HC Deb 21 October 1986 vol 102 cc978-89

'In section 55 of the 1944 Act (provision of transport and other facilities), the following subsection shall be added at the end— (3) In considering whether or not they are required by subsection (1) above to make arrangements in relation to a particular pupil, the local education authority shall have regard (amongst other things) to the age of the pupil and the nature of the route, or alternative routes, which he could reasonably be expected to take.".'—[Mr. Dunn.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to take the following: New clause 23— Choice of school and concessionary travel `(1) The duty imposed by section 6(2) of the 1980 Act that a local education authority and the governors of a school shall comply with a parental preference shall apply notwithstanding the provisions of subsection 3 (a) of that section where the choice of school involves travel from home to that school by the child of a greater distance than would be involved in travel to another school within the local education area. (2) A child shall be entitled to concessionary travel for the journey to and from school notwithstanding the fact that the school is not the nearest school to his or her home, that child attends that school as a result of a preference expressed pursuant to section 6 of the 1980 Act.'. New clause 24—Transport facilities'Notwithstanding the provisions of section 55 of the 1944 Act, a local education authority may establish arrangements for travel to and from school and payment of travelling expenses of any pupil in attendance at any school within the local authority area on the basis that each pupil will be required to pay a flat charge for contribution towards the cost of each journey.'. New clause 25—Safe walking distance to school'At the end of section 39 of the 1944 Act, the following words shall be added— Provided that no child shall be expected to walk to school on a route which is inadequately lit uses unmetalled roads or is in any other way hazardous." '. New clause 31A—Safety in walking to school'At the end of section 39 of the 1944 Act the following words shall be added "provided that the local education authority shall have full regard to safety as well as distance when determiing that route.".'. New clause 33—Transport facilities`Where the education authority, in any rural area, provides transport facilities there shall be a requirement that at least one adult supervisor he carried throughout the journey in addition to the driver.'.

Mr. Dunn

I am aware of the concern that hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed about children's safety on their journeys between home and school. In recognition of this, and in response to the Law Lords' judgment, the Government have proposed a new clause to clarify certain of the circumstances which a local authority must consider before determining whether transport arrangements are necessary. By making section 55 of the Education Act 1944 more specific we aim to ensure that local education authorities across the country exercise their duty consistently.

I understand that there has been some concern that it was not possible for the Government to consult the local authority associations, as we might have done. The House will know that the Government could take no action until the judgment was delivered in another place on 16 October. Consequently, I hope that the House will accept that we are grasping this opportunity to make a late change to the Bill in response to the Rogers judgment and to the views expressed in the House and outside by hon. Members. Clearly, until we knew what the judgment was to be, we could not have attempted a change in the law.

New clauses 23, 24 and 25 are all concerned in some way with school transport and concessionary travel. I shall be seeking to press the House not to accept those new clauses but I hope that the House will accept new clause 38 in the name of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

We appreciate what the Under-Secretary said about the shortage of time since the Rogers judgment on 16 October, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not dispute that this is another instance of something being hastily tacked on to the Bill. We have had cause during the course of the Bill to complain about that.

The Under-Secretary said that he hopes that the new clause will clarify the situation and make more specific the duty on local education authorities. However, the new clause is surprisingly vague and we should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would amplify it. I was expecting him to say a little more in defence of the new clause and to explain the Government's reasoning.

As I understand it, the education authorities will not be much wiser unless they are far more versed in the law than my hon. Friends. The new clause says "have regard to", but it does not seem to place any obligation on local authorities and even that one proviso is weakened by the words "amongst other things". The Under-Secretary has not specified what other things the Government have in mind.

One of the things that should be taken into account is the age of the pupil and that is already covered by section 39(5) of 1 he Education Act 1944. The nature of the route, as the noble Lord Ackner made clear in his judgment, would appear to be irrelevant in coming to a decision.

In asking the House to support or understand their new clause the Government must make clear the terms of any circular that they will be sending out to local education authorities which informs them of their new obligations and also whether they will be asking those local education authorities to find ways to explain to all parents what their rights are as a result of the new clause.

Without some guidance from the Government about the terms of any circular which will clarify the change in the law and without some assurance that local education authorities will be obliged to pass on that explanation to parents, we shall remain unconvinced of the need for the new clause, and, indeed, the haste with which it is being introduced. We wait to hear more from the Government on that point.

