asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether he will publish an analysis of the views of the local authorities which have now made their representations to him on the matter of school transport; and if he will make a statement.
asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science when he hopes to announce his decision in respect of the recommendations of the interdepartmental inquiry on school transport; and if he will make a statement.
asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what representations he has received on the non-implementation of the working party's report on school transport.
My right hon. Friend will take full account of the views expressed by local authorities about school transport, which I know is a subject of concern in many quarters. The problems are complex and I am not yet able to say when it will be possible to make a statement. I do not think that publication of an analysis of the views submitted by the various bodies would be helpful.
Is my hon. Friend aware that we have now been waiting since the previous Conservative administration were in office for a decision on this matter? Is he further aware that particularly in rural areas with low family incomes the ever-increasing impact of school bus fares is having a very deleterious effect? We have been patient, but will my hon. Friend now assure us that we are soon to have a decision on this subject?
Yes, I recognise the concern of the House and I regret that we have not yet come to a final decision. That is because we are trying to find the right answer. Only last week I visited a local authority where there are small rural schools. I found that the authority was spending £1½ million a year on transport. That is an indication of the serious concern that is felt in the country and of our desire to get things done properly.
Will not the Minister show more urgency about the situation? Does he not agree that the circumstances and conditions that were relevant at the time the existing regulations involving the present statutory limits came into being are now totally out of date? Further, in the case of rural areas in particular does he not agree that a more flexible and wider system involving meaningful parental contribution should be introduced urgently?
Yes, I am well aware of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman. Over the past five years the expenditure by local authorities on school transport has increased from £20 million to no less than £45 million. If the hon. Gentleman adds to that the substantial amount now being paid by parents, he will get an understanding of the serious problem that we face. We are treating the matter urgently, but there is no easy answer. The money has to be found. We want to protect parents and to ensure that parental contributions are not a deterrent in getting their children to school.
While I understand the pressure on public expenditure, may I ask whether my hon. Friend accepts that the present arrangements are setting neighbour against neighbour and community against community and that something serious has to be done? I believe that there should be urgent consideration of a systematic and uniform entitlement to transport for all schoolchildren.
I would not disagree with anything that my hon. Friend has said on this matter. The solution proposed by the working party—namely, that the same amount should be paid by all parents whether they live half a mile, five miles or seven miles from school—would also set neighbour against neighbour. There is no easy answer. We are trying to find the right answer. I hope to make a statement to the House in the near future.
Has the Minister accepted the principle of the working party's report that the existing two- or three-mile limit system should be replaced by a system of flat-rate charges? Will he bear in mind that a flat-rate charge would not set neighbour against neighbour and that, unlike the present means of financial support, it could be rebated in the case of less-well-off families?
No, we have not yet accepted the recommendations made by the working party. We are still discussing the matter with the local authorities. There is a great deal of controversy about the particular recommendation to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
In view of the prolonged delay in these matters, will the Minister encourage local education authorities to follow the example of Humberside County Council? Is he aware that that council has used its present discretionary powers in respect of school transport to provide special transport for secondary school children from Old Goole in my constituency from 1st January this year?
Indeed, we are collecting evidence of good practice in various parts of the country. Local authorities have wide discretion. I remind the House that local authorities are also strained in their resources. There is no simple answer. In fact, every answer is a very expensive answer.
Is not the Minister weary of sitting on this report for a whole year? Does he not realise that this delay is causing hardship both for local authorities and for parents and that that will continue to be the position until he can lay down the principles on which the Government set out to improve bus services for schoolchildren? In particular, will he hasten to help the rural areas, where this problem is often the most serious?
There are plenty of urban areas that have serious complaints about the impact of transport costs. Of course I am weary. I would like to find the answer but there is no quick, slick solution. We are searching for the right answer.