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School Transport

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Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): I have called this debate to draw attention to the urgent need for the Government to take a more proactive approach to tackling the decline in the use of school buses. I have thought for several years that it is nonsense to cut home-to-school transport when our roads carry far more traffic than ever before and are therefore far more dangerous. At the same time, sensible environmental policy dictates that we should get as many people as possible out of cars and on to public transport.

The subject was brought to my attention again when the school year began in September. My constituency office was swamped with telephone calls from parents who had discovered that their children's school bus had been withdrawn or that arrangements had been altered. Many families were left in a difficult position, particularly those that could not make alternative arrangements. The villages of Horning and Southrepps were badly hit because the county council withdrew discretionary bus routes. The school bus to Antingham and Southrepps primary school was withdrawn completely because only one pupil lived far enough away to be eligible for free transport. That left two dozen other pupils who had taken up spare seats on the bus under the discretionary transport arrangements without any transport to school. As a result, far more cars must travel down dangerous narrow lanes to take those children to school, and the parking problems outside the school are horrendous. Several parents who try to combine work with child care face disruption, while those who take their children to different schools have a particular problem.

As regards Horning, parents were advised that they could use the public service bus to take their children to school when the school bus was withdrawn. However, the public service bus stops on the wrong side of a busy main road outside the school, and the children must then cross the road. It also arrives well before the start of the school day and therefore before the school is willing to accept responsibility for the children. That means that they must wait by the side of a busy road before being allowed on to the school premises. Thankfully, some children have been offered spare places on a minibus. However, that will be reviewed in February, and there is no certainty that they will keep their places.

I shall talk about the current legislative framework before highlighting the decline in school transport over recent years and putting the case for a substantial shift in direction. The rules on providing school transport date back to the Education Act 1944 and have remained unchanged. Unfortunately, the subsequent introduction of the parent's right to choose their child's school did not lead to a commensurate change in school transport rules—indeed, it has led to some crazy situations. A child might go to a particular school for very good reasons, but he will have no access to free transport if it is not the designated school.

Free school transport must be provided for children under the age of eight who live more than two miles from the nearest school. Older children must live more than three miles from the nearest school to qualify. Teenagers over the compulsory school leaving age have no right to free transport.

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There is no comparison between the safety of roads 57 years ago, when the rules were introduced, and the situation now. Parents today understandably fear for their children's safety. Increased volumes of traffic create a much more serious hazard for all pedestrians, let alone young children. The child pedestrian death rate in this country is one of the worst in Europe; it is nearly four times that of Sweden and significantly higher than those of France or Germany. It is currently 0.87 per 100,000 children. Unfortunately, matters have worsened in recent years, because local education authorities in the past went well beyond the statutory minimum requirements and provided transport for children living within two and three-mile distances, depending on age. However, as budgets have been squeezed, local authorities have chosen to cut school transport provision rather than take money from schools. That has certainly happened in Norfolk, and I know from colleagues that the picture is similar around the country.

I am not trying to score cheap political points, but the Cinderella nature of the school bus service goes back a long way. I found a report of a court case involving Surrey county council in 1953. The county council had changed its school bus arrangements following a circular letter from the Education Minister,

The problem is a long-standing one. However, such an approach—although I recognise that there are other factors at play—has contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of children taken to school by car. In the past 10 years the total has doubled, which means 1 million extra every day. An RAC report published this year seems to confirm that the decline of the school bus has continued since Labour came to power in 1997. That is a cheap political point, but the trend has continued.

During peak rush hour periods, nearly 20 per cent. of cars on the road are doing the school run. It is worth noting that in the United States, hardly a country recognised for sound environmental policies, 54 per cent. of children under 12 go to school in the traditional yellow bus. That figure compares with 9 per cent. in this country.

