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14 Jan 2008 : Column 760


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A( 7 ) (Programm e motions),


Proceedings in Public Bill Committee

Consideration and Third Reading

Other proceedings

Question agreed to.


Queen’s recommendation having been signified—

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52 (1 ) ( a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

Question agreed to.



14 Jan 2008 : Column 761


Post Office Closures (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

10.1 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I have pleasure in presenting a petition signed by more than 4,000 local residents in Harrogate who are dismayed and angered that their local sub-post offices in High Harrogate, Leeds road in Harrogate and Stockwell in Knaresborough are faced with closure when they are well used by a wide section of the local community and provide vital services, especially to the elderly and less mobile.

The petition states:


14 Jan 2008 : Column 762

Student Transport (Cornwall)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

10.1 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I am delighted to have secured this debate this evening on transport for teenage learners in Cornwall, especially as it immediately follows the Second Reading of the Education and Skills Bill. The main problem for many students in Cornwall is that while there will, I hope, be many new opportunities, their ability to access them will be severely limited by the lack of transport. Living in rural areas with poor transport links makes it difficult for many young people to travel to schools and colleges. That will lead to rural learners being severely disadvantaged in comparison with those who enjoy—if that is the word—living in urban areas. That difference is one of the principal problems for young people in Cornwall if they are to have any chance of enjoying the new opportunities in the Bill.

In July 2007, the rural local authorities transport group undertook a case study—helpfully, it was of Cornwall. It discovered, without too much effort, that Cornwall is a long peninsula surrounded by water and that most transport links run along the spine of the county. The weather is not always as good as it seems in the summer, and we have rain, wind and snow, which make waiting around for public transport more difficult.

Journey times vary enormously, especially from the far east, west and north of the county. Some journeys involve multiple use of buses, and it can take some students as much as two hours at the beginning of the day and two hours at the end of the day. The other problems of low wages and high house prices, not to mention the general cost of living in Cornwall, have made the cost of transport a heavy burden for many people. Indeed, some families simply cannot afford the cost of local buses at current prices.

The council transport budget is now some £11 million, of which £1.2 million is for post-16 requirements. Only £400,000 of that is recouped through charges. The figure is low, but it represents about as much as can be recouped. The local authority offers a bus pass at £225 a year. That might well be below the national average but, for Cornwall, it is extremely expensive. It does not cover the true cost even of providing the transport, which is estimated at nearly £800. The whole system is being squeezed to keep costs down—the cheapest buses, the longest routes and little that is direct and point to point.

Train travel is not helpful either. In my constituency, students who want to access the good educational facilities in Truro can get on a train at Lostwithiel in the morning to get there at a reasonable time but, of course, the train coming back does not stop at Lostwithiel and goes on to Bodmin. It goes past Lostwithiel, where they would like to get off, down to Bodmin where they have to wait for three quarters of an hour to get a train back.

The arrangements do not appear to be sustainable. They will certainly not be sustainable if the provisions in the Education and Skills Bill come into being—certainly not with existing budgets and charges. An
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increasing number of students are taking transport that has been arranged by colleges, and without those services the council could not retain current levels of support and contributions. The system is beginning to creak—it has been creaking for some while—but we want to enable our teenage students in Cornwall to access the educational facilities that are provided for them.

As I said, the Government are increasingly allowing the burden of transport delivery to fall on local authorities and colleges. That might be all right in the short term, but the approach has not been a short-term one and the problem is getting worse. Additional funding is needed because, without that, the moneys that are spent on transport will be taken from the education budget. Education will therefore be the loser in order to provide for the additional transport costs.

The main source of Government funding used to be the learner support funds, but they have now been replaced, by and large, by the education maintenance allowance, which is welcome. However, where are the funds for transport subsidies? Is it fair that our students in Cornwall—the rural learners—have to spend a substantial part of their education maintenance allowance getting to and from school or college? In London, students get their transport free, and can spend their EMA on whatever they like.

