asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she is yet in a position to announce changes in the system of qualification for free school transport.
Not yet. there are genuine problems of administration and finance to which solutions will have to be found before we are able to put forward alternative proposals. Since we cannot assume that additional resources will be made available for home to school transport, we also have to find an acceptable balance between a charge for travel that is at present free and the degree of assistance that can be given to parents who at present get none. We are pressing on as quickly as possible with the examination of these problems.
I am grateful for that reply. Is the hon. Lady aware that her Department has been sitting on this matter, although it has, I agree, been trying to find a solution, for three years? In May, she promised me a statement before the recess, but now says that we are to go on for another one, two or three years. Is she aware that hon. Members on both sides of the House want an answer to the problem, especially on behalf of those in rural areas, and a cure for a system which is a mass of abuses?
I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said and much regret that it has not been possible to give him the answer he seeks, but he knows that any suggestion of change has brought opposition to anything different from the existing proposals and it is with this that we are trying to grapple.
Does not my hon. Friend agree that it is unjust that a child living just inside the three-mile limit has to pay for his journeys or travel on foot up to three miles while a child living just outside the area gets free travel? Will she consider the possibility of introducing a standing charge for everybody and at least make sure that something is done quickly?
We are pursuing the question of a standing charge. I agree that it is unjust that children living just outside the boundary should have to pay and that it is wrong that all parents should have to pay, irrespective of their income. My hon. Friend will be aware that it is already possible for local authorities to assist parents with the cost of travel on a discretionary basis and we regret that many are choosing not to do so.
Will the Minister ensure that in any review of the transport arrangements the special needs of those living in rural areas and those who send their children to denominational schools are catered for?
It is trying to cater for such special needs that is causing the hold-up.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the serious financial burden that the present system places upon parents who live just under three miles from the school? Can she not treat the matter with a little more urgency and stop trying to agree with the indifferent local authorities things that they will not agree? Why does she not come out with a scheme and impose it?
Unfortunately, it is not only the indifferent local authorities that disagree. It is precisely the groups to which my hon. Friend referred that are at present benefiting under the scheme and are reluctant to see any change in it.