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7.30 pm

Mrs. Christine Butler (Castle Point): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) for allowing me to make a short speech in his debate. May I also take this opportunity formally to thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for his visit to my constituency some months ago? His attentiveness, his appreciation of the difficulties and his consideration of the possible solutions were much appreciated. I was delighted to see, probably for the first time, the words "Canvey island" shine out of a Government report. The local transport section of the east of England transport plan for 2010 features improved access to Canvey island as an area in need of regeneration. That buoyed me up for some hours--I did not need sugar in my tea all afternoon.

May I prevail on my hon. Friend's good humour a little further? First, I support the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree for a degree of free transportation within the overall transport budget, especially for home-to-school transport. Secondly, local authorities can apply their policies only under current legislation, which dates back some 50 years to 1944.

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When I was a member of Essex county council, I first had it explained to me that that was a prohibiting factor in getting more children on to school buses.

The 1944 legislation, and even the amended version in 1996, still prevents increased capacity for children who do not meet the eligibility criteria for free school transport--those with special educational needs, or those over and above a certain travel requirement, to which my hon. Friend referred. It prevents others from having access to contract buses unless there is spare capacity--there is then a cut-off point. Many parents regret that and are even willing to pay for such places.

I regret that this all falls within the education budget. Overall, local authorities transport more pupils and students than meet those statutory requirements. That significant figure shows the support on the supply side for increased capacity for bus travel. Local authorities can charge for travel where spare seats are available, and the vast majority do. However, parents want more.

I shall not just bleat on about buses, because I welcome the many initiatives that the Government have taken over the past two years, including walking, cycling, safe routes to schools, road safety strategies, school travel plans and car sharing. Those are all important. Furthermore, I appreciate the cost-cutting approach to this problem. I understand that funding is coming from the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

We should revisit the legislation, because it seems to hamper increased bus use by students and pupils going and coming from schools. We should relieve ourselves of that problem and start on a fresh page. The statutory requirements could be lowered to less than 3 miles and 2 miles, so that children could be picked up from where parents want and be delivered safely home. At the moment, local authorities cannot contract to provide such a service, which is a great shame. In 1944, the requirements were different from what they are now. We have a pressing environmental need, which should count for more in our legislation. I am afraid that the problem will require primary legislation, but we should deal with this matter soon.

7.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) for raising the important issue of home-to-school transport. I know that it is of particular concern in his constituency, and he is a most assiduous Member. I have had the privilege of visiting him in Braintree to assist him in one of his many campaigns on behalf of his constituents.

I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Mrs. Butler) for her contribution to the debate. It was a pleasure to visit her constituency and join her in her indefatigable campaign on behalf her students. I am delighted that improved access to Canvey island is finally on the agenda. She has played a large part in raising the profile of Canvey island's transport needs. I hope that the press release was winging its way in no time at all after the statement of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister earlier today.

The issue of home-to-school transport impinges on a range of other important and emotive issues. We want to be sure that children are safe from road traffic, and from

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strangers. Children need to take more physical exercise for their health and long-term development. We know that children sitting in cars in congested, slow-moving traffic can be exposed to pollution levels three times higher than outside the car. If we reduce our reliance on the car for the journey to school as for other journeys, we will, as they say, be doing our bit for the planet.

We all notice how much clearer the roads are at half term and during school holidays. It is fair to say that that is to some extent attributable to a reduction in commuting associated with working parents taking time off during school holidays, rather than simply the absence of parents taking children to school. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree was absolutely right to identify the statistics on school travel, which show that 18 per cent. of cars on the road in urban areas at the peak of the morning rush--which is at 10 minutes to 9--are taking children to school. The proportion of journeys to school by car has nearly doubled over the past 10 years to almost a third of all journeys, and 36 per cent. of primary pupils and over 20 per cent. of secondary pupils now travel to school by car. Bus use has remained relatively stable at around 20 per cent., walking and cycling have declined, although 55 per cent. of primary age pupils and 43 per cent. of secondary pupils still walk to school.

I understand the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised. I know that there is much still to do, but there is already a good deal going on, both nationally and locally. He wants an increase in home-to-school transport. The amount budgeted for and spent on statutory school transport by local education authorities has been increasing above the level of inflation in recent years. It is now a very substantial sum--around £450 million in l998-99. It is true that some two thirds of that figure goes on pupils with statements of special educational needs. That leaves about £150 million for the 7.5 million pupils of compulsory school age without statements, giving LEAs little scope for additional, discretionary provision.

Let me remind the House of the real purpose and function of statutory school transport. It is not--and never was--designed as an all-inclusive school transport service. It is a safety net, to ensure that no child is denied the right to attend a suitable school because they live too far away, or have special needs, or face a dangerous journey.

