HC Deb 03 February 2004 vol 417 cc735-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

7 pm

Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)(LD)

Last week the House witnessed a fierce debate about student top-up fees. But while it is still the case that a minority of people go to university, everyone goes to school; and while tuition fees are a serious issue, school transport fees are an issue that is even more relevant to millions of pupils and parents across the country.

As the Minister will know, there have been striking developments in school transport patterns over the last 20 years. The proportion of children travelling to school by car has doubled, bus and train use has remained steady, and the proportion of children walking or cycling has decreased sharply.

That is contrary to what the Government would like, and it clearly poses serious problems and challenges. There is the problem of congestion, as more children travel by car. There is the problem of pollution, for the same reason. As traffic speed and congestion increase, there are more fears about safety even for those who live less than three miles from their schools. In fact, as more children travel by car, more children—and their parents—feel vulnerable if the children are still walking or cycling, so even more go by car. Thus the situation gets worse and worse, and with fewer cycling or walking, health gets worse too. The only success story, in terms of policy, is free school buses.

I should stress that I welcome many of the initiatives recently outlined by the Government in the travelling to school action plan. They include promoting road safety skills for pedestrians and cyclists, establishing safer walking and cycle networks, and providing secure cycle parking and locking and bus bays. Such measures to promote sustainable travel are obviously welcome. However, I applied for this debate in response to a proposal referred to in the Government's action plan, and described in the Queen's Speech, to enable some local authorities to pilot new arrangements for school transport to reduce road congestion". What may sound a rather welcome statement is in fact intended to empower local authorities to charge for school transport, which at present is provided free of charge.

First, there is a point of principle. As the Minister is no doubt well aware, the law currently requires local education authorities to provide free travel for children living more than three miles from their schools, or two miles in the case of those under the age of eight. That is the maximum distance that it is felt reasonable to expect children to walk. The draft transport Bill to be presented to the House next month would free certain LEAs from that statutory obligation.

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills has insisted that the proposals are being pursued on a non-partisan basis and are at an early consultative stage. I want to express my worries now as part of that consultation. I believe that the statutory entitlement to free transport is part of the principle of free education. More than three miles is clearly too far to walk to school, and without a free bus the only option is paid transport. Effectively, education for some children, especially in rural areas, will come with a compulsory price tag: the cost of getting to school.

As the Minister probably also knows, there has already been a sharp reaction to the proposals. In Cornwall, head teachers, school governors and parents have all expressed serious concern about any plan to introduce charges, and I want to add my voice to theirs. Last month, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) questioned the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), on the issue. The Under-Secretary of State replied: There is no intention to introduce a widespread withdrawal of the free transport system."—[Official Report, 6 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 143.] I am not sure what "widespread" means in this context. The launching of a trial suggests that the Government expect the withdrawal to be widespread in the future, if they judge the trial a success.

The Government also claim that all money raised through charges would have to be reinvested in better transport provision, but I oppose the principle of charging for school transport. Making parents pay is not a good transport or education policy. Moreover, there is no guarantee that new income raised through charges will not just provide an excuse for a future Government to cut funding for education to local councils, and in particular the funding that councils currently receive to meet transport costs. That is what happened to universities after the introduction of tuition fees in 1997, and the truth is that no Minister can bind their successors.

once the principle of free transport to school is lost, the principle that every child should be entitled to a free education is also lost. Free education includes the right to get to school in the first place. Transport is free on foot or by bicycle when pupils live close enough to school, and it should be free by bus when the distance is too great.

Given that, at least in theory, the formulae provide local education authorities with the money to provide free transport, it is clear that where local authorities are allowed to charge for transport, it will be more and more difficult to make the case at local government grant settlement time that they need the money if they have the alternative of charging for it, and it will be even more difficult if they already charge for it.

More than the principle of free education is at risk, and there are clear practical reasons to oppose charging. As a Cornwall Member, I have particular concerns about the proposals. Families in rural constituencies such as mine will be hit especially hard because home-to-school distances are often greater than in urban areas. The nearest village schools are often full, so children are sometimes required to travel even further than normal to get to their allocated school. Across the county as a whole, more than 10,000 children are entitled to free transport because they live more than three miles away from their local school. Some 99 per cent. of eligible pupils take up free transport—the policy is a success, it works and it clearly provides children with a transport solution that they need and that their parents welcome.