Mr. Roy Galley (Halifax)

First, I warmly welcome new clause 38. Those of us who have expressed concern about various matters relating to school transport over the years are grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for bringing the new clause forward. Nevertheless, there are one or two points of concern relating to the new clause which link in with new clauses 23, 24 and 25 and which, in turn, range over potentially wider ground. I want to make some comment on those and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to make some useful comments in response.

The concern which led to the tabling of new clause 23 relates essentially to parental choice. Section 6 of the Education Act 1980 laid a duty on local authorities to enable parents to express a preference as to the school at which he wishes education to be provided for his child". The local education authority and the governors must comply with that preference unless — it is a very big unless— compliance with the preference would prejudice the provision of efficient education or the efficient use of resources". There is the rub. In other words, there is not much choice and the local education authority's view of what is and is not efficient is paramount. The producer decides and if someone does not like it it is pretty tough. Some can have choice by paying twice, first in their taxes and secondly by going to a private school. Sometimes there is an element of choice in a particular local authority area and children may go some distance to a school, but the parent must pay for that transport. Some can afford to do so and some cannot. Choice depends very much on the ability to pay.

That brings me to a specific point relating to my constituency, but similar points have arisen in other parts of the country. In the Calderdale metropolitan borough council area we have grammar schools in the Halifax constituency and comprehensive schools in the Calder Valley constituency. Parents who wish to send their children to a grammar school but live in an area with comprehensive schools cannot do so unless they can afford the transport costs, which can be substantial in a local authority area that is 20 miles from end to end.

The same applies to parents who wish to send their children to a comprehensive school when they live in an area of selective education. The children must, according to the local education authority, go to the nearest suitable school, and what is suitable is decided not by ability or aptitude or choice but by the local bureaucracy.

If a child living just inside an area of comprehensive education wants to attend a grammar school and is suited by ability and aptitude to do so, he or she cannot unless the parents foot the bill for the transport and overcome a number of other hurdles placed in their way by the local education authority. Yet their friends living but a few hundred yards away may go to grammar school and perhaps receive a bus pass. That is grossly unfair and militates against good education. In the politically controlled system that we have, the bureaucrat is king.

Local education authorities have some discretion in whether to grant bus passes but so far that discretion is rarely used to improve parental choice and to give assistance with transport costs to relatively low income families to allow them to make a choice on behalf of their children, so easing the restrictions upon choice. Will new clause 38 allow — indeed, encourage — local education authorities to use their discretion more widely, bearing in mind parental choice and the ability and aptitude of the child? I should be grateful for an assurance from my hon. Friend on that point.

One appreciates that this issue is the central dilemma of our education policy in that the consumer has little opportunity to influence events. We have taken some measures to overcome the problem, but we must go further. Until we grapple with the question of transport costs, there will not be the wide range of choice that the vast majority of people require.

We have given those who express a preference on religious grounds a wider range of choice without necessarily the requirement to pay extra and that is right. But we need to extend that principle to give people choice on educational grounds as well as on religious grounds. New clause 23 is an attempt to overcome that problem which has reference to the Halifax area and other parts of the country. I should be grateful to know from my hon. Friend the Minister whether new clause 38 goes any way towards meeting those concerns.

The financial and educational implications of new clause 23 may be very wide, which is why we have tabled new clause 24. Local education authority resources are bound to be strictly limited and it is obviously legitimate to argue that if further resources were available, assistance with transport costs to facilitate choice would not necessarily be the number one priority. That money might be well spent by allowing real choice and the consumer rather than the producer to determine what goes on in our schools and how the money is spent. But one must live with the financial realities. As new clause 24 suggests, a flat rate charging system could have a neutral effect on LEA budgets, instead of allowing free travel beyond the statutory limits set down in the Education Act 1944 and could provide no assistance in other cases. The new clause would institute, at the local education authority's discretion, a flat rate charging system for all children attending maintained schools in a local education authority area. The Minister may have some sympathy with that principle, and I hope that the Government are prepared to move in that direction in due course.

5.30 pm

Flat rate charging for school transport has long been considered by Governments of both parties. In 1973 a working party recommended it. In 1975 the Labour Government discussed a proposal. This Government against considered it in 1980. But the idea has been abandoned on each occasion because of the opposition of vested interests in local education authorities. This Government do not often bow to vested interests. Indeed, they quite rightly seem to take delight in taking on those vested interests in the national interest. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take on flat rate charging with, of course, some modifications that may lead to banding of charges for very short or long journeys and with especial reference to those on supplementary benefits, family credits, and the handicapped. Generally, it would be a fairer system for the majority and would allow greater choice for all when combined with new clause 23.

