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12.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mrs. Cheryl Gillan): I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) on securing the debate on a matter of great concern to parents and teachers in his constituency.

My hon. Friend is well known as a champion of parental choice in education. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to me that he has raised that issue in the context of school transport, particularly in the rural areas of his constituency. The Department is already well aware of my hon. Friend's deep concern about the issue following his correspondence with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last summer.

Home-to-school transport is a complex and at times contentious subject, so it is important to be clear about the legislation governing its provision. Let me begin by outlining the legislative duties and powers in relation to school transport that are set out in section 55 of the Education Act 1944. Briefly, it states that LEAs must provide free transport if they consider it is necessary to enable a pupil to attend school and that they may help other pupils with their fares.

LEAs have considerable scope to decide when transport is necessary. However, "necessary" is not defined in law; LEAs must consider each case on its merits. Relevant factors include specifically a pupil's age, the nature of possible routes to school and a parent's wish for a child to attend a school of religion or denomination to which the parent adheres.

Free transport is always necessary for pupils of compulsory school age--those aged between five and 16--who attend the nearest suitable school if it is beyond statutory walking distance. Free transport might exceptionally be necessary for a five to 16-year-old who lives within walking distance of the nearest suitable school or attends another school further away. It is for an LEA to consider such a case on its merits.

Court rulings, however, have made it clear that LEAs do not need to provide free transport for pupils whose parents have chosen to send them to a school which is not the nearest suitable one, even if it is beyond statutory walking distance. The additional cost of providing free transport in such circumstances has to be weighed against other priorities. LEAs have ample powers to support choice by helping pupils who do not qualify for free transport, but it is for each LEA to decide whether and how to exercise those powers.

In our view, LEAs' transport responsibilities have one main aim: to ensure that transport difficulties do not deny any pupil an education suitable to his or her ability, aptitude and any special educational needs. But the law rightly gives LEAs wide scope to adopt a transport policy that meets local and individual needs. However, two points are worth emphasising. First, an LEA's policy

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should always allow for individual cases to be considered and for appeals to be heard. Secondly, LEAs should ensure that their policy is widely known, so that parents can take account of it when making their choice of school.

In January 1994, my Department sent a letter to chief education officers setting out guidance which we have given in recent years to LEAs on a range of school transport issues. We made it clear that LEAs have the power to help with costs in cases where pupils are not entitled to free transport. We advised that those powers are intended, among other things, to help parents to secure their choice of school, especially in rural areas such as my hon. Friend's constituency, where we recognised that transport can pose particular problems.

It continues to be open to authorities to offer assistance to pupils whose parents have chosen to send them to a school that is not the nearest suitable one. In doing so, however, authorities will wish to continue to take account of two factors: first, whether a pupil's journey to school might be unduly long or tiring, or might otherwise conflict with a pupil's ability to profit educationally; secondly, the financial implications.

Against that background, I understand that it is Devon LEA's policy to provide free transport to a pupil's designated or nearest suitable school if it is beyond statutory walking distance. The policy allows for free transport to be provided in other exceptional circumstances, and allows for each case to be considered on its merits. As my hon. Friend has clearly shown, however, the LEA does not normally provide any assistance when parents choose to send their child to a school which is further away than their nearest or designated one--or, it would appear, to one just alongside.

As we have made clear in correspondence, that policy seems one which the courts would regard as lawful and reasonable, at least in the strict legal sense. My hon. Friend has helpfully outlined how the LEA is operating its policy in some specific cases, and he has certainly challenged its decisions on the basis of common sense. Moreover, on the basis of the evidence that he has presented, I have great sympathy with his views. There seems to be here an element of what might qualify for Esther Rantzen's "jobsworth" award. I would certainly like to look at it more closely. I will therefore follow up the matters that my hon. Friend has raised today, and I hope to be able to write to him in due course.

LEAs in England already spend about £300 million a year on home-to-school transport. Some 80 per cent. of that--around £240 million--is spent by the shires. Devon LEA spends about £12 million a year. My hon. Friend has said that Government funding is sometimes cited as a convenient beating board, so perhaps I should put on the record, once and for all, the financing of Devon's LEA.