In other words, while walking or cycling to school decline and roads become ever more congested, free school buses are the one real success story of the Government's transport policy. School buses are well used, well liked and clearly necessary. The Government's stated aims in the travelling to school action plan are to reduce car usage, increase bus patronage and reduce congestion. I fail to see how the introduction of charges for a service that has been provided for free until now and has a 99 per cent. take-up in Cornwall can be the best way to fulfil those objectives.

The simple fact is that free school buses are already extremely effective in reducing congestion. In my constituency, as elsewhere in Cornwall and indeed across the UK, the uptake of free school buses, where they are provided, is nearly 100 per cent. If only for psychological reasons, charges will deter parents from using the bus and will put children back in the car. Given the proven popularity and effectiveness of free school buses, surely we should be extending provision, not cutting it back.

It is unreasonable to expect a child to walk a six-mile round trip to school every day, even in ideal conditions. To expect them to do so along unlit rural roads with no pavements is patently wrong and dangerous. Parents object over and over again and call for free school buses within the three-mile zone. The real issue—I accept that there is a debate to be had about how buses should be funded—is not whether parents should pay if they live more than three miles away from their child's school. If the Government are serious about cutting congestion and increasing safety, why is school transport policy centred around a three-mile limit that was set in legislation dating back to world war two? The policy has become increasingly unrealistic, unsafe and inappropriate for children living in rural areas given the reality of fast cars, no pavements and increasing parental concerns.

Even children entitled to free school meals do not qualify for free transport if they live within three miles of their schools. Given that 99 per cent. of those living more than three miles from school use their free bus entitlement, the current congestion is clearly caused by families travelling less than three miles, and we should encourage those children to take the bus.

The Minister may argue that charges could provide funds for greater school bus provision, so most would pay and more buses would be laid on. However, charging families who live outside the three-mile limit in order to provide more charged buses within it seems perverse in the extreme. The Government do not want to charge only wealthy families. They defend that position by arguing that it is okay to charge because those entitled to free school meals will still be entitled to free school bus trips, but that covers only families on household incomes below £13,200. Even in Cornwall, that is a very low household income. Indeed, it is almost 50 per cent. lower that the average household income. The great majority of hard-working families, even those with incomes well below average, will be expected to pay.

Of course, the quality of transport is fundamentally important to parents. Are the buses of a high standard? Are they clearly identifiable and recognisable? Is the bus manned by a regular driver who knows the route? Are the pick-ups and drop-offs close to home and school? I am not saying that there is no room for improvements, and I understand the Government's financial concerns in terms of how to make them, but those improvements should not be at the cost of the free service currently provided, which is overwhelmingly popular and clearly successful in meeting the Government's own objectives.

If we are to get serious about increasing bus usage, reducing congestion and improving safety and security for children, arguably, we should look at what is happening in the US, for example, and build on the model of the yellow buses. Fifty per cent. of children in the US go to school by bus, compared with just 20 per cent. in the UK. However, that statistic is linked to the fact that every child in the US has the right to a free school bus place. That is the primary reason why they use it. As a result, school run congestion is relatively rare in the US.

The US has other lessons for us, as well. Yellow buses are not available to the general public, which reassures parents that their children are safe. Drivers are usually allocated to specific routes, so they get to know the schools, parents and children. Again, that reassures parents. The colour and identity of the buses increases awareness among parents, and therefore increases usage, and pick-ups and drop-offs are close to schools and homes.

I know that the Government have piloted such schemes. That is welcome, but charging for what is usually a free service is a step in the wrong direction; it is not the route that the US goes down. We have a system that is broadly popular with families, reduces congestion and improves safety and security. Let us build on it, not dismantle it. If there are cost issues, perhaps we should look at the cost of school run congestion, and consider whether the advantage to the economy of getting children out of the family car and on to the bus would be sufficient to make it sensible to consider extending, rather than reducing, provision, at least to those who are in receipt of free school meals. That is the exact opposite of the Government's position, which is to charge more children. Perhaps we should charge fewer children within the three-mile zone. Six miles is a very long round-trip on a dark, cold and wet night, on a fast rural road with no pavement.