The result of what I have described is chaos on the roads. As Professor David Begg, chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport, which was set up by the Deputy Prime Minister, put it,

That is a nonsensical state of affairs, with regard both to child safety and the environment. On its website about school travel the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions highlights the impact of the school run on local air quality, journey times and even local business competitiveness.

Two other matters cause me concern. First, provision for post-16 students is patchy. With no legal right to free transport the charges that are imposed are a disincentive for the children of low-income families to remain in education. I suspect that that hits low-income families in rural areas particularly hard, because the distances to college are greater.

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A letter that I received from the Minister in October confirmed that variations in provision across the country

The Government recognise the problem. The Minister will know that concern has been expressed about the impact of moving post-16 education funding away from education authorities to the Learning and Skills Council. I would like reassurance that that change in funding arrangements will not lead to a decline in subsidised transport for that age group.

The second matter of concern to me is safety on buses, particularly the question of seat belts. A loophole in current legislation allows schoolchildren to be transported to school on a vehicle without seat belts, if that service is designated a public transport service, which does not have to be equipped with seat belts, rather than a school bus service, which does. In cases in Norfolk of which I am aware, little timetable information is available on the so-called public transport routes. For that reason, only schoolchildren tend to travel on them, yet because of the loophole, they do not have to wear seat belts and the bus does not have to be provided with seat belts. Lack of resources seems to be at the root of that unacceptable practice.

What then is the Government's response? The rhetoric is great: the White Paper "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone" sounds rather like motherhood and apple pie, but the Government's declared aim was stated to be

The White paper states:

The Audit Commission, in a report entitled "Going places: Taking people to and from education, social services and health care", published in the last few days, refers to the Government's stated aim of "reducing unnecessary car use" as

It refers also to the value of school transport in helping parents enter the labour market and hold down jobs. That is particularly the case with single parents. Women have less access to cars than men. School transport can therefore aid social inclusion. Yet the ridiculous decline in school bus transport continues and the number of car journeys continues to rise.

I recognise that a great deal of work is going on around the country.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West): Some of the work currently being carried out in Scotland involves the Scottish Executive's introduction of a safer routes to school programme. You mentioned earlier that David Begg—

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. I did not mention anything. The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Lamb) may have mentioned him, but I did not.

John Barrett : I beg your pardon, Mr. Winterton, and ask your forgiveness as a new Member learning the

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system of Westminster Hall debates. I was referring to my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). Does he agree that one of the key issues is the introduction of safe routes to schools programmes such as that at Carricknowe primary school in my constituency? Speed bumps and other measures to reduce traffic are being introduced and parents are being urged to encourage their children to walk to school or use school buses.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Interventions must be brief. That appears to be more than an intervention. I will use my discretion, if the hon. Gentleman would like, briefly, to conclude his intervention.

John Barrett : Thank you, Mr Winterton. Urgency is key; any child injured or killed on the way to school is one child too many.

Norman Lamb : I very much agree. I recognise that there are schemes all over the country, including that fine scheme, which aim to make it safer for children to walk or cycle to school and to encourage car-sharing.

The Government established the school transport advisory group in 1998. I applaud such efforts, but they are not enough. They will not on their own reverse the current trends. I have the impression that the Government accept that, given the Deputy Prime Minister's announcement in February of a series of pilots of an American-style yellow bus service. I must ask, however, what action has been taken since then. I understand that the pilots are due to be launched in the new year. Will the Minister confirm where they will be, when they are due to start, the length of the pilots, whether they will operate under the distance rules from the legislation dating back to 1944 that I have described, whether pupils and students living within those distances will be charged for travel, and how much government investment will be? Finally, what are the Government's plans to extend the pilots across the country should they prove successful? If he cannot answer all those points today, I should be grateful if he would come back to me with full answers.

The potential value of an expanded school transport network, whether through the use of the designated yellow bus or greater investment in existing arrangements, cannot be overstated. Buses must have clear safety rules, ensuring the provision of the same driver each day, passenger checklists, installation of safety belts, and radio contact with an operations room.