Devon's education standard spending assessment for 1996-97 is about £345.9 million, an increase of 5.3 per cent. on 1995-96. It compares very favourably with the national increase of 4.5 per cent. Indeed, since 1990 Devon LEA has received a 38 per cent. increase in education funding. I hope that my hon. Friend will take note of the figures and use them in his constituency.

It is often argued, on parental choice, safety and environmental grounds, that school transport provision should be increased still further. Realistically speaking, demand for free or subsidised transport to schools will

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always exceed what LEAs think that they can afford, and spending more on transport would obviously mean spending less elsewhere on education.

There is, however, one way in which that gap might be bridged. Schools could supplement statutory transport provision by arranging transport to meet the needs of other pupils on a full cost-recovery basis. Such transport would help to enhance parental choice and could offer safety and environmental benefits.

Local authorities seem well placed to help schools with such arrangements. They have expertise in drawing up transport contracts and dealing with operators. They are familiar with transport law and with the strict rules governing transport provided for hire or reward. They also have greater buying power than individual schools. I think that there is great scope for LEAs and schools to co-operate in finding imaginative ways of helping--at minimal public expense--pupils who fall outside the free transport provisions established by the 1944 Act.

I get worried when I hear stories of LEAs allegedly attempting to thwart parental choice--one of the most successful elements of Conservative education policy. I fully appreciate, too, the difficulties that my hon. Friend has described. There is no doubt that decisions on the provision of school transport in rural areas like Devon can often be controversial and contentious, as my hon. Friend has ably demonstrated today.

I hope that I have explained that the law is perfectly clear on school transport and parental choice. This is an area of LEA discretion; but LEAs do have powers to assist pupils who do not qualify for free transport, including those whose parents have chosen to send them to a school that is not the nearest suitable one--even if it is beyond statutory walking distance. However, it is for each LEA to decide whether and how to exercise those powers.

The cases that my hon. Friend has cited will give anyone listening to the debate cause for thought. Hence, I repeat my undertaking to look into them in more detail and to write to my hon. Friend once we have probed more deeply into the facts. As for the other examples to which he referred but which, because of a lack of time, he was not able to describe in detail--I enhance my offer: if he will let my Department have the full details of those cases, I shall look into them as well. I hope that my response has been helpful.

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Rural Development (Isle of Eigg)

12.57 pm

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber): The Isle of Eigg was bought from Mr. Keith Schellenberg in April 1995 by a still mysterious German--allegedly a "fire energy" painter, called Marlin Eckhard Maruma, of Stuttgart. He is understood to have paid about DM4 million, which is about £1.6 million. Mystery also surrounds where he got the money from.

This man's purchase of the island, and subsequent descent to it in a helicopter was surrounded with ballyhoo and promise. A fast ferry was to be introduced; holiday cottages were to be built; a sports hall and swimming pool would be constructed. There would be a medical centre; there would be horse breeding, and a fish farm would be developed around the lodge. Security of tenure was promised to tenants. The village hall site was to be sold to the community.

Now, 13 months on, only one thing has happened. The estate livestock--about 1,000 sheep and 70 cattle--have been sold, at an inappropriate time, to pay the stockman, who now has no stock.

I shall quote passages from letters in a continuing correspondence between the Government and myself about Eigg. I begin with a letter from myself to the Secretary of State on 29 August 1995. It reads:

A reply came from the Earl of Lindsay, not from the Secretary of State. The letter is interesting because it encapsulates the Government's attitude to this issue. The Minister's letter of 21 September 1995 reads:

I shall quote next from a letter sent by Lord James, our dear, beloved Minister of State, who I think is responsible for the highlands. But perhaps that is a task that the Under-Secretary of State has inherited. I see that the Minister nods. It is probably the only time that he will nod during the debate. On 3 April the Minister of State wrote:

these letters always include "as you know", but I seldom do. When I am told, I often find the information difficult to believe. After "As you know", the letter reads:

they are always "firmly committed", not merely committed--

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Let us consider more closely the Government's responses. We have the letter from the Earl of Lindsay about it being

I did not suggest that the Government should consider purchasing large areas of Scotland. No one has made that suggestion. I am asking the Government whether they are prepared to take some action in the few, but concerning, instances when a landlord behaves irresponsibly and insensitively and thereby puts a community at risk. That is what was asked. The Government chose not to reply to that question.