Let me finish by quoting the response of the National Association of Head Teachers to the Government's draft proposals. It said: It will lead not only to a rural revolt by parents who are going to be worse affected, but there will be parents all around the country who will be asking themselves whether this seriously undermines free education. The NAHT is right on both counts. I represent just such a rural constituency, in which a very significant number of families will be badly affected if these proposals go through. It is my belief that they threaten the principle of free education. For people living outside the three-mile zone, there is no viable alternative to the free school bus. We cannot possibly expect children to walk or even cycle such distances. That means paid provision.

Most of all, the proposals run counter to the Government's primary policy objective, on which we are agreed. How do we reduce congestion, and get more children travelling safely to school, and, therefore, on to the buses? Charging will not help us to do that. For 10,000 families in Cornwall—a low-income area—on below average earnings, it will impose a further burden. Parents who live just within the three-mile boundary have applied pressure to get a free school pass. Such people are on very low incomes and struggle to pay the bus fares, which are not insignificant It will be a real blow to those families if they are asked to make these payments.

7.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) on securing the Adjournment debate. I know that he has a genuine interest in many aspects of this important issue, as do other hon. Members—although not many are present this evening. I hope that we can have a constructive debate over the next few months about the matter. We need a cross-party debate that involves local communities and the Church, which also has an interest.

My desire for a consensual approach is genuine, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that it is a common characteristic of Liberal Democrat Members to share an analysis of a problem that genuinely faces the country, but never want to rule out any option that might challenge citizens' contributions to resolving the problem. Liberal Democrat representatives have to answer the question: if we agree that we need to expand, invest in and improve home-to-school transport, how will the expansion be paid for in the long term? Will it be another item that comes from raising the 40 per cent. tax rate up to 50 per cent., for example? That is not a churlish comment, but a genuine one. We will have to find a way of identifying the resources to improve access to transport—not only for children and young people in rural communities, but in all communities.

It is also important to say that, in the context of the proposed legislation, a local education authority would have to consult the local community and volunteer to run a pilot. The proposal would then have to be approved by the Secretary of State before the pilot would be considered acceptable as a means of testing the innovation, experimentation and new ideas. If it is true that the hon. Gentleman's local authority and community do not feel that it is worth testing those ideas in a pilot or trying to solve some complex long-running problems, there would be no compulsion to participate in the process. That is an important point.

We should not be scaremongering either local education authorities or, more importantly, local parents by saying that a compulsory obligation will soon be imposed on them to participate in a pilot against their wishes, leading to various problems. The only way that a local education authority could end up participating would be if it were initially to volunteer because the local community supported it, and if the Secretary of State were to approve the application to be one of the pilot areas.

Matthew Taylor

I accept the Minister's point about the pilot areas and I believe it extremely unlikely that Cornwall county council would volunteer to start charging parents in a pilot scheme, but the Minister must accept that the principle is to remove the entitlement and if the Government view the initial pilots as successful, they could become more general. That brings into question the principle that local authorities are automatically funded on the basis of the free school provision. That may not be the Government's view now, but they could be opening the gate to a future Government who might adopt precisely that position. It could be the start—or the thin end of the wedge—of eroding a guaranteed free school bus place for every child.


The hon. Gentleman says that it is unlikely that his local communities, local education authority or constituents would volunteer for the experiment to introduce charging, as he puts it. However, they may seek to volunteer to test out innovative ways of tackling some of their fundamental problems in respect of travel between school and home. People are mature enough and communities are able enough to make rounded judgments about what is in the best interest of a particular community to solve some long-running problems. Any decision about the lessons learned from pilots or testing new ideas will clearly have to demonstrate that a particular course of action is, in the round, in the best interests of local communities—all local communities that face problems of access and isolation. It is unfair and unreasonable scaremongering to suggest that the proposals are the thin end of the wedge. That takes no account of our capacity to adopt a consensual approach to tackling a problem that is very real for many communities in this country.

It would be irresponsible of the Government to turn their back on the problem and not to try to resolve it. Our proposals would free up local authorities, and allow them to experiment and innovate. They would have to consult their local communities before they went down that road—I hope that the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell will excuse the pun.

The problems that need to be resolved cross the political divide. There will be a process of pre-legislative scrutiny before legislation comes before the House. That is important and will allow hon. Members and others to express and articulate their views in a powerful way. It must be more sensible to approach the matter with an open mind and a blank sheet of paper, as that will allow everyone to make a genuine contribution to the debate. Such an approach means that nothing is ruled either in or out when we consider how to remove many of the barriers faced by children and young people who need to travel to schools, further education institutions and other education providers.

