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Service Units Overseas (School Transport)

Volume 890: debated on Monday 14 April 1975

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1.32 a.m.

It is my purpose this evening to draw attention to the arrangements that presently govern the transport of schoolchildren by buses abroad. I do so without in any sense wishing to make party political points, as this would appear to be a situa- tion that has subsisted for many years. I propose to deal chiefly with the situation in Malta, but I should like to draw certain general conclusions from that and suggest to the Minister that a code of practice be evolved to deal with situations of this kind in future.

In Malta these arrangements are made by the Director of Navy Contracts, Supplies Department, Ministry of Defence. The text that governs the arrangements is to be found in a publication entitled "Service Children Schools, Malta". This publication provides certain general regulations governing this in an appendix, and paragraph 5 of that appendix, headed "School Buses" says:
"The Service children's education authority does not accept any liability for injury to children should accidents occur whatever the cause."
I turn to the particular case that first brought this state of affairs to my attention. It related to the daughter of one of my constituents, a Miss Nichola Goble. Her father was stationed in Malta, and she was transported to school under a contract made by the person I have identified with a taxi firm run by Mr. Grech. Mr. Grech sold his contract immediately to a Mr. Shenbury, who ran what one might call a cowboy taxi service—without any insurance—and, it appears, driving extremely dangerously, as he was frequently reprimanded by the military police at the post for racing. In due course he had an accident and a number of children were injured, including Miss Goble who was seriously injured. She had one operation and still faces a number of further operations.

It was found to be impossible for the parents of Miss Goble to proceed against the original contractor or against the subcontractor. The subcontractor disappeared completely, and the original contractor was pursuable only under the law of Malta—a law which severely restricts the damages and procedures available in such circumstances. It is true that Mr. Shenbury had a policy with the London and Lancashire Insurance Company, but that company made it plain that it would not be agreeable to the case being tried under the principles of English law for the good commercial reason that it had insured the vehicle in Malta at a lower premium than in this country simply because awards in the Malta courts are so very much lower. Consequently we are faced with some unpalatable conclusions about the present arrangements.

These conclusions are, first, that it is a subject of considerable criticism in any event that the Ministry of Defence should contract transportation of schoolchildren out to foreign civilian personnel. Secondly, having taken the decision to contract the work out, should not the Ministry exercise more care and vigilance, particularly as small children are involved? Thirdly, should it not ensure that the contractor is adequately insured. Fourthly, should not the Department prevent subcontracting. Fifthly, if subcontracting is permitted, should the Ministry not ensure that the subcontractor is adequately insured? Should it not also take care to see that the driver of the vehicle has at least the qualities required of a school bus driver?

Finally, is it not true that the contract did not contain a condition whereby any claim arising out of it would be dealt with in accordance with the principles of English law? Is this not undesirable where it is likely that all the children are the children of Service personnel in this country? Should we not examine the matter of insurance to see that it is made a condition of the contract that the scope of cover should at least he applicable to the English equivalent?

It is not for me to make specific recommendations to the Minister. His reputation as a humane and conscientious administrator will ensure that he will examine the matter closely. I am sure he will agree that it is desirable that there should be a major and radical change in the arrangements—not only on humanitarian grounds but on the ground that there is a possibility of still more serious and dangerous consequences arising out of this matter, which would be expensive and tragic.

1.38 a.m.

I have listened with great interest to the speech made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark), and I wish to thank him for presenting the various aspects of the case so clearly. This seems an almost exemplary way in which to use the opportunity presented by an Adjournment debate—in terms of the clarity and brevity with which the hon. Gentleman presented his case and in the fact that in basing his case on a particular incident he went on to examine the wider principle.

May I say how very much I regret that the accident to the bus of one of the Ministry of Defence's contractors in Malta should have resulted in the injuries sustained by Miss Goble on 20th March 1973. I shall say rather more about that in a few moments, but it might be helpful if I first dealt with the policy of providing travel facilities for Service schoolchildren abroad.

When married Service men stationed overseas have their families with them, and the family includes children of school age, educational facilities are arranged which are comparable, as far as this is practicable, to the statutory requirements laid on education authorities in England and Wales by the Education Acts. So far as the conveyance of children to school is concerned, there is a responsibility to provide transport for pupils who do not live within walking distance of the nearest suitable school.

