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Rural Areas

Volume 974: debated on Wednesday 21 November 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for Scotland how people in rural areas in Scotland will be affected by the changes in education and public expenditure which have been announced by the Government.

Will the Secretary of State give his estimate of the increased cost of school bus fares and school meals that will be imposed on rural families in Scotland? How many village schools does he expect to close?

It is not for me to impose any charges. All we are doing is opening the way to local authorities so that they can use their discretion. I envisage that many local authorities will opt to impose a flat-rate charge that would approximate to that already paid in respect of children living within urban areas who have to pay for their transport to school.

Will my right hon. Friend ignore the earlier summary of the statement that I made on the provision of school transport in rural areas? Does he accept that the present legislation is utterly riddled with anomalies? Is he aware, for example, that a single-parent family with three children, living just inside the three-mile walking distance has no entitlement to free transport, and the DHSS will give that family no contribution towards those costs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I would always prefer his advice to that of Opposition Members.

How can the Secretary of State say that he is giving discretion to local authorities when, in the rate support grant settlement announced last Friday, he has reduced the provision for school meals, milk and transport by no less than 36 per cent.?

I say that I am giving discretion to local authorities because that is exactly what I am doing. Local authorities will now be able to make the arrangements that they think—

—most suitable for the areas which they serve, in view, of course, of the public expenditure constraints which I have discussed with them.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people in rural areas were deeply incensed when the Labour Party, when in government, rigged the rate support grant against rural areas, in favour of Glasgow? Will he accept that it is widely welcomed that he has put away this piece of rigging in the present RSG?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have stopped this trend from continuing and we have made some modest advances in the other direction this time. That will be welcomed in all rural areas.

Will the Secretary of State admit that, not only are the Government cutting education expenditure, but the Education (No. 2) Bill is actually shifting expenditure away from areas most in need, such as rural areas? In order to give more money to fee-paying schools, the right hon. Gentleman is actually taking meals, milk and free school transport away from children in State schools. Is he proud to be a member of a Government who rob the poor to give to the rich?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will give more study to the figures. If he does that, he will discover that the reduction in expenditure on education is less than the reduction in pupil numbers, and that the new arrangements will show a slight improvement in the pupil-teacher ratio. The whole design of the assisted places scheme is to give greater help to those on low incomes. I should have thought that the hon. Member, as a Socialist, would approve of that.