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Transport: England And Wales

Volume 982: debated on Wednesday 2 April 1980

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

Lords amendment: No. 17, in page 21, line 14, leave out clause 23.

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

With this we may take Lords amendments Nos. 19, 25, 26, 27 and 28.

I shall be brief on these amendments—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—that is, if I am allowed to be.

The House will be aware that another place voted to delete clauses 23 and 25. The House will also be aware that on 18 March I informed hon. Members that the Government had decided not to attempt to reintroduce the clauses. The purpose of these amendments is to delete the clauses and to make the necessary consequential changes.

I make no secret of the fact that I am very resentful at the action of another place, and I say that for three short reasons because we are working against time.

I do not have the cowing respect of the hon. Gentleman for a hereditary Chamber.

The first reason why I resent what has been done is that the other place has thrown out—this is quite the right analogy in an Education Bill—the baby with the bath water. The other place has thrown out a few admittedly objectionable babies, but it has also thrown out a good deal of bath water and we are back to the two-and three-mile limits, which I think all hon. Members, whatever their views, find objectionable and about which we receive a large number of letters, which are not generally addressed to their Lordships.

We must live with this every day. There were some very good schemes. For brevity, I shall cite merely one. In the part of the county which I represent, a scheme was in preparation and was ready to be brought into operation under which there would be no charge for any child attending any primary school. All the usual exemptions, which are properly regarded by the House as important, would have applied. The exemptions set down by my right hon and learned Friend would have applied. For 28½p a day for the remainder, we would have raised £580,000 in a full year. Frankly, that money must be found from alternative sources. I believe that it was a proper use of resources and a proper use of priorities. It placed the expenditure at the place where it ought to be placed.

Secondly, I am resentful because, in all my modest experience in the House, local education authorities have consistently asked for the freedom which the clause gave them in part. The trouble was that a very small number of them abused it. If ever there was an undertaker for this clause, it was the Conservative leaders in the county of Kent. The warning is extremely clear, and my party had better take it very much to heart, because there is a warning for us in this episode. If one operates a policy, or gives the appearance of operating it, in an extreme way, one incurs reaction and resentment from a great weight of middle opinion. That middle opinion must be taken along with any Government who anticipate, as we confidently anticipate, governing the nation for a considerable number of years. I give the briefest of examples so as not to stray out of order. There are lessons in that with regard to employment policy and so on.

Thirdly, I am resentful and sad because I think that the opposition in some quarters was conducted with a stridency which was not appropriate for the occasion. It was conducted with an assumption which was not valued—the assumption that in 1944 a settlement was made which was absolute and which had not been altered on either side. As I have said before, three times within the last 21 years the crucial part of that settlement, which is the capital ratio between Churches and State, has been altered. It was altered rightly, with good will and by Governments of different political colours. On the last two occasions, in 1967 and 1975, with other hon. Members I was very close to the negotiations which led up to it.

Those compacts were changed because conditions had changed, money had lost its value and the State understood and recognised that there should be changes. Yet when the State, for equally valid reasons and with the same kind of background, sought to make changes, that was denied.

My real anxiety is that when once again the Churches approach the State—I do not believe that it is "if", in a modern, inflationary age; I believe that it is "when"—some of them will find that their stridency has considerably prejudiced their case. I mean that very deeply. What we are seeing today is an example of a battle being won but a war being lost. In strategic terms, I believe that the decision is very short-sighted.

11.45 pm

My hope is that we shall make a considerable change. I shall draw the House's attention to a most remarkable speech on this matter by the Duke of Norfolk. The rules of the House do not permit me to quote it verbatim. He told the House of Lords that he would use the language of the barrack room, acquired over 30 years. He then used very quiet words, so I think that the barrack rooms in which he lived were not those that I experienced as a young man. He said that he hoped he could say "Roll on Christian schools". I think that that will be the way in which it will work. We shall see the denominational schools making way for schools of all denominations combined.

I wish to make a small constructive suggestion. The political reality of what we are seeing tonight is that no Government of any colour will touch this subject again in the foreseeable future. All politicians have burnt their fingers on this issue, and there is now a deadlock.

