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School Transport

Volume 976: debated on Tuesday 18 December 1979

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3.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what recent representations he has received about the transport of children to Roman Catholic schools, as affected by his Education (No. 2) Bill and public spending reductions.

I have met the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster as well as representatives of the Catholic Education Council. I have also received about 4,000 letters from individual members of the Roman Catholic Church and about 400 letters from right hon. and hon. Members about constituents' correspondence.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman realise that the way in which this will be interpreted by many local authorities will totally undermine the freedom of choice of Roman Catholic parents, as described in the Education Act 1944?Does he accept that he cannot blame the local education authorities because they are blaming him? In view of the large number of representations which he will continue to receive, does he agree that it is best to withdraw the whole of clause 23 and to accept the amendment tabled by the Opposition in Committee?

I do not accept that. The specific request to allow opportunity for charging came from the Association of County Councils which represents the majority of local education authorities. In many areas transport provision is made beyond that which is statutorily necessary or required. Once that provision is made, it must be free. If I do not give local education authorities the opportunity to recoup some of that cost by charging they will stop providing the transport. That would do greater harm.

Can my right hon and learned Friend make it clear beyond doubt that this Government are strongly in favour of Church schools—including Roman Catholic schools—and that they have no bias against them whatsoever?

I have made it absolutely clear on many occasions that I am a strong supporter of denominational schools. Indeed, many provisions in the present Education Bill, which is being considered in Committee, are greatly to the advantage of denominational schools.

Has not the Minister a cock-eyed view of freedom when he suggests or implies that local authorities should withdraw this form of transport? Would it not be a good idea at this stage, in view of the 4,000 submissions and the opposition from all quarters, to issue a directive to all local authorities saying that not only will there be no attempt to withdraw free school transport for the over-8s and over-11s, but that we shall move towards free school transport for all schoolchildren up to the age of 16 years?

I do not accept that. The cost of providing free school transport is increasing rapidly. If we had taken no action it would have cost £125 million in the coming year alone. The majority of parents do not receive free transport for their children. It is not unreasonable that those who are provided with school transport should pay something towards the cost.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that denominational schools are not treated worse than State schools in the provision of transport? Will he also consider the removal of the statutory limits, thereby getting rid of the anomaly and allowing those living within the three-mile limit to take part in the flat-rate charge scheme?

That is the effect of the present Bill. Local authorities have the right to provide transport and the right to charge for it if they wish. The Government do not desire that the powers be used to penalise those attending denominational schools. I should be extremely concerned if that occurred.

Does the Secretary of State understand his own Bill? Is he aware that Opposition Members believe that he does not understand that the transport clause in his bill will particularly hurt children in rural areas who attend special schools and Church schools—be they Church of England or Roman Catholic? Is he aware that, if he denies that, he does not understand the undertakings that have been given to Church schools and the effect that his Bill will have on them? Will he think again, in the light of the representations from both Roman Catholic and Church of England schools?

Of course I shall continue to listen to representations. That is why I saw the Cardinal Archbishop last week and undertook to consider what he said. The hon. Lady is right to say that those in rural areas and attending denominational schools make up the majority of those who benefit from the present free transport system. However, one cannot seriously defend and justify a system under which those who live just under three miles may have to pay the full cost while those who live beyond three miles, irrespective of income, receive totally free transport. We must make some reduction in expenditure. It is more important to make it in these spheres than in the classroom.