In the Services, and in line with these statutory requirements, free travel is provided for children attending Service children's schools or certain civilian schools in areas overseas where the distance to the nearest school or local conditions make the use of transport necessary. Travel is arranged by the most economical means suitable for the purpose, and children would not normally be expected to undertake journeys of longer than 45 minutes if they attend primary schools, or 75 minutes if they attend secondary schools. These times, of course, include waiting and walking.

In practice, the local Service authorities decide how best to provide school transport overseas in the light of the facilities which are available. If there are suitable Service vehicles available, they would normally be used. If there are no Service vehicles available or if they are insufficient for all needs, local transport may be hired, or, in suitable circumstances, a motor mileage allowance paid to parents who are prepared to use their private cars to take their children to and from school. In the case of Malta, transport for schoolchildren is hired from a local contractor. The hon. Gentleman has rightly emphasised this tonight.

I now turn to the most unfortunate accident in which Miss Goble was injured and as a result of which she spent about two weeks in hospital. According to the report of the Malta Police—and I quote —the mini-bus which was conveying 13 schoolchildren was approaching Conspicua when it developed a mechanical defect, swerved to its left, mounted the pavement, hit a traffic sign and overturned. Before coming to a halt it careered on its side a distance of 83 feet.

I must say that this vivid description of the accident underlines how thankful we must all be that the injuries suffered by the children were not very much more serious than they in fact were. Six of the children were injured; they were taken initially to St. Lukes Hospital and later transferred to the Services Hospital at Mtarfa. A board of inquiry convened by the Flag Officer Malta to investigate the accident also concluded that the cause of the accident was a mechanical fault.

In Malta transport for Service schoolchildren is provided under the terms of the contract between the Ministry of Defence and, as the hon. Member has said, a Maltese contractor, Mr. Grech. Among other things, this provides that the contractor is solely responsible and liable to meet claims and demands for compensation which may be put forward by any person in respect of personal injury. A further provision is that all buses are to be insured in accordance with Malta Government regulations and to cover injury or damage to authorised passengers and their belongings. On the basis of these provisions, Corporal Goble was advised to institute a civilian case against the contractor and the insurance company concerned.

It then, alas, came to light that the mini-bus involved in the accident had changed hands some months earlier and that the insurance policy for the vehicle was in the name of the previous owner. Not only that; it excluded cover if the vehicle was used for "hire or reward". The insurance company, not surprisingly, was not, therefore, prepared to meet the claim for third-party damages against a policy which it did not regard as valid on the relevant date.

There is no individual bus company in Malta which is large enough by itself to meet the Services' full demands for transporting Service schoolchildren. In order to fulfil the requirements of the contract, the main contractor, Mr. Grech, had to make use of a considerable number of vehicles other than those which he owned. One of these additional vehicles was the mini-bus, since scrapped, which had the accident on 20th March 1973. Mr. Grech was apparently unaware that the owner-driver, who has, I believe, since gone to Australia, did not have the adequate insurance cover required by the contract with my Department. This is clearly a most unsatisfactory state of affairs both for the Ministry of Defence and for Corporal Goble in seeking to pursue a claim in respect of his daughter's injury.

We, of course, recognise that, apart from this aspect, it is now more difficult for Corporal Goble to pursue his claim against the individuals in Malta since he is again serving in the United Kingdom. I am pleased to be able to say, therefore, that, while not accepting that the Ministry of Defence has a legal liability under the terms of the contract for the provision of school buses in Malta, my legal advisers wrote to Corporal Goble's solicitors last week proposing that an ex gratia settlement of the claim should be agreed with the Ministry of Defence. I am hopeful that, particularly from Miss Goble's point of view, this matter can now be speedily resolved. We should then, of course, take up the question of financial recovery from the contractor in Malta.

I am much obliged to the Minister, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) is also grateful to him for his help, the sympathetic way in which he has approached the matter, and the proposed ex gratia payment. But I am interested in the general principle. The Defence Department is responsible for appointing transport agents, and presumably must feel some sense of responsibility for vetting the insurance arrangements. Will the hon. Gentleman expand on this particular case, and give us an indication of the general principle that should apply?

One of the advantages of representing adjacent constituencies is that the hon. Gentleman and I come to read each other's minds. I was coining to the point that he has just raised.

I can emphatically assure both hon. Gentlemen that we shall naturally be reviewing the arrangements overseas for transporting Service children to school, and considering what can be done to avoid the sort of circumstances which arose in the case which the hon. Member for Sutton has so properly brought to the attention of the House tonight. I am sure that we all wish again to express our gratitude to him. I emphasise that everything he said will be taken most carefully into consideration.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Two o'clock.