HC Deb 30 October 2001 vol 373 cc243-50WH 1.29 pm
Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate transport to school.

The debate about home-to-school transport has been controversial, and many issues have been considered: the age and condition of contract buses, the provision of seat belts, the qualifications and competence of drivers, as well as three-for-two seating arrangements. During my time as the Member of Parliament for Monmouth, I have made representations to Ministers about school transport. One of my former constituents, Mrs. Pat Harris, formed the organisation "Belt Up School Kids"—BUSK—which has campaigned vigorously and with much success for the compulsory use of seat belts on contract buses and those used on school visits.

The safety of pupils on scheduled bus services and the problem of overcrowding in particular have caused me to request this debate on the transportation of pupils to Monmouthshire comprehensive school from the village of Llandogo in the Wye valley, the beautiful area of outstanding natural beauty in my constituency. People believe that it must be one of the most beautiful and tranquil routes to school that pupils could have. It is a journey of about six miles and meanders along the valley against a backdrop of fields and forests. The bus passes under a beautiful canopy of trees and crosses from the Welsh side of the Wye into the English side and back into Wales over the historic Wye bridge in Monmouth.

However, the 69 route from Llandogo to Monmouth on weekday mornings in term time has been described as "the nightmare journey". It has caused considerable anxiety to pupils and parents alike. In recent years, the village of Llandogo has grown and, on average, 60 to 70 pupils aged from 11 to 18 attend Monmouth comprehensive school. In rural areas, most pupils living in excess of three miles from Monmouth comprehensive school and other comprehensive schools are transported to school in designated school transport buses. In Monmouthshire, there is an extensive network of coaches, contracted to take pupils to school from communities where public transport is limited or non-existent. They are run generally by private, local bus operators.

In recent years, the regulations affecting the buses have changed to require them to have seats that are fitted with seat belts. Only one pupil is permitted to occupy a seat and no pupils are allowed to stand. Hence, no bus that is contracted for conveying pupils from home to school can legally accommodate more passengers than the number of seats on the vehicle. Llandogo lies on the scheduled bus route from Chepstow to Monmouth, which is operated by Stagecoach plc. Pupils are therefore expected to catch the scheduled service, and the costs are covered by the county council, which negotiates season tickets with Stagecoach. That arrangement makes sense in most cases, except for Llandogo. It avoids unnecessary bus journeys, it is good for the environment, it avoids a duplication of services and it keeps costs down.

The situation is different in Llandogo. The arrangement has caused parents and pupils several worries, which were aired at a public meeting in the spring convened by local parents, Avril Seabury and Gail Reynolds. The main concern was overcrowding. The morning and evening buses are full to capacity, with some children sitting three to a double seat. Several pupils are required to stand for the entire half-hour journey, which has resulted in injury when they have been thrown around. Buses are often late arriving at Llandogo and, generally, pupils have been late for school. Recently, the bus was an hour late. As for reliability, the buses have broken down occasionally, a problem that has caused parents concern when it has happened in fairly remote country areas between Llandogo and Monmouth.

A few weeks ago I decided to experience the situation myself. I travelled on the bus with the pupils from Llandogo. It was a wet Wednesday morning. The No. 69 arrived about 10 minutes late. It was a 53-seater bus and, by the time it left the village, it was overcrowded with pupils. Some were sitting three to a seat. About 10 pupils were standing with me. Other passengers on the route boarded the bus although it was clearly overcrowded. Throughout the journey, the bus was carrying between 60 and 65 passengers. The bus was driven competently and within the speed limit, although some of the standing passengers lost, their balance on several occasions as the bus drove through the Wye valley or stopped in traffic in Monmouth. When we arrived at Monmouth comprehensive school, the pupils said, "This is a good day. We're only five minutes late."