Cutting morning traffic would be of enormous environmental benefit. Extending free transport rather than charging for it would have a big impact in persuading parents to get their children on to the school bus, but we must debate whether it should be free. As long as the 1944 rules remain, education authorities will be forced to make the impossible choice between increasing investment in public transport or in schools. Will the Government change the legislative framework? As Gordon Hanning, the head of the passenger transport unit at Norfolk county council, told me:

Will the Government's worthy rhetoric be matched by investment?

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1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis) : My voice is going, and I hope that it does not go completely prior to the conclusion of my response. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) on securing the debate. All parties accept that the issue that he raises is important. The Government acknowledge the need to ensure that the current framework is working to the best effect and that significant resources are used in the most efficient way. Post-16 transport will continue to be the responsibility of local education authorities. That responsibility will not be transferred to learning and skills councils, which was made clear by the Learning and Skills Councils Act 2000. I will write to the hon. Gentleman about pilots, including all the details that he requested.

It costs about £500 million a year to provide statutory school transport for children of compulsory school age. We agree that school transport is relevant to all parents and children, whichever mode of transport they use. We often hear calls for an increase in home-to-school transport expenditure, but the figure is already substantial. About £485 million was spent in 1999-2000—an increase of approximately 9 per cent. on the previous year and above the level of inflation. Half of that expenditure was on children with special educational needs. They are high on our list when we consider young people who are excluded from society and education. School transport is funded by local education authorities, so any increase in transport costs would mean that less is spent on teachers, books, computers and school capital.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the purpose of statutory school transport is to ensure that no child is denied the right to attend a suitable school. It is not and never was intended to be an all-inclusive transport service providing free travel for those who could reasonably walk or who have chosen not to attend the nearest suitable school.

We will continue to make substantial increases in education funding. In 2002-03, we will increase the educational standard spending assessment by more than £1.3 billion—an increase of 6 per cent. We are also increasing the standards fund by almost £160 million and the direct grant for schools by 2.75 per cent. That will help local education authorities to meet the escalating costs of school transport.

Norman Lamb : I recognise that the purpose of the 1944 school transport rules is to get children to school safely. However, we need a change. There is a sound environmental case for getting more children to school by bus. Does the Minister accept that the number of children taking a bus to school is declining, despite the investment?

Mr. Lewis : I accept the hon. Gentleman's general point. Of course, the objective must be to get more children to school by means other than cars. That would satisfy the requirements of an integrated transport policy and environmental and safety considerations. We absolutely agree. Where we part company, as we always do with the Liberal Democrats, is on the concept of infinite resources. Unlike them, the Government must work within the constraints of finite resources.

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My next point will be a genuine one and not party political, although the last one was. To be fair, the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that he made one or two party political points in his speech. We must focus on ensuring that we get co-ordination and organisation at local level right, and that the significant additional resources that are going into the system make the difference in communities that they are meant to make.

The discussion is about diversification of modes of transport to get young people to and from school, but it is also about attitudes. It is not only in the context of education that attitudes to modes of transport have changed; it is a general phenomenon in communities and societies. The deregulation of buses in the 1980s contributed to it, but people are increasingly dependent on motor vehicles for a range of reasons.

Our 10-year transport plan, into which we are putting significant additional resources, is designed to create a far more balanced, integrated transport system. Clearly, that will affect how young people are transported to schools and college. It is essential to increase the use of alternative modes of transport to the car. I do not think that there is any difference in the ultimate objective, but we on the Labour Benches are persuaded that we can take measures within the existing legislative framework; however, we will introduce new legislation for post-16 education transport. I will discuss that in a moment.

We believe that we should use existing legislation better and ensure that the significant resources that we are putting in are used to best effect. In some ways, that is the dividing line. The hon. Gentleman advocates new legislation and infinite resources. The Government want to make better use of resources and ensure that existing regulations work to achieve the objectives that have been established.

