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Hon. Members: Object.


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [23 January],

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object

6 Feb 2001 : Column 899


Nuclear Waste

10.10 pm

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): This is the "Colchester says no to burning nuclear waste at Bradwell" petition. It is the petition of Susan Brooks, Judith Lunn, Bridget Searle and 1,570 residents of Colchester and surrounding areas.

To lie upon the Table

6 Feb 2001 : Column 900

School Bus Services

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Dowd.]

10.11 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting me the opportunity to present this short but, I think, important debate.

Time and time again over the past three to four years since I have been a Member, I have sat through and contributed to many transport debates. The school run and its contribution to congestion on our roads has often been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I have sometimes found it annoying that parents continually are blamed for using a car when I think that there are real reasons for them choosing to do so. So far, we have not come up with an expanded proposal to change their minds.

I think that there are three reasons why parents choose to take their children to and from school by car. First, there is the issue of safety, whether that is road safety or the risks that parents feel their children may face from other adults. Most parents will not let their children go unescorted to school.

Secondly, the reality is that more mums work. In doing so, they have to drop off their children at school and get to work on time. With the opening hours of school, that is not always possible to do either by walking or by using other forms of public transport. That being so, they choose to use the car.

We expect people to travel further to their place of work than was expected of them many years ago. That is all the more true in some communities such as mine of Don Valley, where many people used to have work literally on their doorstep in the local coalmine. Today, as part of our regeneration, we are having to challenge people to move further to work, and to provide transport in order for them to do so.

Thirdly, we have seen the deregulation of bus services, which is the legacy of the previous Tory Government's 18 years of office. That has left many parents unable to rely on public transport. When time is at a premium, I do not blame any parent for using the car to save time. For many of them, there is no other practical choice. I want to show how the experience of a journey as day to day and mundane as that of being taken to and from school, for many children and older pupils at Don Valley, can be reformed to contribute to improving the larger picture that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), must always consider. That is a picture of too many cars crowding into too many bottlenecks at peak hours, and too many public transport services as yet unable to resolve the congestion problem, which is made worse by the school run.

I have spoken to transport providers, local authorities, schools and parents, and the message is clear. The deregulation of bus services by past Conservative Governments is continuing to have a disastrous effect and impact on the provision of rational local bus services that meet people's needs and, especially, the needs of children and young people.

My concern this evening is primarily school transport. However, in offering new options on the way forward, I hope that I can help the Government to reduce congestion.

6 Feb 2001 : Column 901

Up to 20 per cent. of morning rush-hour traffic is that of parents doing the school run. I want to help our children by reducing road accidents and creating the safe travel to and from school that the Government seek. I want also to help our schools by reducing late arrivals and support working parents, for whom time on a weekday morning is at a premium. I also hope that I can help the Government to support our local transport authorities and councils by contributing to the sensible planning of complementary services, quality education and quality public transport to and from school.

My hon. Friend the Minister will know that, under the Education Act 1944, local authorities have a legal obligation to provide school transport, based on a reasonable walking distance to and from school of two miles for children under eight and three miles for older children. The three-mile walking distance dates back to section 74 of the Elementary Education Act 1870, under which a reasonable excuse for school non-attendance was that there was no elementary school within three miles of home.

I am afraid that things appear to have moved on very little in 130 years, as we are still applying those two and three-mile rules. I contend that those rules are out of date, and I ask any parent in the House to walk their five, six or seven-year-old child up to two miles to school every day. In this day and age, it is just not practicable to expect parents to walk their under-eight children up to two miles to school and their over-eight children up to three miles. For many parents, therefore, the use of the car is an understandable necessity.

As a constituency Member of Parliament, I believe strongly that good policy derives from understanding the life style and goals of ordinary people. We politicians are at our best and most useful when we can help the many, not simply the few, to meet those day-to-day challenges. A parent from Warmsworth, who was paying £100 a term to send her children to their catchment school by public transports commented:

When I raised my constituent's case with my hon. Friend the Minister, he observed in September 1999 that only a quarter of secondary school pupils travelled to school by bus. Only 4 per cent. of primary school pupils travelled to school by bus--the same figure as in 1975.

A parent from Sprotbrough, whose children have a free bus pass because of the distance at which they live from school, was concerned because what the children thought was a school bus was full, and they were left at the bus stop because the operator had registered the bus as a commercial service; the bus had picked up additional fare-paying school children on its circular route. A grandfather wrote to me concerning his grandchildren, who attended a local primary school just under two and a half miles from their village of Blaxton. On occasion, those children were left stranded at the bus stop after school because the public service bus was full on arrival at the stop. Young primary school children were left for 35 minutes on a cold, dark evening while their grandfather, without a car, waited at home, distressed at their failure to arrive home on time, but powerless to respond.

