HC Deb 10 July 1996 vol 281 cc403-5 3.35 pm
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to increase parental choice in respect of transport to school provided by local authorities. Perhaps the most popular reform of those made by the Government since 1979 has been the change in the law that made it possible for parents who educate their children in the maintained sector to choose to which school they will send their children. That policy has proved popular with parents of all political persuasions, and even with those of none. The difficulty is that, in the rural areas of Devon, the freedom to use that policy is the same as the policy to dine at the Ritz: it is available provided one can afford to pay for it.

The background is contained in section 5(1) of the Education Act 1944, which provides that, where a child is under the age of eight, transport costs to any school more than two miles away must be paid for, and that, for a child over the age of eight, costs for transport over three miles must be paid for.

Many people might think that the county would perhaps contribute the amount that it would have had to pay had one not chosen the school that one's child attends. No one would expect that, perhaps in a time of difficult financial circumstances, any extra costs that might be incurred would be paid. However, most people would think that the county would be prepared to pay what it would have had to pay regardless.

In Devon, the policy of the local education authority is to pay nothing at all in such cases. I must stress particularly that my Bill's purpose is not to incur extra expense for LEAs, because, under it, they would incur no extra expense. They would merely be required to contribute what they would have had to pay in the first place.

It should not have been necessary for me to come to the House to request the opportunity to introduce legislation to make such provision, because it is sheer common sense. Therefore, I must explain why my Bill is necessary, and why it is that the LEA in Devon takes the line it does. The Liberal-controlled LEA in Devon has two reasons for its position. First, it says that it would involve the LEA in extra costs, and, secondly, it says that the policy was the same under the Tories.

I shall deal with the second point first. The previous Conservative administration indeed had a policy of not making a contribution towards costs in these circumstances. I criticised it publicly then for that, and I criticise it publicly now. However, I must say that that administration never went to the quite extraordinary lengths to which the current Liberal administration goes to try to ensure that parents are not able to exercise their rights.

On the first point, the idea that extra costs might be involved in acceding to my request is simply wrong. Remarkably, when I introduced an Adjournment debate on this subject some weeks ago, a Liberal spokesman appeared on local radio to say that I was proposing that, whenever a child who lived in Exmouth wanted to go to a school in Plymouth, for example, the transport costs should be picked up. That was absolutely absurd. I have never suggested that, and I am not suggesting it now. All I am suggesting is that there should be a contribution of the same amount. If there is to be a suggestion by the Liberal LEA that it does not have enough money, I should point out that there are a great many other shires that would have liked to receive an extra £17.5 million in the most recent financial settlement. So the question of costs in no sense comes into it.

I could have given many examples from the scores of parents who have written to me to explain the falsity of the position adopted by the Liberal-controlled LEA, but I will give just two. First, there is the case of Mr. and Mrs. Foskett, who live in Lustleigh. The village is equidistant between Moretonhampstead and Bovey Tracey. In the normal course of events, Michael Foskett would have gone to school in Bovey Tracey, but there was not enough room for him at the time, so he went to Moretonhampstead. In due course, his younger brother, Richard, reached school age and his parents, not unreasonably, expected him to go to the same school as their elder son. Not a bit of it. For the county, to exercise that choice would have amounted to parental choice. Therefore, there could be no question of the county paying the school transport costs.

Faced with such a situation, it is no wonder that a teacher wrote to me recently saying: The Government's laudable policy of free parental choice of schools cannot operate at present as parents who exercise their right then find themselves faced with a transport bill which can run to several hundred pounds per year or serious personal inconvenience. It is hardly surprising that Mrs. Foskett wrote to me saying: There are obviously wider issues here also. Government policy of expanding parental choice in education would appear, in rural Devon at least, to contain the proviso of having the financial wherewithal to reach the school of your choice. The result for many in Devon is, therefore, no choice. I am aware that finances are tight, but this is an issue that can be resolved, in our case at least, at no extra cost to the council. That is the point.

Incredibly, there is a case that is even worse than that. It is the case of Mr. and Mrs. Walters, who live in Denbury. They wanted to send their son, Mark, to Knowles Hill school in Newton Abbot. The local authority wanted to send the child to Coombeshead school in Newton Abbot. They are both excellent schools, but the parents chose Knowles Hill.

The LEA said that Knowles Hill school was too far away. The headmaster of Knowles Hill had the distance measured, and found that it was shorter. Most LEAs would have accepted the word of the headmaster. Not a bit of it. The LEA went to immense time and trouble to devise a route from the school that it wanted the child to go to, which would be shorter. After a great deal of expenditure of officer time, it managed to do that. It managed to prove that the designated school was 352 yd nearer. On that basis, it would not contribute anything towards school transport costs.

The important point is not just that the two schools are in the same town, share a campus and are on opposite sides of the same road, or even that the bus that would have taken Mark to the school was the same bus—but it was the very same bus stop.

Nobody can criticise Parliament or the Government for not being able to tell in advance every quirk and twist of malice that a particular LEA would use to try to defeat the object of the House. However, when it becomes clear what some Liberal-controlled LEAs will do, the House has a responsibility to take remedial action.

My Bill would involve no extra cost for the LEA. It would simply involve a contribution of the sum that it would have had to pay in law in any event. If the Bill were to become law, it would mean that, in Devon at least, free education would once again become free in the sense that it was meant to be, and not simply as it is in Liberal-controlled Devon—as free as dining at the Ritz hotel. That is why I wish to present my Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Patrick Nicholls, Sir Peter Emery, Sir John Hannam, Mr. Anthony Steen and Mr. Rupert Allason.