Politicians have to make decisions, often on questions that frequently offer no easy answers or choices. The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell will not appreciate my using the example of the council in Luton, which is controlled by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. It is proposing to cut school transport resources and school crossing patrols. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) is leading a campaign in her community to stop the council's plan. As I said, politicians have to face up to difficult choices. I suspect that the question of home-to-school transport has been avoided for many years because it is too controversial, difficult or sensitive. Politicians have walked away, leaving people facing the same difficulties that they have faced for a long time, and which have affected young people's access to education, the local environment and the quality of life of local families and parents.

I am proud that the Government are willing to tackle this issue. We do not rule out any option, or rule any option in—we want to facilitate and enable solutions at local level. Central Government are often prey to the criticism that they seek to dictate policy in the search for one-size-fits-all solutions. Another accusation is that central Government change policy in ways that are too dramatic and hasty to take people with them.

On school transport, enabling legislation will be produced, after a pre-legislative scrutiny process, that will give local education authorities the freedom and flexibility to face up to what in many areas is a chronic problem. They will have the opportunity to step up to the mark and take responsibility for tackling the problem, and the freedom to innovate and test out new ideas as they do so. We want local authorities to achieve a step change in their response to a problem that has resisted progress for many years.

It must be right for central Government to create an environment in which local education authorities are freed from some of the constraints that prevent them from being innovative in their response to the problem. Our proposals will give them the power and the freedom to test the innovations and original ideas that they come up with.

Matthew Taylor

It was clever of the Minister to work in Luton, but people living there may not understand how their Member of Parliament can defend free transport at the same time as the Minister is arguing to remove the statutory protection for entitlement to free transport for persons resident more than 3 miles away. In Cornwall, 10,000 persons who live more than 3 miles from a school rely on free transport, but 60,000 others live closer. If they were offered a discount at the expense of people living farther away losing their free entitlement, they might vote for that change. But would it make sense to help with a bus ride those who live close enough to their schools to walk or cycle, at the expense of free transport for those who do not? The majority could take a decision that was not right for people who depend on free transport because the only way of getting their children to school is by bus.

Mr. Lewis

The hon. Gentleman is one of the architects of his party's strategy—and central to it is the concept of localism, devolution and empowering local communities to make the right decisions for themselves. That is exactly what the Government are doing with this policy. The hon. Gentleman appears to be afraid of local communities and LEAs reaching conclusions on what is in the best interests, in the round, of the young people and families in his constituency.

The Luton analogy was not fair, because there the proposal is seriously to cut home-to-school transport provision. Government policy is about freeing up local education authorities to enable them significantly to improve and expand the ways in which children and young people can have access to education and to increase capacity. I feel passionately about encouraging many more children and young people to stay on in education post-16, so that they may see the benefits and progress into further or higher education or a skilled job. It is particularly important for older young people to have access to institutions of their choice, to motivate them in staying on in education or training. An important part of that is a sensible approach to transport policy, which is fundamental to increasing aspirations and levels of attainment—particularly in low-aspiration communities, where the belief can permeate that, on reaching 16, one drops out of education and training.

Whether it be education maintenance allowances or revamping modern apprenticeships, the Government are doing much to boost post-16 participation, but there is still the problem in many families and neighbourhoods of low aspiration. If we permit significant barriers to be put in the way of children and young people in making the choice to progress and develop, we will damage the long-term social fabric and economy of communities such as that which the hon. Gentleman represents.

I ask the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell to participate in this debate in a fair-minded and objective way. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it absolutely clear that we want to work on policy in a consensual way. We seek consensus on a difficult and challenging issue facing the whole country, which is most acute in particular areas. I ask the hon. Gentleman to resist the temptation to play party politics. I can see that scaremongering to his constituents about the thin end of the wedge and the end of free education is attractive and seductive politically, but in an era in which politicians have a problem with being trusted, it should be remembered that the public know some issues are difficult and that there must be an honest dialogue about how to resolve them.

The checks, balances and stages we propose will ensure that we shall genuinely, not superficially, engage, involve and consult local communities and give them the power to decide whether they want to be part of our policy initially. Then we must learn from best practice locally in resolving some of the issues that continue to present problems in respect of access by children and young people to education and their local environment.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Seven o'clock.