New clause 25 covers the same ground as the Government's new clause 38. The Government should be congratulated on having accepted the deep anxiety of many parents throughout the country about the lack of any cognisance of safety in the rules relating to bus passes. But new clause 38 is not very specific about safety. My new clause 25 and new clause 31A make specific reference to safety and to non-hazardous routes. I would have been much happier if my hon. Friend the Minister had presented proposals which made specific reference to safety as a factor which the local education authority should take into account. There are occasions when the routes prescribed by local education authorities are isolated and dangerous because of traffic or possible attacks upon children. There are routes in my constituency and in many others which may just be feasible for an adult on a summer day but which are not feasible for a child on a dark winter's night. No reasonable parent would allow his child to walk such routes. Yet it is not always feasible for parents to accompany their children on walks to and from school. The Rogers case brought all those issues before the courts, the House of Lords and now this House.

I am worried that the Minister's proposal in clause 38 may not resolve all those difficulties. Will he assure us that where a hazard exists to children on a route, it will be the local education authority's duty to take into account the safety of a child walking that route? If my hon. Friend can allow some concession on the matters that I have raised, I shall withdraw those new clauses and not force them to a Division.

Mr. Clement Freud (Cambridgeshire, North-East)

I compliment the Minister on his fast reaction to the case. I am a co-signatory of new clause 25, and I believe that the words which he could reasonably be expected to take which supersede the previous "availability" are sufficient for any sane local education authority. No parent will be expected to take his child to school or to allow him to go on his own to school on a route which is as dangerous as many routes are in the rural constituencies.

I hope that the Minister will accept that everyone is angry about arbitrary limits such as two or three miles. It is extraordinarily easy for the Opposition to complain about finding a reasonable distance, but I am content with what is happening now. The House should be grateful to the Minister for his new clause. Even though it is yet another clause which was not previously in this hotchpotch of a Bill, I welcome it. But I hope that he will bear in mind that when routes are dangerous and transport on them must be provided, the money comes from the local education authority. Yet the LEAs are strapped for cash and are penalised for spending it. I hope that if exceptional circumstances arise, they will be met with exceptional generosity for those areas that need safe routes, that is, routes that one could reasonably expect children to take on their way to school.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley) has clearly outlined the issues that still cause anxiety. I should like to place on record the continuing anxiety of those parents who have selected a religious-based education for their children, but who find their children attending schools of a different denomination, and, who therefore are segregated in the award of bus passes. During the past two or three years there have been many complaints about what is quite simply religious discrimination. Such discrimination is unjust, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will address himself to that. I also wish to place on record my thanks for the extremely courteous and sympathetic way in which my hon. Friend the Minister has listened to the representations of myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) and others during the recess and the manner in which he has responded to the anxieties expressed to us by many parents. I know that those parents will be grateful, and hon. Members should he grateful, to the Minister for the way in which he has responded.

I do not seek to press my amendment to a Division.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Moorsholm is right on the Yorkshire moors, or at least it was in Yorkshire, until some bureaucrat decided to put it in Cleveland. If the children in Moorsholm were still under the North Yorkshire education authority, they would be provided with escorts on the buses, but because they are in Cleveland they are not. That is now a political hot potato, unfortunately based on the death last summer of an eight-year-old constituent. The Conservative Members in that area have been pressing for an amendment, or a voluntary submission, for an additional person by Cleveland education authority. At the relevant sub-committee that was carried by a combination of wise Conservative and Left-wing Labour members. However, at the full education committee, it was referred back for reconsideration. I am talking about one escort on one bus that goes into the middle of the North Yorkshire moors. As we all know, that area suffers from extremes of weather and in the winter conditions are often untenable. Nevertheless, parents rightly wait at the roadside to meet their children.

The bus driver has responsibility for the lives of those children, yet there is often mayhem behind him. Children will not always behave like little choir boys or angels, so what is a driver, who is driving in the snow and dark, to do when something happens? Is he to stop and thus risk skidding? It is surely essential for another adult to be on the bus. Is it not criminal that we should allow education authorities to have the right to make such a decision? Parliament must step in and say that when buses are provided from public funds to take children to school, it is unreasonable to expect the driver to accept total responsibility. After all, many schools are closing and children are now having to travel greater distances by bus.