I wrote to Stagecoach and Monmouthshire county council about the problem, and suggested that the pupils from Llandogo should have the use of a designated school transport bus. That seems an obvious solution. It would get the pupils to school on time in more comfort and safety, and in a mode that is similar to that used by most pupils who travel to school from the villages of Monmouthshire. It would also ensure that other passengers were not faced with a service that is overwhelmed by school pupils. The pupils of Llandogo are an exceptional case and should be provided with a designated contract bus as part of the school transport network.

A second solution to the problem is for Stagecoach to provide a duplicate bus to deal with excess passengers. Surely it feels a duty to provide an adequate service for not only the pupils, but other fare-paying passengers? Stagecoach has apparently refused to do that unless Monmouthshire county council funds it.

Both solutions have been resisted. At a recent meeting, which I requested, Stagecoach, the Gwent passenger transport unit and Monmouthshire county council decided that both of the solutions are unacceptable because they are too expensive and require breaching, or re-tendering, of the existing contracts.

The season ticket contract between Stagecoach and Monmouthshire county council for the Llandogo pupils is worth £22,000 per annum. If Stagecoach loses that revenue, the company cannot give assurances that the No. 69 service will be viable and it may be withdrawn. The contract for the No. 69 route also covers a further nine routes in Monmouthshire and applies for a further three to four years. Therefore, all of those routes may be in jeopardy. The pupils of Llandogo hold the key to the entire bus network in Monmouthshire. Stagecoach has driven a hard bargain and is abusing its monopoly. Not for the first time, it is holding the county council to ransom.

The proposed solution is to provide a larger bus—a double decker. However, double-decker buses cannot run in the Wye valley because of the overhanging trees, which are one of the route's attractive features. The quest is now on to cut the overhanging trees and to solve the problem of the overcrowded bus. Monmouthshire county council has admitted that the solution sounds complicated, but once it is achieved pruning from time to time would be relatively simple. However, it must cooperate with all the people who own land containing the affected trees and it must liase with Gloucestershire county council, which is the authority that controls the English part of the route.

Parents consider the solution to be laughable. Decisions to run larger buses were previously proposed and were not always adhered to. If the double-decker solution was so good, why was it not introduced before? Parents have little confidence that the use of double-decker buses will be an adequate solution. It appears that the safety of pupils from Llandogo who attend school in Monmouth will be dependent on a gang of tree surgeons—perhaps a company called "The Tree Fellas" could be employed to carry out the task.

Two main issues arise from the Llandogo case. The first is the abuse of Stagecoach's monopoly and the second is the legalised overcrowding of which it, and other scheduled bus service providers, may take advantage. In Monmouthshire, Stagecoach has used its monopoly by giving notice to withdraw virtually its entire bus network to lay claim to the increased public funding for rural bus services, which was introduced by the present Government. In effect, it has held the local authority to ransom. In the case of the No. 69 route between Chepstow and Monmouth, Stagecoach receives a public subsidy between £10,000 and £20,000 under the local transport services grant, which is given by the National Assembly for Wales and ring-fenced for procuring and enhancing existing services. Stagecoach also receives a guaranteed income of £22,000 from season ticket sales on the No. 69 route. In effect, it receives a double subsidy. However, it is not prepared to provide an additional bus to resolve overcrowding unless the county council funds it. To concede would mean that Stagecoach would receive a triple subsidy on the route. Surely that cannot be in the public interest or in accordance with best value practice.

Private bus operators on scheduled services can take advantage of legalised overcrowding. The issue raises serious public safety questions. Under the Education Act 1944, it is permissible for three pupils under the age of 14 to occupy two seats. However, new seat belt regulations have altered that ruling for contract buses such that if a safety belt is fitted there may be only one pupil per seat. However, that rule does not apply to scheduled bus services, which are exempt from the regulations governing the fitting of safety belts. Hence, bus operators can take advantage of that rule, which relates to legislation passed 65 years ago. Provided that the passengers are under 14, it is possible to seat 50 per cent. more passengers than the number of seats on the vehicle. What may have been acceptable in 1944 is clearly not acceptable in the 21st century, as the size of children has increased and other school pupils are likely to be carrying bags and other items for school, including musical instruments.

