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School Transport

Volume 975: debated on Monday 3 December 1979

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12.

asked the Secretary of State for Wales how many representations he has received concerning the decision to cut back on free school transport; what reply he has sent; and if he will make a statement.

Threepetitions and 31 letters. In reply I have explained our view that savings in expenditure should, as far as possible, be secured in areas not directly related to teaching in the classroom.

Are not the basic points to be appreciated that the catchment area for Roman Catholic schools is far larger than that for the normal local education authority school and that it is the less well off parents who will feel the pinch of these increased costs? Will the hon. Gentleman prevail upon his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to delete this provision from the Education (No. 2) Bill, because such action would win the warmhearted approval of hon. Members on both sides of the House?

We are not singling out denominational schools. There is, of course, no statutory requirement in the Education Act 1944 for authorities to provide free transport for children attending denominational or bilingual schools, unless there is no nearer suitable school. What the local authorities now do for these schools they do at their discretion, and that discretion will remain. As I pointed out earlier, the amount of subsidy for school transport will remain substantial. As to less well off parents, under the proposed legislation authorities will still be obliged to provide free transport for children from families in receipt of supplementary benefit and family income supplement.

Does not the hon. Gentleman recall that one of the slogans under which the Conservative Party fought the election was that of increasing freedom of choice? This reduction in free school transport severely restricts the freedom of choice for many parents whose children attend Welsh language, Catholic and Church in Wales schools. It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say that the discretion will remain, but he knows that it is a meaningless discretion in that local authorities will not have the money to exercise that discretion.

It is not a meaningless discretion. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will make representations to local authorities if he feels that they are not exercising their discretion in a reasonable way. Of course we still stand by choice for parents and their children, but this must be with due regard to the public purse.

While accepting a good deal of what my hon. Friend has said, will he note the valid point made on this occasion by the hon. Member for Newport (Mr. Hughes), namely, that the catchment areas, particularly of the Roman Catholic community, are extraordinarily large? To that extent, would it be helpful if local authorities were asked, either in the form of a circular or something of that nature, to bear in mind the size of the necessary catchment area in any particular case?

I always notice any valid point made by the hon. Member from Newport (Mr. Hughes). I accept that the catchment areas for Roman Catholic schools are indeed extensive. The local authorities have recognised that by the discretion that they have shown in the past. I am certain that during further discussion on the Education (No. 2) Bill this matter will be given further consideration.