.

For a public transport authority to decide whether to give a fare concession on the basis of the destination of the passenger is a dangerous principle. If we carried the analogy to old people's passes, someone going to have his feet seen to at a private hospital might also fall foul of the local authority.

I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to look at the matter on a nationwide basis. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale who has brought the issue before the House.

2.9 am

Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North)

With the kind permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) I should like to say that in my constituency of Bury, where I am a governor of the grammar school, there has been widespread concern at the decision taken by Greater Manchester transport. That decision was based on two false premises. The first is political, suggesting that only the children of rich parents go to these schools. As my hon. Friend demonstrated, that is false. The grammar school in Bury has been supported by children from all sections of the community for many generations. The grammar school is seen as a school for people from all sections of the community. I know from my experience that parents will be badly hit by the decision. The second premise is based on economics. The decision will result in poor economics, because a number of parents who will not be able to send their children on the bus pass scheme will run their own mini-buses, taking children, not just between the ages of 16 and 19, but others. Far from gaining anything, GMT will lose.

I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to look not only at the present position but to the future. The PTEs will change with the abolition of the Greater Manchester council. I think that people understand the political iniquity exercised by the GMC. They would not be happy if the Government were not able to correct this position in the future.

2.10 am
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) on bringing this subject up. It has been of great concern to my constituents who immediately brought it to my attention and have seen me about it in my surgery. The decision is unfair, attacking parents for doing what they should do—helping their children to get the best education.

On economics, the GMC would do better to give free bus passes to people who educate their own children and save the state the cost of educating them. On every ground, this decision is wrong. It should be reconsidered. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will come up with some action to stop this measure. I believe that it was tried about eight years ago in London, without success. I should be pleased to hear of the history of this measure in other areas. I hope that it will be stopped in Manchester this autumn. My constituents say that fares will rise so that it will cost them an extra £200 a year. For those who are already scrimping and saving to provide their children with an education this is a gross injustice and burden that they should not have to bear.

2.11 am
Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) for allowing me to make a brief intervention. This issue affects not only his constituency but my constituency and all those who live in areas served by Greater Manchester Transport. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) said, it may affect many more.

Many parents can afford to send their children to independent schools only because they have worked and saved to meet the fees. All of them pay their rates, taxes and levies to Greater Manchester Transport and the GMC. They are entitled to the services that the council provides.

So far, the issue has evoked a muted response. If GMT had discriminated against white children, or black children, the protests would have been heard as far away as the town hall in Bury, which is my local authority. I say to GMT what the late Al Jolson said, "They ain't seen nothing yet." If the protests are not heard, they will become louder and more consistent until this act of blatant political discrimination is reversed.

2.12 am
Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) for giving me an opportunity to endorse heartily what he has said. Many families in my constituency have written to me expressing their concern at this action by GMT which is nasty, small-minded arid mean.

2.13 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Bob Dunn)

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) has obtained this Adjournment debate, because it gives me the opportunity to acknowledge the efforts that he and other colleagues in other parts of the Greater Manchester area and beyond its borders have made in representing the interests of those parents and children affected. I refer to my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester), for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg) and for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) and to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith), who by his presence and his interventions on other occasions has shown his support for the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale.

I have noted the points that have been raised by my hon. Friends about the actions of the Greater Manchester transport executive in ceasing from 1 September 1985 to supply scholars' permits to pupils aged between 16 and 19 attending independent schools. I understand that up to now these have enabled all pupils aged 16 to 19 to travel between home and school at the concessionary child's rate of 10p.

I take seriously the outpourings of indignation that have been expressed to me, not only in this House tonight but in letters from my hon. Friends and from parents of pupils affected by this decision. In making my response, the adjournment debate enables me to have the opportunity of explaining how matters stand.

Before doing so, it is necessary for me to explain the Secretary of State's role in matters of this kind. Essentially it is to examine them, once they have been drawn to his notice, either by means of a complaint or in some other way, and to see whether they call for any action on his part under the powers conferred upon him by sections 68 and 99 of the Education Act 1944. Those sections concern the exercise of powers and duties conferred by or under the Education Acts. Section 68 relates to situations where a local education authority may have exercised its powers or duties unreasonably. Section 99 relates to matters where a local education authority may be in default of a statutory duty under the Education Acts.