A further worry is the permitted number of standing passengers. On the 53-seater bus on the No. 69 route—Chepstow to Monmouth—it is permissible to have 12 passengers standing. Theoretically, if every passenger were under the age of 14 and sitting three to a seat, it would be possible for such a bus to carry 90 passengers. On a 48-seater bus, it is possible and permissible to have 20 passengers standing. Therefore, again, if all the pupils were under 14, there could be 72 pupils in seats and 20 standing, and it would be within the law to carry 92 passengers.

Concern would be widespread if it were generally known that in 2001 it is possible under the law for a 48-seater bus to carry 92 children and young people, none of whom is required to wear seat belts on journeys to and from school. That reminds me of the case involving a school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), in which a contract double-decker bus was involved in an accident in which several children were injured. If there is another serious incident, will parents not ask why such overcrowding is lawful?

Why has the law relating to transport on school buses and scheduled bus services not been amended in 65 years? What assessment has the Health and Safety Executive made of the issue? I understand that the Northern Ireland Assembly is considering abolishing the three-for-two rule. If that can be done in Northern Ireland without primary legislation, why can it not be done in Wales? The law needs to be reviewed and amended. I propose that my hon. Friend the Minister should examine the matter with colleagues in the Departments for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, and for Education and Skills, and the National Assembly for Wales.

In recent years, the Government have introduced and supported some welcome initiatives on home-to-school safety. The safe to school initiative is welcome, although I understand that it is confined to walking and cycling and does not apply to school transport routes. The piloting in this country of American-style yellow buses is also welcome. Such buses are used only for the provision of school transport, and important safety regulations apply to such buses that do not generally apply in this country. The RAC should be commended for its work with local authorities and other agencies to improve home-to-school transport.

The pupils of Monmouth comprehensive who live in the village of Llandogo will this morning have travelled on the overcrowded No. 69 bus and will face similar overcrowding on their return home this afternoon. Their experience raises serious questions about the operation of the law in respect of bus safety and the monopoly position of private bus operators such as Stagecoach.

I ask my hon. Friend to liaise with the National Assembly for Wales and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to examine the impact of the monopoly position of private operators and to consider both the recommendations of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, which examined the tendering of bus services in 1999, and the law relating to the Transport Act 1985 which was chiefly responsible for the deregulation of the bus network.

I also propose that the Government use the forthcoming education Bill to amend the Education Act 1944 in relation to overcrowding and to abolish the three-for-two rule that applies to children and young people on scheduled bus services. Such a change would be inexpensive, achieve greater parity with the situation for contract buses and make a significant contribution to public safety.

I hope that the experience and discomfort of the pupils of Llandogo will lead to improvements in transport to school and will benefit all pupils.

1.45 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) on securing the debate. I have seen the news coverage of his campaign for many months and I commend him for his efforts on behalf of his constituents who, he feels, are at risk, given the way in which the service operates. As a Member of Parliament, I am acutely aware of the problems of home-to-school transport, and there are also difficulties in my borough and constituency.

Monmouthshire county council serves my hon. Friend's constituency. It is the local education authority and has a statutory duty to decide how best to meet its obligations in the matter of home-to-school transport. LEAs are obliged to provide free transport to the nearest school for pupils under eight years old who live more than two miles from the school, and for pupils above the age of eight who live more than three miles from the school.

As I learned during my time as a county councillor, LEAs can be more generous with that provision, and Monmouthshire county council already operates a 'more generous home-to-school transport policy. The relevant distances in Monmouthshire are one and a half miles for pupils under eight years of age and two miles for pupils aged eight years and over.