Waiting for buses is often seen as an act of faith, and we need to redress that so that bus transport is seen as the quick and easy alternative to the car. Far too many times, students wait around only to find that the service has been cancelled. Many learners use the council travel scheme merely as a stepping stone to buying a car. The problem is not so much the fact that buying a car can be very expensive, with all the problems that running it can cause. If the 25,000 16 to 19-year-olds in Cornish colleges were thinking of using their own vehicles, there would be not only major environmental implications but increased accident rates. Inexperienced 17 and 18-year-olds who learned to drive at the first opportunity would be on very narrow roads, sometimes in slippery conditions. I am sure that I do not have to paint any more of a picture.

The whole bus pricing structure needs overhauling. How can we have free travel for young people in London, whereas in Cornwall they sometimes have to pay as much as £5 or £6 a day? Our local bus companies simply do not compete with each other. They stick to their own routes and have no incentive to buy better buses. They need to get more buses on the road to increase that flexibility, reliability and comfort.

The report on the case study made some good recommendations, and not merely for Cornwall. In fact, the recommendations were for all rural areas. I was pleased to note that the Minister’s area was included, too, as he no doubt knows.

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): It is on the front of the report.

Mr. Breed: There is a delightful picture on the front of a young lady waiting for a bus. It is interesting to note the report’s conclusion for what is needed in Dorset. It states that more affordable services in rural areas, Government understanding of the shire county transport position and recognition of the differential
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expense in supporting transport in rural and urban areas are needed there. That could equally apply to Cornwall.

The report makes several recommendations, which are worth repeating because they were made after a considered report. The first recommendation suggests

The recommendations continue by saying that we need to

As was said on Second Reading of the Education and Skills Bill, it is not simply a matter of getting to school or college but to work experience places.

A further recommendation is to

Another recommendations is that

Even if we make decisions today, the opportunities to effect them will be sometime in the future.

Other recommendations are to

I am sure that Cornwall would be only too pleased to host such a fair pilot, if it were proposed.

The last recommendation is to

Those are all excellent recommendations, and I am sure that the Minister has read the report, which, as I said, includes his local authority.

I want to end by citing the result of the Cornwall study and the words of the chair of the rural transport steering group after examining the case for Cornwall. He stated:

That paints a bleak picture. If we cannot tackle the problem, all the opportunities that we want young people to have through the Education and Skills Bill, which has just received a Second Reading, will be denied to thousands of people living in rural areas, especially Cornwall.

10.13 pm

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I congratulate the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) on securing the debate. I have enjoyed debating matters rural with him in my previous capacity as a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As he knows, I also represent a rural constituency, so I, too, have been looking forward to the debate. I therefore take a keen interest in the needs and aspirations of those who live in rural communities, not least the young people whom I now have the pleasure of serving as Minister for Schools and Learners.

As the hon. Gentleman said, today we debated and gave a Second Reading to the Education and Skills Bill. Everything about that Bill demonstrates the Government’s commitment to ensuring that all young people are given the maximum opportunity to succeed. Economic and social background should never be a barrier to achievement, and neither should geographical location. From the urban heart of our big cities to the fields and farms of our shire counties, all young people, regardless of where in England they live, should have an equal chance to take advantage of the learning options that are right for them. That might mean a diploma, an apprenticeship or more traditional, familiar qualifications.

Access to timely and affordable transport is of course crucial to helping young people access the range of current and future opportunities open to them. We are certainly alive to the challenges that rural areas will face, and I want to explain the considerable efforts that we are making to meet them. When we discuss teenage travel, we are generally referring to post-16 learners. The home-to-school arrangements for pre-16 travel are well understood and were improved in the Education and Inspections Act 2006. However, we know that post-16 learners, including those in Cornwall, are more likely to have to contribute to their travel costs, and it is not uncommon for young people who are affected by the issue to use their own car to get to lessons, if they are old enough.

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