Rightly, parents are not allowed to travel on the buses. But there is ample provision in Cleveland for lollipop men and women in the urban areas, so money cannot be the issue. The issue is whether there is the political will to provide escorts on buses. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to accept the amendment. In the area immediately south of mine, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw) has the benefit of children being escorted. I hope that that will be extended to the children in my area. Parents can then feel happy when they release their children's hands in the morning. However, if the amendment is not accepted, I shall press it to a Division.

5.45 pm
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

I compliment my hon. Friend the Minister on introducing new clause 38. He will know that my concern about these issues is longstanding. I first raised the matter in an Adjournment debate in 1984, and last year I introduced the Education (Costs of School Transport) Bill. On both occasions I focused on the problems arising from choice. Under section 6 of the 1980 Act, parents can exercise the choice to send their children to a school other than that chosen by the local authority.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give an assurance that shall have regard (amongst other things) includes the exercise of choice under section 6 of that Act. I hope so, because otherwise the concession, while worthwhile and welcome, will leave a lacuna which many of us do not want to see.

My Bill concentrated on the problems of choice, but there are also problems of distance, which were highlighted in the case involving Essex county council I must disabuse hon. Members of the idea that that was an isolated case. In my constituency the chairman of the alliance-controlled education authority decided some months ago to withdraw concessionary bus passes from some children because it was found that the distance was 176 yards short of two miles. It at least made a welcome diversion from the alliance's policy of destroying Devon's grammar schools, but it would have meant that children were condemned to walk along a narrow road between Hawkmoor and Bovey Tracey. The visibility is bad on that road and there are numerous bends. Indeed, the road is so dangerous that if my car broke down in broad daylight, I would not attempt to walk along it. Yet apparently the chairman of the education authority thought that it would be quite suitable for young children to walk along it on a dark winter's evening.

It should not be necessary for legislation to deal with that sort of problem, but I know from my constituency experience that it is. However, on that occasion the problem was resolved probably because of the furore that occurred when the chairman made that attempt and because the Essex v. Rogers case then seemed to support the proposition that that could not be done. But there is now no reason to think that that decision could not be reversed. Consequently, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for introducing this new clause affecting the distance travelled, but I hope that he will be able to offer some reassurance about section 6 choice.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for introducing new clause 38, which takes into account the sort of road that children must walk along. For years we had a running battle with Lancashire county council, because although children could walk along an awful road to school from the outskirts of a little village called Galgate, no one in his right senses would attempt to do so. However, the other route that could have been used was a little too long to qualify. Happily the dispute is now resolved.

In another part of my constituency some of the scholars are on the wrong side of the A6. I am glad that they 'will be brought within the ambit of the new clause. It is extremely dangerous for children to cross the road. Thus, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for taking account of the tremendous anxieties felt, particularly by those parents who have more than one child. Sometimes their children go to different schools, and as a mother has only one pair of hands and one pair of feet, she can accompany children to only one school at a time. This new clause will remove much anxiety.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

I am very sympathetic to new clause 33, although I have a slightly different reason for supporting it. My reason is nevertheless significant and I commend it to the House.

Some weeks ago a group of parents drew my attention to the fact that smoking on school buses was getting out of hand. Although children are being taught in school about the evils of substance abuse and, in particular, smoking, they can come out of their health education lessons and light up on their school buses. I took up the matter with the chief education officer, and yesterday he replied: The driver of a vehicle is not permitted to smoke. This is included in the transport contract. However, it would be asking too much of them to discipline pupils who might smoke. Thus, we have another example of the sort of problem that can arise particularly on single-man operated buses in rural areas. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that point carefully. It is in the children's best interest that there should be as little smoking as possible on buses, particularly on school buses. For many years we have muddled through with kids smoking on buses, but we must carefully reconsider this situation.