The LEA also operates a concessionary seat scheme under which pupils who would not normally qualify for free school transport may be allowed, for a charge, to occupy spare seats on buses. Obviously, that does not apply in the case of the bus that comes from Llandogo. The LEA also provides free school transport for pupils aged 16 to 19, whereas LEAs are statutorily obliged to provide free school transport only for children of compulsory school age up to the age of 16.

It is therefore reasonable for us to expect the LEA to ensure that pupils travel to and from school in safety and in reasonable comfort. The courts have stated that LEAs are obliged to provide non-stressful transport so that a child can travel to and from school without undue stress, strain or difficulty that would prevent him or her from benefiting from the education that the school has to offer. The transport provided should be appropriate to ensure that pupils travel in safety and comfort. It is therefore reasonable to expect LEAs, in their contracts with bus drivers, to ensure that transport that is provided for children is of a standard that would encourage them to use it and to use it safely.

Of course, the bus service to which my hon. Friend referred is not a dedicated bus service but a scheduled bus service. As the LEA is using that scheduled service as the provider of school transport for children from Llandogo to Monmouth comprehensive school, the same requirements apply.

Mr. Edwards

I thank my hon. Friend for clarifying the legal position. Does he agree that everyone who is making decisions in that matter—at Stagecoach and at Monmouthshire county council—should experience what I have experienced? They should go on that bus and assess whether it is stressful and causes the pupils strain or difficulty.

Mr. Touhig

I take my hon. Friend's point. He might care to invite the chair of education in Monmouthshire to travel on the bus with him and to see what he thinks of the difficulties of coming from Llandogo to Monmouth. On public service vehicles such as the one used on that route, the Public Service Vehicle (Carrying Capacity) (Amendment) Regulations 1994 permit three seated children under the age of 14 to count as two passengers. My hon. Friend made that point powerfully. That is a concession, and if bus operators such as Stagecoach wish to take advantage of it, they must ensure that it is possible to seat children in the manner prescribed by the regulations.

The concession applies only to children under 14, but my hon. Friend says that pupils attending Monmouth comprehensive school are aged between 11 and 18 years. I cannot see how the county council and the bus operator can ensure that the concession is not abused. To comply, they would need to check the age of every child and ensure that, where three pupils occupy two seats, they are under the age of 14. My hon. Friend may like to take the issue up with the county council and the bus operator, Stagecoach.

From 1 October, schools may be offered rear-facing seats with seat belts in new minibuses and coaches that comply with the European directive, but children must continue to be provided with forward-facing seats with seat belts in older vehicles that are used exclusively to provide home-to-school transport. Until recently, legislation required that seatbelts be fitted only in coaches and minibuses that carry children to and from school and on organised trips.

The regulations signal the beginning of the end of the concession that allows three children under the age of 14 to travel in two seats. My hon. Friend has painted a serious picture of what could happen if a bus of the capacity that he mentions has an accident. The county council and the bus operator must take account of that possibility. From what I have heard today, it seems that the arrangements for transporting pupils from Llandogo to Monmouth comprehensive school may be unsatisfactory. The county council and the bus operator may be failing in their responsibilities.

I cannot tell my hon. Friend that the Government will provide measures in the forthcoming education Bill that would answer his queries on the Education Act 1944, but we have made secondary legislation to implement new safety standards for seat belts. Additionally, Sue Essex, the Welsh Minister for the Environment, who has responsibility for transport, issued a consultation paper in September called "Safe Roads, Safe Communities." She would welcome suggestions on road safety, including any that my hon. Friend or his constituents might make on school transport. The consultation period ends on 30 November, so there is ample time to make a contribution.

I am so concerned about what I have read in the newspapers, and more so by what my hon. Friend has said on the subject of the bus route, that I intend to ask the Welsh Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning, Jane Davidson, to contact Monmouthshire county council as soon as possible, to see how the problem can be overcome. It is unsatisfactory for the situation to continue as my hon. Friend describes it and I will do all that I can to assist him and my colleague the Welsh Minister to bring that to a satisfactory conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Two o'clock.