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School Transport

Volume 981: debated on Tuesday 18 March 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on school transport provision in England, Scotland and Wales.

As the House will know, decisions were taken last week in another place to delete clauses 23 and 25 of the Education (No. 2) Bill. These clauses sought to empower local education authorities in England and Wales and education authorities in Scotland to charge for providing school transport. The Government have now had an opportunity to consider the situation and have decided that it would not be right to seek to reintroduce the clauses. Such consequential changes to the Bill as are necessary to give effect to this decision will be tabled as amendments for consideration on Report in another place.

As the House will also know, the Government decided last year that it was necessary for local authorities to reduce public expenditure, and the rate support grant settlements for 1980–81 were made accordingly. It was the request of the Association of County Councils that in making these reductions local education authorities in England and Wales should be free, if they wished, to introduce charges for providing school transport. In view of the decision in another place last week, and the Government's acceptance of that decision, the option to charge is no longer open to local authorities. But this in no way removes the obligation on local authorities to achieve the needed reductions in expenditure in some other way.

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that in bringing this statement to the House the Government show the strategic capacity of the Grand Old Duke of York and the judicial sensitivity of Pontius Pilate? Is he aware that, as a consequence of what he is now doing—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"] I know that this is painful to Government Members, but they are going to get it just the same.

As a result of this decision, there will be a further increase of 6 per cent. in the cuts that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has already permitted in education; and there will possibly be—especially in those 20 LEA areas that sought to jump the gun—cuts in classroom pro- vision, sacking of teachers and reductions in capitation and book allowances as a consequence of including in the Bill a totally misconceived proposition for giving local education authorities the obligation to make charges for school transport.

Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman heard the threat that has been made by his noble Friend the Minister of State in the other place, which means that the people most likely to be afflicted as a result of the Government's decision are handicapped children, children in need of nursery education and those undergoing adult education, and that there are other areas where there is jeopardy in addition to the difficulties already created as a result of the Government's programme of cuts?

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that because he has now undertaken to endorse the will of the House of Lords he must also shoulder an obligation to make additional funds available by means of a supplementary rate support grant so that further harm will not be done to the structure and fabric of education because of the misbegotten ideas that he put forward in the Education (No. 2) Bill?

First, there will be no increase in the cuts as a result of the decision that we have made. The decision to reduce expenditure had been made and confirmed already in the rate support grant. Secondly, I do not understand what the hon. Gentleman means by those 20 local education authorities who "jumped the gun". Presumably he is referring to those authorities that were proposing to charge had they the freedom to do so. The answer is that they will have to make savings in other ways.

As for the threat by my noble Friend Baroness Young, to which he referred, the point that she was trying to make was that if local education authorities were rot able to make reductions in net expenditure by making modest charges for transport the money would have to come from some other part of the education budget, which might be more disadvantageous to the people concerned.

Is the Secretary of State aware that I share the enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Bedwelty (Mr. Kinnock) for the decision in the other place? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman clarify the remark made by Baroness Young, who seemed to imply that the cuts would have to be found in the education budget, which is not what the Secretary of State said in his statement when he talked about reductions in expenditure in some other way? Will he clarify that and recognise that there is something wrong with the direction of Conservative policy when twice within weeks the Government have had to retreat, first from damaging sub-post offices in the rural areas and now from their decision about school transport?

I do not accept that. I made it clear in my statement that those savings would have to be found by local authorities in some other way. That is consistent with our overall approach. It is a matter for local authorities to decide how they make their own reductions. However, I cannot ignore the fact that since these reductions were coming out of the education budget, in many authorities it may mean that they will have to come out of some other part of their budget.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the inclusion of clause 23 and its consequential discretionary power was at the express wish of local education authorities? Will he further acknowledge that the removal of this descretionary power inevitably means that the savings that are to be expected from local authorities may have an effect on classroom provision?

Yes. The inclusion of the clause was at the express wish of the Association of County Councils, which is a body representing local education authorities. As for the second part of my hon. Friend's question, as I made clear in speeches in this House and as clear in another place, part of our desire to have this clause in the Bill was to ensure that reductions could be made in this way rather than in other ways.

As most local education authorities have already made their budget plans for next year, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman understand that any further cuts in the rest of education expenditure will do serious damage to the education of our children, and that increased expenditure on education is necessary, just as much as on law and order or on defence, if we are thinking about Britain's future? Is he aware that the Government should take the opportunity offered to them by the sensible decision of another place to give education the priority that it deserves?

I repeat that I have announced no damaging cuts in education expenditure. All that I have said is that one option of achieving part of the necessary reduction has now been closed by the decision of another place, which is apparently supported by Labour Members. I am sure that we would all like to find many areas of expenditure on which more money could be spent. However, the Government are determined to ensure that Britain begins to live within its means.

My right lion. and learned Friend has explained with the logic and clarity to be expected of eminent Queen's Counsel that the primary reason for the imposition of transport charges was to save cuts in the more sensitive and important parts of the education system. What guidance does he now propose to give to local education authorities that were prepared to impose transport charges to assist them in the solution of the invidious and unwelcome problems that have been imposed upon them?

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that the results are invidious for local authorities that were aiming to make modest charges.

Yes, modest charges in this area. I do not feel that I can go any further than the guidance that is set out in the White Paper that was published earlier this year, which contains our ideas on the ways in which these matters could be met. In a very short time the local authorities whose education authorities were looking for savings in transport costs will have to make their own decisions where best to make other savings.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman understand that the decision that he has announced today is disgraceful and disastrous? Does he further understand that if local education authorities have to make reductions in their education budgets that will mean fewer ancillaries in schools, fewer teachers and increased class sizes? Does he understand, despite the furore coming from the Benches behind him, that his decision, when taken with the previous decisions, means that he is undermining the basic education system that has developed over the past 30 years?

