HC Deb 26 October 2000 vol 355 cc372-4
6. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

If he will review the requirements on local education authorities in respect of home-to-school transport. [132590]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

Each of us has welcomed and congratulated you, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that one thing you will do is spot recidivism. I therefore congratulate the hon. Gentleman on asking the same question three times. The answer remains the same, at least in its preamble. We have no plans to review the legislation on home-to-school transport. The school travel advisory group has recommended a number of ways to promote more affordable, safe, environmentally friendly and acceptable forms of transport and, with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, we shall wish to pursue those.

Mr. Heath

Consistency is a virtue, is it not?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the present system is the single biggest cause of friction between parents and local education authorities? It causes chaos outside many schools and penalises rural local education authorities. Roads and social conditions nowadays are very different from what they were in 1944. Is it not time that we had a serious look at the situation and produced plans for a comprehensive integrated system of the sort that so many other countries enjoy?

Mr. Blunkett

I am strongly in favour of those at local level—schools and local authorities—considering a more integrated and imaginative way of dealing with that matter. However, 800,000 pupils use school transport every day and the latest estimates are that about £444 million of local and national money goes into school transport. It is a very complicated issue, which is why we have advised members of the hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench team not to say lightly that it can be delegated and devolved to schools, which could not co-ordinate, organise or produce exactly the kind of plans that the hon. Gentleman appears to be encouraging us to take up this morning.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Congratulations and welcome, Mr. Speaker.

Can I persuade my right hon. Friend to continue with the impetus for a national strategy? He has been working closely with DETR, but the issue is important for children's health and safety and for reducing the dreadful congestion on our roads. This half-term, people can drive freely and quickly around the country, but they cannot do so when parents are taking their children to school. This is an important health and safety matter, and I hope that my hon. Friend continues his work with DETR to make a real change to benefit children's health.

Mr. Blunkett

First, may I apologise for transferring the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) from one party to another in my remarks about the Opposition Front Bench. I shall keep my fingers crossed for him at the general election.

My hon. Friend is entirely right—the safety and environmental issues are considerable. It is also important to ensure that there is less traffic on the roads at peak times is also important. Anyone who travels during this half-term will be aware of the difference that school runs make, especially in core cities. We therefore need to examine how to integrate the way in which we encourage walking and safety, together with a reduction in pollution and congestion on our roads.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

I congratulate you on your election, Mr. Speaker.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the great safety issue with regard to school transport, which concern many parents, in that although vehicles are rightly fitted with seat belts, there is no one in authority to ensure that children use them? Parents beg children to do so; schools tell children to do so; but given that drivers must concentrate on driving only, more often than not children do not belt up. What can be done before there is a terrible accident, after which everyone will say, "This should not have been allowed to happen".

Mr. Blunkett

As the hon. Lady will be aware, following tragedies in the past a tremendous campaign was run and agreement was reached on the provision of seat belts in vehicles that transport schoolchildren. We all—parents, not simply teachers—have a responsibility to educate children in the safe use of those vehicles. We cannot supervise children all the time in and out of situations that are external to the school, but we can encourage and support those who have influence over children—the prime educators, including parents—to get it right.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I add my congratulations on your election, Mr. Speaker, and offer you best wishes for the future.

Buses on which children travel to school are not fitted with seat belts in all parts of the United Kingdom. In fact, there is real concern among parents that their children are at risk, especially when standing in buses. What assessment has been made of the cost of a policy of ensuring that every child travelling to school on a public service vehicle is guaranteed a seat fitted with a seatbelt?

Mr. Blunkett

I do not have that information, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman. However, the contracting systems often lead to the lowest contract price being chosen. That is a real issue in some parts of the country. We are aware of the difficulty in ensuring that we match safety and cost in an acceptable fashion.

There is no doubt that translating every available public service vehicle to other uses—that, of course, is part of the effort to integrate school transport into the wider transport needs of dispersed communities—would be very expensive. I shall, however, consult my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and write to the hon. Gentleman with the information that he seeks.