HC Deb 06 January 2004 vol 416 cc142-4
3. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth) (Lab)

If he will make a statement on his proposals for school transport. [145866]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)

My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Transport and for Education and Skills announced joint proposals for school transport in the document, "Travelling to School: an action plan", which was published on 17 September last year.

Mr. Edwards

I thank my hon. Friend and assure him that I would fully support a school transport Bill that ended the legalised over-crowding that has occurred in many areas, but may I also express the concern that, if there is any threat to free school transport for those who live more than three miles from school, it would have a very serious effect in rural areas such as my own, where the comprehensive schools are 15 or 20 miles apart? May I ask the Government to consider that seriously?

Mr. Jamieson

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on school bus safety and school transport in general. I assure him that the pilots that we have announced, which we are funding with £7.5 million each year for the next two years, will examine new and innovative arrangements for providing school buses. Local people, parents, providers of services and schools would have to be consulted carefully on any proposed scheme. There might be many benefits for children who do not receive any bus service provision at the moment, including those who do not get a free service when travelling fewer than three miles, which may be of great benefit to many in rural areas.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)

Is the Minister aware that Staffordshire has purchased specialised school buses from the United States of America that resist impact when stationary and have flashing lights to stop cars overtaking when children are crossing the road? May I invite him to visit Staffordshire, which once again sets the way while the rest of the nation merely follows?

Mr. Jamieson

I would be pleased to visit Staffordshire and see the hon. Gentleman and I would also be pleased to go to other areas that have introduced American-style yellow school buses—I believe that they have been very successful. A dedicated school bus service is attractive to parents because the buses provide a safe environment and have regular drivers who get to know children. We are happy to examine any scheme under the local transport plan budget that will provide such quality transport for children going to school, as we have done recently in west Yorkshire, where we provided a substantial sum for yellow buses.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)

The Government are trying to extend to as many parents as possible the choice of the school that they want their children to attend. It is quite easy to extend parental choice to the better-off because they can use cars to get their children to school, but the situation is more difficult for working-class children. Will the Government adopt a more flexible approach to their policy on free transport to schools so that working-class parents are able to send their children to the school of their choice?

Mr. Jamieson

I am in danger of straying into Education and Skills questions. When examining any proposal made by a local authority, we would consider whether it would reduce car use, create healthier journeys to school for children and give them the ability to cycle or walk when possible. However, we should especially consider how to create a system that would give an advantage to all children and not only those who benefit from the existing travel-to-school system.

Mr. A.J.Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD)

Will the Minister give an assurance that the introduction of pilot schemes will not lead to pressure on all local authorities to withdraw free school transport for children who, in areas such as Northumberland, might have to travel 10, 20 or 25 miles to school at high cost? Our area has already experienced the withdrawal of free transport for those over 16, which has had a consequential effect on people's willingness to carry on courses, so it is a worrying prospect.

Mr. Jamieson

There is no intention to introduce a widespread withdrawal of the free transport system. As I said, any scheme would have to meet certain criteria and, most importantly, there would have to be careful local consultation. The plan would not come from central Government to local government because it would have to be consulted on locally. We shall examine schemes to ensure that they would not disadvantage children who have to travel long distances, especially those in rural areas. It is important to remember that many children, especially those in rural areas, are not covered by the existing system. We want a much fairer system of travel to school that takes account of the needs of all children rather than only a few.