6 Feb 2001 : Column 902

Children attending a school outside their catchment area face a problem, as they are at the mercy of deregulated bus services which, as we know, may be varied or cancelled with 42 day's notice. Last July, my constituents in Rossington, whose children attend the Hayfield school in Finningley, had a bus service going from Tickhill via Rossington and Bawtry to Finningley. In September, however, the bus route by-passed the less affluent area of Rossington altogether, leaving those children isolated and potentially excluded from attending their chosen school. Children in the villages of Edlington and Sprotbrough have encountered similar problems in travelling to the Danum school in Doncaster.

Those children benefit from the exercise of parental choice. My hon. Friend is a transport Minister, but he will be aware of the anomaly that, on the one hand, parents have some opportunity to choose schools beyond their catchment area, which local authorities accept, while on the other, local authorities have no responsibility for assisting with those children's travel to school, so that they fall victim to the whim of deregulated commercial bus services which may, or may not, meet their needs. I could cite many more cases and, no doubt, those stories are replicated throughout the country.

I shall clarify my proposals. First, a dedicated school bus service should be available to every child, whatever the distance at which they live from school. I should like the two and three-mile rules to be scrapped. However, I am not demanding that all children, however close to a school, should have a free bus service. It would be far better to make a low-cost flat fare available to every child, regardless of the distance at which they live from school, but I honestly believe that children living 200 or 300 yd from school will not be queueing up to pay bus fares.

Low-income families could qualify for free bus passes on the same basis as they qualify for free school meals, with no extra bureaucracy. All children could be offered season tickets, with parents being offered discounts for purchasing a season ticket in advance. If children from low-income families automatically received season tickets, there would be no stigma and, possibly, school attendance may improve.

Evidence from South Yorkshire shows a fall of nearly 10 per cent. in peak-time car journeys during the school holidays. Nearly one in 10 cars are on the road exclusively to take children to school, while a further 10 per cent. of cars do the school run prior to the rush to work. How many car miles would be saved if a reliable, dedicated school bus service was available?

My second proposal is that local authorities or transport authorities should be obliged to work with schools to provide a transport plan for all the pupils. Thirdly, the transport funding of local authorities must be reconfigured to place emphasis on funding the provision of school transport.

In South Yorkshire, concessionary fares for 4.5 per cent. of all schoolchildren account for more than 20 per cent. of expenditure on school transport. In Doncaster, provision for children with special needs account for well over half of the funds for school transport held by the local authority. I respect those children's needs, but by extension, I also believe that all children, parents and society will gain from a comprehensive and inclusive school transport strategy.

6 Feb 2001 : Column 903

Although the UK is certainly not the USA, I see some attraction in the no-frills yellow bus, which my children see on "The Simpsons" cartoon programme every day, which offers a door-to-door service. The idea of a dedicated yellow bus service has attracted considerable interest, including from my own transport authority, the South Yorkshire passenger transport executive.

My hon. Friend knows of the widespread enthusiasm for school travel plans from the many bids that he received from local authorities to fund the preparation of local travel plans. I understand that 263 bids were received for work or school travel plans, and that a majority of them related to school travel. I also understand that my hon. Friend is funding 111 posts to prepare those local plans.

Is that the precursor of a radical expansion of school transport? Will we see a quantum leap in the number of children arriving at school by means other than by car, or will we simply see a large number of safe walking routes established at minimum cost which, to be honest, appear to miss the point? For many of those children, the answer is a bus.

The Government--the most radical Labour Government that the country has ever seen--have laid the foundations for a first-class transport network in the national transport plan. For that, I compliment my hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues on all their work.

South Yorkshire is a centre of transport excellence, which will be enhanced when Doncaster has its own airport, located within minutes of the east coast main line and a short bus ride from Doncaster's new interchange. However, plans for school transport look undeveloped, and safe walking routes are only a small part of the solution.

We may never solve every problem, and different communities may need different solutions, but time and again we seem to overlook the central role that the school bus could play in contributing to sustainable transport. Knowing my hon. Friend's shared commitment to safe travel, traffic reduction and the efficient use of the road network, I urge him to ensure that when he and the Government are re-elected for a second term, we create an efficient, locally delivered school bus transport strategy.

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