On post-16 transport, we recognise that one of our primary objectives for education is to encourage more young people to stay on in education and learning after reaching the age of 16. We also recognise that a lack of access to acceptable transport is a contributory factor to so many young people dropping out of education at that age, especially in some rural areas.

We recently commissioned a study to map existing arrangements, to offer options for improvements and to produce good practice guidance. The study has been completed and the interim report made a strong case for re-ordering the legislation, specifically around post-16 transport. As the hon. Gentleman may be aware, the Education Bill had its Second Reading yesterday and will be in Committee next week. It includes clauses that specifically relate to the debate.

The Bill will give local education authorities a co-ordinating role in developing policies with key partners to provide effective and efficient post-16 transport arrangements. We propose that LEAs work with school governing bodies, colleges, learning and skills councils and passenger transport authorities. Crucially, LEAs will be obliged to publish a transport policy statement in consultation with those partners by 31 May each year, setting out what provision and support is available through schools and colleges in the local area. That is very important because it will ensure transparency and give students much better information on what is

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available. It will also drive more effective partnership working and facilitate the pooling of resources that is desperately needed.

Transport issues have dissuaded young people from continuing in education and learning, in part because of a lack of knowledge of and clarity in available services, and in particular because of a lack of collaboration between strategic transport authorities and educational institutions. The legislative framework will begin the process of dealing with several of the concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman, particularly those relating to post-16 education.

I should emphasise that, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, statutory school transport is not the only source of assistance for young people with travel costs. Local authorities have the power, although not a duty, to establish concessionary fare schemes. Some 40 per cent. of shire counties, for example, run such a scheme. A few schemes are countywide, and some offer fare reductions during the morning peak. Strategic authorities have therefore introduced a number of discretionary schemes that go beyond their statutory duties. They recognise that a significant part of developing and achieving an integrated approach to transport in local communities is dealing with travel to and from learning institutions.

Local transport plans, which we introduced as part of the Transport Act 2000, set out the general strategies for tackling local transport issues. School travel is meant to be an integral part of those plans, as is tackling the issue of children's safety during journeys to and from school. The plans are also meant to include targets for a modal shift away from the use of cars for school journeys, and the monitoring of progress. Authorities are also asked to establish how they will work with individual schools to develop comprehensive school travel plans.

The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is providing funds for implementing the local transport plans. In 2000, the local transport capital expenditure settlement provided an £8.4 billion package for implementing those plans over the next five years. That is a further example of investing significant

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resources and developing a clear strategy. However, tangible benefits for communities up and down the country will take some time to feed through.

In an intervention, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) said that there is no time to waste, and that one child injured is too many. We agree, but it takes time for a new, cohesive framework and significant new investment to come together and make a real difference on the ground. As I always say to Liberal Democrats, there is such a thing as the concept of finite resources.

We are looking at a variety of ways to encourage sustainable travel from home to school and to reduce congestion. For example, the DTLR recently met major bus operators to discuss scope for greater standardisation in concessionary fare arrangements. Our concern is that such arrangements are patchy and differ greatly in different parts of the country. We want young people throughout the country to have universal access to arrangements that are similar to each other. At the conclusion of that meeting, the feeling was expressed that there is scope for standardisation. We need to focus on getting right the strategic responsibilities of local organisations.

The key to solving many of the problems that the hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned during his valid contribution to the debate is ensuring that we adopt a cross-Government approach. Departments with responsibility for transport, education, health or other public services—indeed, any Department that is responsible for creating a more cohesive community—need to contribute to creating both a legislative and a non-legislative framework, ensuring the best use of the significant additional money that the Government have put into transport, particularly transport to and from educational institutions. We recognise that there is a lot to do. We cannot claim, by any means, that we have cracked the problem, but we believe that we are heading in the right direction—

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Time is up. I thank the Minister for his reply and express the hope that his voice will recover. We move to the last of today's Westminster Hall debates.

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