We are faced, not with the exercise of a power or duty by an education authority, but with the decision of a transport authority. As such, therefore, it is not open to my right hon. Friend to intervene in its actions. I may say, however, that I am extremely surprised to find that the Greater Manchester transport executive appears to have resolved to take this action without the courtesy of consulting the local education authorities concerned. While I recognise that it is under no legal duty to do so, I am quite clear that the GMTE should have recognised that there would be clear and strong financial implications both for local education authorities and parents locally, and should consequently have consulted. This short time scale not only makes it difficult for me to reply in any depth to my hon. Friend, but puts an extra and unexpected burden on both parents and LEAs, which neither could have budgeted to meet. I am advised that children may use the Teen Travel Clipper card system, which would reduce the cost of their fares to a maximum of £3.35 per child per week. But that still leaves parents with up to £2.35 per week to find. In any event the use of the Clipper card is limited to times outside the rush hour—a vital time for the access of any child to its school from its home.

Trafford LEA, which covers my hon. Friend's constituency, has particular reason to feel badly treated. The decision is likely to cost it a considerable and unforeseen sum in purchasing bus passes, mainly for Roman Catholic pupils who attend independent grammar schools at the authority's expense.

To say that this decision by the transport executive is not in itself a matter for complaint under the Education Act is, however, not to wash our hands of the whole situation. We must next turn to the statutory duties and powers under the Education Acts, which are involved in the issue of school transport. The main provision governing home-to-school transport is section 55 of the Education Act 1944. Section 55(1) places LEAs under a duty to make such arrangements as they consider necessary for the purpose of facilitating the attendance of pupils at schools. Any arrangements made under that subsection must be free of charge to the parents. However, while there is a duty on LEAs to provide transport, within limits, for pupils in the maintained sector, it is a question of discretionary provision for pupils at independent schools, and here I suspect that practice varies enormously between one LEA and another. The statutory provision is contained in section 55(2), which gives LEAs discretionary powers to pay the whole or part of the fares of a pupil in attendance at any school or country college for whom they have made no arrangements to provide free transport under section 55(1).

My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale will understand—perhaps not as clearly at this time of night as he might—that LEAs have considerable freedom within the law to deal with school transport. Whether or not any individual LEA would assist the parents of children at independent schools who are affected by the GMTE's decision is entirely for the operation of the discretionary powers of that LEA. I know that a number of LEAs are affected by this decision and I cannot presume to speak for any of them. It is open to any parent affected to approach his or her appropriate LEA. There is no redress under the Education Acts or the Secretary of State's powers but it is open for any parent to test out the action of the GMTE with legal advice.

The issue of school transport and LEAs' discretion is a wide one, and in responding to the debate I have confined myself to the particular aspect that affects independent schools, not least because my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) has raised the wider issues only recently.

In drawing my response towards its conclusion, I draw attention to a problem that has been raised already. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale will not object if I take advantage of the opportunity that he has given me to mention the implications of the decision for pupils on assisted places. Several people from less well-off families whose children are benefiting from the assisted places scheme have told me definitely that they will be financially embarrassed by this decision. I emphasise that the new Assisted Places (Incidental Expenses) Regulations, which comes into effect by 1 September, make provision for the less well-off parent to claim home-to-school travel expenses direct from the school. I recommend and urge those parents to contact their children's schools.

I believe that independent schools are an important part of the school system and, in considering the costs of the services that they provide to pupils in those schools, LEAs need to remember that they are in general released from the higher cost of providing for those children in maintained schools. The independent sector has an important role to play in enriching the education system and the Government are committed to preserve and foster it.

I give a strong undertaking to those who have contributed to this short debate that the matters which concern them will be brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I shall seek to provide answers to the individual questions that they have raised. I shall certainly ask other Government Departments and agencies, which clearly have an input to this matter, to deliberate upon the points that have been raised.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East for his evident knowledge of the ILEA and for his reference to events of some eight years ago. All the points raised will be taken seriously, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale for giving me the opportunity to make this statement.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty five minutes past Two o'clock.