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School Transport

3.31 pm

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): I beg to move,

My Bill would require the Secretary of State for Education and Employment by regulation to direct local education authorities to prepare and submit school transport plans, having undertaken appropriate consultations. Such plans would set out for each authority proposals for funding and organising transport for the pupils for whom the authority provides education, having taken into account any relevant factors, which would not be restricted but would have to include distance, safety and charging policies. All such plans would be within a framework to be set by regulation.

Each local education authority's plan would then be subject to approval by the Secretary of State, who would also be able to modify them. Regulations would include provision for payment by the Secretary of State of grants to local education authorities to defray the relevant costs. Those regulations would themselves require approval by each House of Parliament.

The law in respect of home-to-school transport has remained substantially unchanged for more than 50 years. Without question, there have been many changes in society over that time, and it is now widely accepted by those who implement the law that the time is right for it to be reviewed.

Although amended in detail and consolidated, the current law is still in essence based on the Education Act 1944. It links provision of transport with the issue of school attendance, which is currently receiving so much attention. The law states that parents have a defence against failure to fulfil their legal responsibility to ensure that their child is educated if they live a certain distance from the nearest appropriate school--two miles for children up to the age of eight, or three miles for older children--and the authority has not provided free transport.

The distances involved--described in the legislation as "walking distances"--are based on assumptions that must have originated in the 19th century about what could be considered a reasonable distance for a child to walk to and from school accompanied by a parent. Compulsory education has been substantially supplemented by a number of Governments, particularly the present one, to include nursery and sixth-form provision, and post-16 college education, none of which are covered by the legal requirements of free transport.

Inside those distances, responsibilities for ensuring that children attend school rests with parents, and any provision beyond the legal minimum is entirely at the discretion of local education authorities, which may meet all, part or none of any costs involved.

In recent years, many authorities--including mine in Norfolk when I was chairman of the education committee--that have exercised such discretion have been withdrawing services and introducing or increasing charges to parents, most notably those of post-16 students.

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As we approach the 21st century--not the 19th--the concept of walking distance as originally defined is simply no longer appropriate. The need to review it is reinforced by the many problems that arise as a result of the variety of charging mechanisms that are now in place. Changes in charges have done much to highlight perceptions of unfairness that always exist when there are strict cut-off points: a parent who lives 2.99 miles from school must pay; one who lives 3.01 miles from school need not.

Any review envisaged by my Bill would need to take full account of the many changes that have taken place in society and its use of transport since 1944. There have been major increases in the number of vehicles on the road and in their usage, so that roads have become more dangerous. The provision of public transport has been declining dramatically in many cases, particularly in rural areas. More pupils live further from school--a trend emphasised by parents' additional rights to express a preference regarding the school that their child attends.

For many reasons, parents are less willing to allow their children to be unaccompanied outside school. The changes in the provision of home-to-school transport have led to many parents undertaking the infamous "school run". At peak times during school terms, as many as one in five journeys undertaken are to take children to or from school. A truly integrated look at our transport policy could only be enhanced by the introduction of measures designed to reduce such car traffic substantially. Any review of school transport must encourage local authorities to ensure that provision is made to encourage pupils to walk or cycle safely to school, and for appropriate alternatives to the private car wherever reasonable.

The Bill will ensure that the varied needs of individual localities are taken into account. The needs of inner cities will differ from those of rural counties. It is envisaged that Ministers will encourage wide consultation, appropriate partnership arrangements and the funding of innovative schemes as we modernise home-to-school transport for pupils.

The Bill also deals with the vexed issue of funding, but although it is hoped that additional funding will be available in due course, it is not specifically required. Local education authorities currently receive support for their transport expenditure through the vagaries of the so-called "sparsity factor" within the complicated rate support grant mechanism. The Bill would replace that mechanism with a much more transparent grant and would also provide a funding mechanism for approved innovation or experimentation--much like the action zones for school standards. There has been widespread support in local government for a review such as that proposed by my Bill, which has the general support of the Local Government Association.

I hope that my Bill will contribute significantly to Government policy on road traffic reduction, help us to meet our international commitments on global warming made at Kyoto and make our towns and cities better places to live--but it must also ensure that journeys to school remain safe. Despite popular misconceptions,the recent study by the Association of Transport Co-ordination Officers and the passenger transport executive group shows that school journeys are not more

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dangerous than other journeys undertaken by pupils and that travel by car, rather than being safer, is far more dangerous than travel by bus.

We must look to partnership to deal with issues of home-to-school transport, achieve safety measures for cyclists so that cycling becomes much safer--it is the most dangerous way for children to travel to school--and discourage the use of cars, which are 50 per cent. more dangerous than the amount of pupils they carry would suggest.

The funding mechanism must be tackled. In my county of Norfolk, the money spent on transporting children to school is enough to buy computers for every pupil entering primary school and to replace them with new computers when they enter secondary school. Local education authorities have tried to reduce payments for school transport as they address the Government's agenda of raising school standards. Understandably, the Department for Education and Employment, too, does not want money to move from the classroom to transport.

Through increased petrol taxes, the Government have done much to irritate rural dwellers who have no alternative to using a car. The Government, through a different funding mechanism and by spending to reduce road traffic through the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, could ensure that the money was properly spent. I commend my Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. George Turner, Mrs. Linda Gilroy, Mr. Stephen Pound, Mr. Anthony D. Wright, Dr. Ian Gibson, Mr. Martin Linton, Mr. Phil Willis, Mr. Bob Blizzard, Mr. David Drew, Mr. Cynog Dafis and Mr. Charles Clarke.

School Transport

Dr. George Turner accordingly presented a Bill to make new provision with respect to home to school transport for pupils in maintained schools; to provide for the payment of grants to defray the costs incurred by local education authorities, and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 3 July, and to be printed [Bill 189].


Queen's recommendation having been signified--


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Orders of the Day

Social Security Bill

Lords amendments considered.

3.42 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The financial memorandum was issued before the Lords considered the Bill and contains figures in tens of millions. Since then, the financial effects have increased and the sums involved will be between £1.3 billion--and, if the amendments are accepted--at least £2.6 billion greater. Could you instruct me how the Government should proceed under such circumstances?

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