The answer to the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question is that he talking nonsense. He knows full well—he was a member of the Committee that considered the Education (No. 2) Bill—that we are seeking savings of 3½ per cent. in expenditure on education at a time when pupil numbers will have dropped by nearly 5 per cent. during the same period. He describes my statement as disgraceful. May I remind him that I stated that the Government are accepting the decision of another place, which he supported and voted for in this place? If he asks me whether I realise that accepting the decision of another place may mean that reductions will have to be made elsewhere in more sensitive areas in the education budget, my answer is "Yes, I do." That is what I repeatedly said to the House and that is what Labour Members repeatedly ignored.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend noticed how many of the arguments in another place in relation to church schools rest upon the immutable nature of the 1944 settlement? Does he recall that three times in the past 21 years it is the Churches that have been suppliants to the State on the basis of changed financial conditions and changes in financial arrangements? Is it not inconsistent that the same arguments should not apply to the State?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who, as a leading member of the Synod, has consistently supported what the Government proposed to do in this area. I am fully aware of the changes that have been made since 1944 in the relationship between the Churches and the State. I do not accept that our proposals for school transport would have attacked in any way the concordat formed at that time.

Order. In view of the problems facing the House today, I pro- pose to call four more hon. Members from each side of the Chamber.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept, in retrospect, that it is a mistake for a Government of either complexion to persuade local authorities to prepare for making expenditure in their budgets that eventually turns out to be illegal only a few weeks before the end of the financial year? Is it not best to wait for Royal Assent? Does not the decision made in another place demonstrate, as did the example of the Secretary of State for Social Services, the scant regard that the Government have for law and order?

I can never understand why the hon. Gentleman always wishes to damage a good point, when he has one, by exaggeration at the end. I accept that it is unfortunate, and a pity that local education authorities that spent considerable time preparing to introduce charges from April onwards wasted their time and effort. Of course I regret that. The authorities asked to have that power and we agreed as a Government to put that into legislation. Those who wished to implement it when free to do so decided to go ahead in the hope that that legislation would come into force. I regret that that hope is no longer available to them.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend be rather more magnanimous in defeat? It is not merely what my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) said those who were led by Lord Butler in another place, and the House of Commons, have come to the conclusion—this has been admitted by the Government—that the burden should not fall upon rural areas. Surely it is up to the Government to find the £20 million or £30 million.

I find it difficult to know how much more magnanimous in defeat one can be than by announcing within three days that the Government accept the result of the defeat. At the request of my right hon. Friend I went to the county of which he represents a part and defended the proposals that the county council had for the imposition of charges. I hope that he will now support it, and the alternative savings that it has to make, with the same skill and venom that he used to attack me on the proposed transport charges.

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman be rather more magnanimous and assure the House that neither children who are handicapped and receiving special education nor children who are receiving nursery education will in any way be penalised by the decision that he has announced this afternoon?

Every one of us in the House is concerned about the problems of handicapped children. I have made that clear on many occasions. I cannot promise what the outcome of the decision will be. The 1980–81 rate support grant and the cash limits have already been fixed. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman an assurance about the other areas of expenditure in which local authorities may look for savings.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend follow up a couple of replies in which he very properly insisted upon a reduction in expenditure? Will he take whatever steps are open to him to ensure that the reductions fall on the ancillary and administrative arms of the service and that they do not affect the provision of education?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. I hope that local education authorities will consider making cuts in the areas that he specified. I regret that those authorities that intended to charge for transport will not now be able to do so. That may make it more difficult for them to achieve savings.

How can the Secretary of State pretend that he is being generous in his acceptance of the decision of the other place when what he is doing is accepting that Parliament should impose a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide free school transport? Because the Secretary of State and the Cabinet do not like or agree with the decision of Parliament, they now intend to punish local authorities and schoolchildren while pretending to accept that decision.

With great respect, that is not so. The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the Government's position. The Government and the Cabinet took a clear decision about the need to reduce public expenditure by local authorities. In the light of that decision local authorities asked whether they could have freedom to regard this area as one in which net savings could be made. The fact that the will of Parliament has decided that they shall not have that freedom does not, I am afraid, go against the orginal decision of the Cabinet that in the national interest savings had to be made.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that most of us who represent rural constituencies stood our ground, despite the protests, because the decision to enable local authorities to charge for school transport, however regrettable, was a better option than making cuts in the school room? Is he aware, further, that the Hampshire education authority has now to find almost £750,000 and that that is bound to affect the very educational standards that their lordships in their misguided wisdom were trying to protect?

I can only repeat what I have said on many occasions. Of course I regret the decision that has been taken, for the reasons set out by my hon. Friend.

We welcome the decision of the Lords and the announcement of the Government's acceptance of it. Does the Secretary of State realise the chaos that now faces many local authorities a couple of weeks before the beginning of the financial year, since a major element of their budget has now been put into confusion? In these circumstances will not the Secretary of State allow, for this year at least, additional resources from central Government or at least accept that local authorities will have to increase rate demands to meet this burden?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman—coming from a Welsh seat—should ask that question, since only one local education authority in Wales proposed to make a charge. I do not think that his question is relevant.

Are we to understand that there are to be no changes in the current law? Some of us feel that the present two and three-mile limits are arbitrary and make no reference to parental income.

The fact is probably often forgotten, for the reason given by my hon. Friend, that the Labour Government both in 1975 and in 1978 indicated their wish to bring in a flat rate charging system for school transport. At the moment the answer must be that we propose to bring in the necessary amendments to restore the law to its present position.