Incidentally, the Earl of Lindsay's letter of 21 September ended as follows:

Doubtless the Minister has. He has certainly done nothing else. He, the Scottish Office and the Government have watched a community be put at risk, yet they have taken no action. At the same time they have excluded any of the solutions on offer.

Again, I shall quote the Earl of Lindsay, the Under-Secretary of State. The quotations may be boring for some, and I apologise to them, but at the same time they are interesting to me and others. On 25 March, the Earl wrote to me on behalf of the Secretary of State. The letter reads:

Big deal. How magnanimous.

Oddly enough, I did not ask the Government whether they would "stand in the way". I told the Secretary of State that there were proposals for a community buy-out, which might be a good solution. I explained that raising the money would be difficult. I observed that if the Scottish Office could in some way act as a guarantor, that might make such a buy-out feasible. I asked the right hon. Gentleman to give that some thought. The Government's evasion is a bad way of treating the islanders, bearing in mind the patient and polite persistence of someone such as Karen Helliwell, the secretary of the Eigg residents association, on whose behalf I advanced the argument.

I return to the Earl of Lindsay's letter. I apologise to my hon. Friends for so doing. His final sentence is one that my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) would describe as "a cracker". The Earl wrote:

here we go again--

he did not write "firmly committed", only "committed". Weakness is creeping in. The letter continues to tell me that the Scottish Office is "committed"

All that I can say in reply to that is, "Rubbish." The Government are committed to the removal of any restrictions on the landlord's actions and opposed to any

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regulations, or central action, that might protect tenants or crofters, or any individuals living on an estate, in this instance Eigg. How can a Government who are pressing for unfettered deregulation be committed to the

    "sensitive and sustainable development of rural areas"?

As a Liberal, I applaud private initiative. I believe that it should be encouraged. By the same token, I see the state as having a duty to protect the weak and defend the exploited. Such action may require regulation or intervention. The Government have done nothing but watch.

What could they do? First, they could buy, as Rhum was bought. One of the national community instruments could be used to manage the island, as Scottish Natural Heritage manages Rhum and as the National Trust manages Canna, gifted through the generosity of that remarkable man John Lorne Campbell, who died, full of years, last week.

Secondly, the Government could underwrite a local community buy-out. As I have said, the Government have not responded to that possibility. Thirdly, the Government could urgently send a representative to Eigg so as to obtain a clear picture of what is certainly a fast-deteriorating situation, and then act directly on behalf of the community to negotiate with Mr. Maruma, who no one seems able to find. I am certain that the Germans would help the Government to find him. We know that he exists; he is in Stuttgart. Only the Government have the power, authority and resources to act in such a way. Neither councillors nor hon. Members can match the Government's powers in this respect.

Fourthly, and lastly--I give the Minister a little warning--in the short term, the Government should act to protect development funds that may lapse or have lapsed because of Mr. Maruma's neglect. I refer especially to the money budgeted for the hall and the prospect of funds for the millennium forest project, which should be reinstated. I am sure that the Minister knows that the project could not be proceeded with, given Maruma's failure to sign the requisite documents, despite the deadline being twice extended.

The people of Eigg look to the Minister to help them in a situation where only the Government can act. I do not intend to enter wider, long-term areas. I am sure that the Minister knows that what has happened in Eigg has happened before, as it happened in Raasay, which is still very much in my memory. Dr. Green was popularly known as Dr. No in those days. We know that Knoydart is again on the market. It is not enough for the Government to say simply that they will watch. They must act.

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