HC Deb 11 June 1998 vol 313 cc1189-91
13. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

What plans he has to review arrangements for home-to-school transport. [43768]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Estelle Morris)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has no plans to review the arrangements for the provision of home-to-school transport.

Mr. Heath

Given the large amount of money that some local authorities are forced to spend on school transport—Somerset, for example, has to spend £5.3 million, which is £26,000 a day, on bussing children around—and, given that the precise distances involved, such as the two-mile and three-mile limits, and the appropriateness of particular routes are major bones of contention between local authorities and families with children, does the Minister agree that it is time that the Education Act 1944 was thoroughly reviewed to consider the provision of a comprehensive and fairer system of school transport?

Ms Morris

I appreciate that school transport is an important issue for local authorities in constituencies such as the hon. Gentleman's. It is one of the issues to which they must give careful consideration when allocating resources.

The key point is that it is up to the local authority to make decisions about school transport, as long as it is acting within the law. The law says that transport is necessary for a pupil of a compulsory school age to attend the nearest suitable school if it is beyond statutory walking distance. Above and beyond that, his local authority, as well as many others, has flexibility to offer financial assistance where it thinks that is appropriate. It is up to local authorities to respond to local situations.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

None the less, my hon. Friend might have a gentle word with some local authorities about the quality of school transport. Although some counties are working hard to ensure that no contracts are handed out to substandard firms, does she agree that some buses that are on the road carrying school children need to be put off it as soon possible?

Ms Morris

My hon. Friend is right. She has a long-standing interest in the issue. The Department keeps it under review, and will continue to do so.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

But this Labour Government cut a £4.3 million grant to Bedfordshire county council which the previous Conservative Government gave to it. It is likely that school transport will be cut in Bedfordshire, because the Government have cut the money to it. Will the hon. Lady consider the money that rural parts of Britain are receiving from the Government, and do better? Rural parts of Bedfordshire need help, which the previous Conservative Government gave but which this Labour Government have denied.

Ms Morris

The hon. Gentleman has a bit of a cheek. One reason why school transport was cut year after year was that, year after year, local authorities had to manage with a diminishing budget from the Conservative Government. Local authorities now have more money to spend on education—an extra £850 million this year, which means that they will be able to decide to put money into school transport, as well as into school standards.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)

Does the Minister agree that it is important not just to provide transport for school children, but to enable them to walk and cycle to school? Is the Department working closely with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to develop the safe routes to schools scheme that would enable children to arrive safely at school, and also make an important contribution to reducing the amount of road traffic?

Ms Morris

The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question. My Department has been working closely with Transport Ministers on the forthcoming White Paper. Making it safe for children to walk to school is crucial. There has been a massive increase in the number of children who are being driven to school, often for very short distances and to destinations that are not on their parents' way to work. We want to encourage children to walk to school, but we know that we cannot do that unless we can ensure that conditions are as safe as possible. That is what parents want and have a right to expect.

This is an important agenda, and I am sure that, like me, the hon. Gentleman looks forward to the publication of the White Paper.

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