Statutory school transport is not the only source of assistance. Local authorities have powers--but no duty--to establish concessionary fare schemes in their areas under the Transport Act 1985. About 40 per cent. of shire counties have a scheme for young people, though few are county-wide and some do not provide fare reductions in the morning peak. In the metropolitan areas, by contrast, all six passenger transport authorities provide either flat fares or half fares on local buses that are valid in the morning peak. Those schemes are supported by Government subsidy.

In the shire areas it is common for discounted fares to be offered commercially by private sector bus operators. There is no local authority involvement in such arrangements. The discount is usually half fare.

Here in London, Transport for London rather than local authorities operates a discount scheme for young people at roughly half fare. It is regarded as a commercial scheme, without Government subsidy. It covers the five-to-18 age group and is available in the morning peak.

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Last summer, my Department commissioned consultants to review best practice in increasing bus use on the journey to school. They consulted widely with local authorities, schools and bus operators, and identified many examples of local action to promote bus travel for the home-to-school journey. The consultants have now reported, and are finalising a guide which draws together the main lessons from the study, illustrated with examples of successful initiatives, and we intend to publish it later in the year. We hope that it will stimulate other authorities in particular to consider what further measures they can take.

We are also planning a seminar with major bus operators later this year to discuss the scope for greater standardisation in the arrangements for child discounts on buses. I am sure that my hon. Friends the Members for Braintree and for Castle Point will welcome that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree also said that he would like to see more walking buses and more safe routes to school for those buses to use. I can only say that I agree with him. We have been actively promoting such measures through guidance that we have produced for local authorities, parents, teachers and governors including a comprehensive school travel resource pack researched by Sustrans--the pioneer of safe routes to school. The resource pack was published by my Department in May to coincide with the launch of this year's walk-to-school campaign.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree will also know, local authorities have been asked to prepare local transport plans setting out their strategies for tackling local transport issues, including school travel issues. We are providing more funds for the implementation of local transport plans.

As the House will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced today details of our 10-year plan for transport which sets out a £180 billion spending programme--£132 billion from the public purse--to deliver the modern, integrated transport network that we all want to see. The funding for the implementation of local transport plans will almost double from £755 million provided for 1999-2000 to £1.3 billion for 2001-02.

In providing funds for local transport plans, we have given local authorities the discretion to utilise such funds from within a single block allocation--except for major transport schemes over £5 million--in accordance with their priorities and objectives set out in their local transport plans.

It is ultimately for local authorities to decide whether and how to take forward proposals for safe routes to school in their areas and to make the necessary running cost provision to support the development of walking buses, in the light of those local priorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree also said that he would like more work to be done to reduce car use for journeys to school. Again, I agree wholeheartedly, but we should not forget that much is already being done, not least under the auspices of the school travel advisory group--STAG--which was set up by my Department with colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health in December 1998. The group brings together experts in education, road safety, child health and accident prevention, as well as transport co-ordination.

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STAG oversaw production of guides for local authorities and schools, and a resource pack. Following advice from STAG, my Department commissioned six research projects in spring 1999. Two have already reported, providing a comprehensive database of current levels of activity--which, I am pleased to say, is increasing--and an informative report on the wide range of factors affecting distance to school.

The other four projects are due for completion and will result in the production of a best practice guide on the provision of special educational needs transport; a guide on increasing bus use for the journey to and from school; a database of classroom materials relating to school travel issues; and the possible implementation of a national programme of site-specific advice for schools following the evaluation of a pilot in 37 schools.

The first STAG report, published in January, proposed an aim to return by 2010 to the level of walking, cycling and bus use in the mid-1980s. That would mean 80 per cent. for primary school children and 90 per cent. for secondary school children. The report also contained 11 individual recommendations for raising the profile of school travel and increasing travel choices for the journey to and from school. The Government welcomed the report. We are already taking action on some of the recommendations and are considering how to implement the others.

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In the road safety strategy, published in March, we set out our detailed programme for taking action to improve child road safety, including better child road safety education, better enforcement and raising driver awareness of school travel issues such as road safety for child pedestrians and cyclists, the dangers of parking near schools and excessive or inappropriate speed.

We continue to work to raise awareness of school travel issues, through a series of regional seminars for local authorities, teachers, parents and governors; a communication strategy aimed at both the specialist press and the wider public; and national television and radio advertisements, promotions and publicity as part of the "Are you doing your bit?" campaign.

All health authorities are developing health improvement plans for the three-year period 2000-02, based on local consultation. There should be particularly strong links between health improvement programmes and local transport plans on school travel, and guidance on joint working was published in October 1999.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing this debate. I and my colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health regard the issues relating to school travel as very important. As I hope I have demonstrated, this is an area in which we have been active--

The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twelve minutes to Eight o'clock.

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