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School Transport

Volume 974: debated on Wednesday 21 November 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has had with regard to changes he proposes in the statutory requirement on local education authorities to provide free school transport to children who live beyond walking distance to school.

The representations I have received relate mainly to possible charges falling on families in rural areas and families with children attending denominational schools.

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that these changes are savage and discriminatory—discriminatory against children attending denominational schools, discriminatory against the families of farm workers and farmers living in remote areas, and, indeed, discriminatory against Scotland because of the high proportion of people living in rural areas? Will he put an end to these proposals, or do we have to wait until the Tory Members representing rural areas in England do so?

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is right. Discrimination in this matter is nothing to do with rural areas. If there was discrimination at present, it would be against those in the urban population who have to pay for the transportation of their children to school while many of those in many rural areas get it free. If local authorities exercise their discretion to impose a flat-rate charge the distance travelled will have no effect whatever on what is paid.

Is the Secretary of State aware that it is wholly specious for him to say, as he did earlier to the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. McQuarrie), that the responsibility for these cuts will lie upon the local authorities and not upon the Government, when the Government are presenting the local authorities with an option to raise the rates or make the cuts?

The point here is that we are at least giving local authorities freedom to decide what is most suitable for their own areas. Some local authorities will decide on one solution and others will decide on quite different solutions. What is essential is that the money we spend from the public purse should be within what the nation can afford and that the resultant expenditure by local authorities should be fair to all concerned. I see no reason whatever why it should not be.

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that those whom he' mentioned in city areas who do not benefit from this particular provision for school transport nevertheless have to pay for it through their rates and taxes? Does he not see that as a great unfairness?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Over many years my own constituents have repeatedly complained at the unfairness of urban children having to pay their fares when others do not have to pay anything.

Does the Secretary of State not concede that some local authorities are already prepared to exercise discretion and provide reasonable support for school transport? Is he aware that this discretion will be jeopardised by a decision to make—in the case of the Central region—one of the denominational schools close and therefore force that local authority to bus children some considerable distance? The likely effect of the closure of St. Mungo's school, Alloa will be that parents will be unable to send their children to that school and that the local authority will be unable to meet the requirements of the 1918 Act.

The hon. Gentleman has failed to appreciate what is likely to happen. If there is a flat-rate charge there will be absolutely no difference in what people pay, irrespective of the distance they travel. Therefore, in a way, one could say that the further they have to travel the greater subsidy they will receive. The flat-rate charge seems to me to be fairer to everyone.