HC Deb 24 October 2002 vol 391 cc396-8
9. Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

When distance limits on school transport entitlement were last altered; and if he will make a statement. [75274]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg)

The statutory maximum walking distances were set in 1944. Local education authorities have the power to consider applications for help with transport costs that are not covered by the statutory criteria, using their discretionary powers.

Mr. Todd

In 1944, there were about 1 million vehicles on British roads; there are now 24 million. In 1944, footpaths were heavily used by people walking to work, and provided a safe means of transit. They are now much less safe in areas such as mine. Is it perhaps time for us to review the limits?

Mr. Twigg

As I said in my answer, local authorities have discretionary powers, and there are some good examples of authorities that have chosen to exercise them. My hon. Friend's own local authority does so in a number of respects. The social exclusion unit is conducting an inquiry into the links between poor transport and access to key services, including education, and work. We are awaiting the unit's full report, but officials in the Department for Education and Skills have been working with the unit, and that may well provide a basis for us to take this debate a little further forward.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Traffic conditions have changed, but so have the circumstances of the schools system: we now have specialist schools and the concept of parental choice, for example. All those changes militate against the system that was set up in 1944. When we add to that the fact that, in rural areas such as my own in the county of Somerset, a huge amount of money is spent on school transport without any recompense—thanks to a ridiculous formula system that does very poorly for us and many other areas of the country—it becomes clear that it is time for a fundamental review of the school transport system. Will the Minister please put that into place at the earliest possible opportunity, to coincide with the change in the local authority funding system that we shall discuss later today?

Mr. Twigg

I cannot promise to make it coincide with the new funding formula. This is an immensely challenging area. I have been taking a look at the matter and I will continue to do so. If the hon. Gentleman has a scheme in mind that would be workable and that I can sell to colleagues and to the House, I would be delighted to consider it.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Education Act 1944 also allows bus companies to permit three children under the age of 15 to sit on a double seat? That leads to gross overcrowding on scheduled bus services taking children to school in my constituency, especially from the village of Llandogo. Will my hon. Friend seriously consider this issue, and get rid of this rule?

Mr. Twigg

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I must confess that I was not aware of that rule, but I will take a look at it, as requested.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

In addition to the reasons given by two hon. Members for reviewing this legislation, will the Minister also take into account the fact that, because of deteriorating road conditions and safety, young children often have to walk along verges—never mind pavements—and that countless parents are no longer prepared to let their children walk the statutory distance? Such parents have to use their cars to take their children to school, which causes immense congestion outside schools, and unnecessarily puts many extra vehicles on the road. Several of the Government's objectives could be met if they themselves were to take the lead. The discretion of local authorities is not adequate, because they are not funded and do not benefit from the environmental gain that could be achieved if the Government took action.

Mr. Twigg

It makes a change for the Department for Education and Skills to be accused of not being centralist enough, but I will certainly look at the representations that the hon. Gentleman makes. It is clear that support exists in all parties for looking at this matter, but I repeat that any change would involve losers as well as winners, so I need to look very carefully at how such change would work. However, I certainly appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point about parents' concerns for their children's safety in the light of increased traffic volumes, pollution and the rate of crime.