I am glad that the Government have reacted so swiftly to the Suffolk case. I warmly welcome new clause 38 which answers many of the queries which have arisen in my constituency over a long time. The Select Committee on Education, Science and Art has investigated achievements in primary schools, and from time to time it has considered the problems of school transport. Many of us on that Committee will be delighted that this new clause has been moved by the Government, and I heartily support it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley) drew attention to the changed circumstances in rural areas. The speed, size and quantity of vehicles on the roads has increased a great deal. We can all recount the tragic circumstances of deaths which have resulted from changes in driver and transport patterns. Only a few weeks ago there was a tragic death in the village of Downton in my constituency. At Britford, hundreds of parents and children are at risk twice a day due to the increased traffic to the cross-Channel terminal—the roll-on roll-off port of Poole. We face an increasingly violent society. Parents think twice about sending their children along roads which, when the 1944 Act was put before the House, were quite different.

Over the years the closure of many rural schools has led to children travelling greater distances to school. My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) has mentioned the injustices which have resulted because of the two or three-mile rule. There is the injustice of one county having a two-mile rule while the neighbouring county operates a three-mile rule. Such rules can even split a village in the middle of a high street. That is patently ridiculous. I press the Government to go further down the road which they have bravely started to tread.

Wages are often lower in rural areas. In such circumstances, even concessionary bus fares are a major hurdle every week for a family with two or three children. For such families there is no option but the bus. The family car will be used by the bread winner who, in country areas, must drive many miles to work. Mothers cannot always accompany their children, especially, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) rightly said, when a family has children at different schools.

In rural areas, many children must undertake long journeys to school. It is not uncommon for children in my constituency to travel an hour each way. Bus deregulation has meant that some of the schedules have been changed and some children now face longer journeys than they did last term. They have not moved, but the rules have changed. That is not the fault nor the choice of parents in rural areas. It is a situation which has been imposed upon them for the administrative convenience of local education authorities.

Over the years, the goal posts for rural school transport have been changed. For that reason, there is a good case to be made for free school transport. That would be an important and radical step for the Government to consider. I can see the attraction of the proposed flat rate in new clause 24. Nevertheless, I congratulate the Government on moving new clause 38, and I warmly commend it.

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

I do not wish to rehearse the arguments in respect of school transport and the problems relating to distance. I wish to take the opportunity to thank the Minister for receiving my hon. Friends and myself when we made representations to him concerning these problems.

It was with a certain amount of malice aforethought that my hon. Friends and I tabled these amendments in July, bearing in mind the proximity of the Essex .v Rogers judgment. At that time we thought it appropriate that the Government should be prepared to act quickly should the judgment come down in favour of what is, in effect, parenthood. I, and no doubt many of my constituents, appreciate the speed with which the Government have acted on this occasion. They have not been dragged, kicking and screaming, to enact legislation; they have recognised a long, pent-up demand and acted quickly upon the judgment of the law.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), my hon. Friends and I would appreciate further explanation of "(amongst other things.)" I would also appreciate it if the Minister could confirm — I think he said this in his opening remarks—that the question of safety is important.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

I congratulate the Minister on these enlightened provisions. There have been problems in my constituency, and we are greatly indebted to him for the speed with which he has acted on this occasion.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

The deregulation of buses affects urban as well as rural areas.

A Catholic convent in the Wirral peninsula has found that it is extremely difficult for some of the girls to reach the convent because of bus deregulation changes. The school has studied the option of providing a bus of its own —the local authority providing the appropriate passes for pupils—but the school would have to find £30,000 for that purpose. I bring this to the attention of the Minister.

Mr. Colin Shepherd

For the past four years my county council has been studying the question of bus deregulation and school transport. It has found that by co-ordinating school transport, the services it wishes to provide and the bus pass concept, it has not only improved school transport but made substantial cost reductions. I wonder whether my hon. Friend's local authority would like to get in touch with Hereford and Worcester county council to see what can be done.

Mr. Porter

I am grateful for that suggestion. I am sure that my local authority could learn a great deal.

I hope that the Minister can confirm that there is serious consultation between the Department of Transport and the Department of Education and Science on this matter and that it will come to fruition in the next three or four weeks. Indeed, I am sure the Minister will give that assurance. I have listened with interest to this debate, and I add my congratulations to the Department for this new clause, which is absolutely right.

Mr. Dunn

I wish to correct one omission, and that is to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold) to the Front Bench in her new capacity. I have known her for many years, and I have enjoyed working with her in the short time since her appointment.

I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) and my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax (Mr. Galley), for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd), for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt), for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman), for Salisbury (Mr. Key), for Stafford (Mr. Cash) and for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) for their remarks about the speed with which we have introduced this new clause.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

As the Minister is dishing out mutual congratulations to everybody, will he pass on his congratulations to the Members of the House of Lords who kept school transport in the Bill against the wishes of the Government?

