HC Deb 19 April 1988 vol 131 cc682-3 3.38 pm
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to school bus passes to allow local authorities greater flexibility in establishing routes and charging for transporting children to school.

The reason for the Bill is that, under present regulations, as set down by section 55 of the Education Act 1944, local authorities are obliged to supply free transport passes for children over eight years who live more than three miles from their school and for children under eight years who live more than two miles from their school. The result of that is that local authorities measure the route between a child's home and school, and assess whether that child is eligible for free transport on that basis.

The route taken is the shortest and some routes are extremely hazardous. I have walked lonely country routes which are designated as the correct and proper route for a child to take, walking to school, and some of them are not safe for fully grown adults to walk, let alone children. They go through lonely fields and woods. With all the publicity that has been given to the problems of abduction and molestation, I find it incredible that we still have this provision in the Act.

According to a ruling of the Law Lords, in assessing whether a route is unduly hazardous, county councils are not obliged to take any note of whether a child travels that route alone. Yet it is unreasonable to assume that a secondary school child will be accompanied to school every day, particularly if the parents of that child must accompany younger children to school. This Bill would make it compulsory for county councils to take account of the fact that a child may be travelling a route unaccompanied when they assess whether it is unduly hazardous.

This morning, I heard my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport campaigning for greater road safety for children, but some routes that have been established as manageable for children are clearly not and present immense traffic hazards.

Furthermore, the present law throws up too many anomalies. In my constituency, an entire village has lost its entitlement to free school transport because the school gate has been moved from one side of the school to the other and, lo and behold, they are now within a few yards of the three—mile limit. Two children can stand at the same bus stop and make the same journey to school, one having to pay the full fare and the other travelling free.

Problems arise when parents want to send a child to a school of a particular denomination and that school is more than three miles from the child's home. The child is not entitled to free transport unless the child has been baptised or received into that denomination. Many parents want their children to have a traditional Christian upbringing which they can receive only in Church and Catholic schools, but there may be nearer schools on which the children's entitlement to free transport is assessed.

That makes nonsense of our wise policy of increasing parental choice, because that choice will be limited by the expenses that parents can meet. In my constituency, a child eligible for a concessionary fare—a child can have a concessionary fare only if there is a bus; it is not automatic—has to pay £50 per term. One hundred pounds to send two children to school is prohibitive for some parents and will result in certain schools being removed from their area of choice.

My county council supports this measure, and in 1980 the Government tried to introduce a similar measure. It was rejected in another place because, sadly, we laid down clear rules for how we could afford the extra costs involved in providing additional free transport. If we charge everybody something, we shall be able to extend the range of transport provided, but there is no need to lay down rules for that calculation. County councils should be able to choose according to the prevailing conditions. My own has come up with a scheme which would not penalise rural schools, but would help rural communities. This Bill would give county councils the flexibility to introduce different rules for assessing hazards and charging for transport.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Miss Ann Widdecombe, Mrs. Gillian Shephard, Mr. Henry Bellingham, Mr. Julian Brazier, Mr. David Evans, Mr. David Davis, Mr. John Redwood, Mr. James Cran, Mr. Keith Mans, Mr. David Nicholson, Mr. Simon Burns and Mr. David Porter.