Mr. Dunn

I was about to say that I thought the debate had been good and even tempered and that it could only get better, but then the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish ( Mr. Bennett) intervened.

The new clause is in response to the views expressed by hon. Members before the House rose for the recess. We also received a number of representations during the recess. It was my recent pleasure to meet hon. Friends to discuss this matter. Consequently, for many, the new clause will not appear to cover new ground.

The new clause uses the specific words, the local education authority shall have regard (amongst other things) to … to specify the need to look at the transport arrangements for individual pupils. If the clause had specified only certain situations it would have had the effect of excluding other circumstances as and when they arose.

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The new clause enables local education authorities to consider other circumstances which they regard as significant in the context of local conditions. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central asked for qualification and an example. The health of a child might be a significantly important and relevant circumstance. We have said previously that post-Act guidance to local education authorities will be published. That could cover several of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax for his comments about the Front Bench responding so quickly, following the decision in the House of Lords. I can tell him with some pleasure that the "nature of the route" in new clause 38 includes safety matters. Local education authorities will be under a new duty to consider that when deciding the necessity for and incidence of school transport.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge asked me to comment on the application of section 6 of the Education Act 1980 to the new clause. The House will remember that section 6 concerns parental choice of school. New clause 38 relates solely to section 55 of the Education Act 1944, which provides for local education authorities to make arrangements for school transport to facilitate the attendance of pupils at schools. I am afraid that the cross-reference that my hon. Friend would like me to make is not there.

Although I appreciate the thrust of the intention behind new clause 23, I have to observe to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax that the new clause would encourage parents to opt for distant schools because, for any school other than the nearest one, the local education authority would be debarred in any circumstances—not just in the provision of transport — from invoking 'the relief provided by section 6(3)(a) of the Education Act 1980, under which it need not meet a parental preference for a school if doing so would prejudice the provision of efficient education or use of resources.

Mr. Nicholls

I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, but surely that would apply only if a parent had chosen a school unreasonably far away. If parents chose a school six miles away, for example that would not prejudice the provision of efficient education. Surely it is not beyond the wit of parliamentary draftsmen to devise a formula which takes account of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley).

Mr. Dunn

In a blinding intervention —it was one of his usual flashes—my hon. Friend has enabled me to say that I am here today to comment on the proposed new clause. I can only tell him in the nicest possible and gentlest way that the clause would revoke certain aspects of existing legislation which, in normal circumstances, he might not want revoked.

The policy that I have outlined is legitimate, but I am aware, as my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said in an apposite speech based on what is happening in Calderdale, that his local authority has recently changed its policy on free school transport I quite understand his anxieties about that but some of these matters must be left for local decision.

I believe that I might be able to help my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge a little in regard to new clause 24. It is already open to local education authorities, under section 55(2) of the Education Act 1944, to arrange for home to school transport to be free or at a reduced price. It is also open to local education authorities to arrange for the reduced price to be a single flat rate, but they might well consider that it is not unreasonable for those who travel the furthest to pay the most. My hon. Friend will understand my interest in this matter. I do not see why local education authorities should he prevented from acting on that view.

My hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh — I think that I now have the pronunciation right—

Mr. Holt

I am most grateful for yet another opportunity to put on record that my constituency is pronounced as though there were an "F" on the end.

Mr. Dunn

This is not just a debate on education; it is an education in itself.

New clause 33 concerns supervision of local education authority-provided transport in rural areas. The right for such supervision already exists under section 55 of the 1944 Act. I believe it best that any exercise of the power should depend on the test that the local education authority should consider it necessary. The new clause would seem to require adult supervision on rural, but not more urban, routes, and on local education authority-owned vehicles, but not on those run by other transport operators. I am always conscious of the overlay of extra responsibilities in terms of their financial implications for local education authorities. Ultimately somebody has to pay.

Mr. Holt

Does my hon. Friend agree that the cost of a full-time professional assistant to the leader of Cleveland county council would more than cover the cost of any body to help save the lives of these children?

Mr. Dunn

I am sure that that point is well heard in my hon. Friend's constituency.

We have moved forward a great deal in this matter. The House has, I believe, accepted the Government's motives. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friends will accept new clause 38 and not press their new clauses.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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