Why not let us see whether the House, which has put us in this position, might not, by its membership, have the ability to assist the nation to see its way through? Would it be possible for some distinguished Member of another place—there are many such persons with experience and education—to bring together a grouping, crossing party lines? Perhaps out of that grouping could come a solution to a state of affairs that we simply cannot leave as it is. I accept without question that, given the political realities at the time, there was no other alternative open to the Secretary of State. I believe that from the start he was right and another place was wrong.

We have just heard a typically direct, brief and pungent speech from the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee). There is a great deal in what he says. This could be the time for a certain gleeful celebration, but we must lace heavily our joy about the morale-boosting effect of the Government defeat, which was accomplished with the help of 96 Labour Members of the other place, with concern for the implications of the action which they took.

I think that they took the right action. Indeed, the amendment that they passed was precisely the amendment that we put before the Standing Committee. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of the official Opposition, Liberal Members and one or two courageous Conservative Members, our effort was not sustained. Obviously, I am not critical of what the Lords have done, and I do not join with the hon. Member for Wokingham to that extent.

Despite the expected savings that the hon. Member for Wokingham and his local education authority hoped would be made, the experience of local authorities, with which I have close acquaintance, is that they would have had to make such broad omissions and exemptions from the general rule of imposing charges that their actual savings would have been a fraction of those originally intended.

Those original savings, although fractional, would have been secured at the expense of further fractures in the community. They would have been secured at the expense of further differentiation between those attending denominational schools and those attending others. I know of two cases in which children have attended schools where Welsh was the medium of expression. Those additional burdens would have had to be borne by the community. In addition, parents would have had to pay charges. Exemptions would have imposed a bureaucratic surcharge on the operation of the scheme.

The proposal would have varied in its effect from area to area, class to class and family to family. However, the proposals contained in the original Education (No. 2) Bill would not have provided the opportunities imagined by the hon. Member for Wokingham. As a student of politics, I warmly applaud the hon. Gentleman's advice to his Front Bench colleagues. As a member of the Labour Party and as a Socialist, I fear that advice. The hon. Gentleman echoes the Lord Privy Seal and other eminences in the Conservative Party when he says that the consensus should not be breached, that the centre should not be offended and that no impression of being didactic or ideological should be given. He implied that peril lay ahead for the Conservative Party if that were done. The hon. Gentleman is correct.

In a partisan sense, I take considerable joy from the type of smash-ups that occur, and will occur, as a result of pursuing an intransigent and uncharacteristically ideological course. Some people have warned of its effect. For the country's sake, I hope that the Government implement that advice. I hope for the sake of the Labour Party that they continue to ignore the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows what I mean.

It was not merely the relationship between Church and State that led to contention in debate on clause 23. Although the noble Lady the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science put up a sterling struggle in the other place, especially in the closing stages of debate on clause 23, she made similar reference to the concordat and to the benefit provided for religious denominations as a result of changes wrought since the enactment of the 1944 Act. I still believe that the most fearsome, effective and telling opposition to clause 23 came from the rural areas. Those who accepted the closure of schools and those who were faced with enormous imposts on the sad level of wages earned in rural communities made their voices heard.

Regardless of which party is in power, I hope that heed will be taken of our experience of clause 23. I hope that the organisations and mobilisation presently in existence will be maintained. Recognition should be given to the fact that the rural community is forceful and articulate. It does not have to obey anyone's will merely because it has been dictated. The interests of the rural communities should be asserted. That has not been done for many years. Perhaps those interests have not been asserted since the days when Rebecca and her hosts rode the turnpike roads of West Wales. Let us hope to have not a "Jacquerie"—although the Government deserve that—but an articulate, effective and assertive rural lobby that will confront any Government. That is good for democracy and for the protection of the countryside and its people. All Governments would then be more cautious about rural interests.

The most important effect of the decision not to leave clause 23 in the Bill, which in general delights me, is the impact on the financial resources available to local education authorities. We have said continually, and I still hold it to be the case, that the savings or additional resources made available to local education authorities as a result of implementing clause 23 would have been much smaller than the estimate in the financial memorandum to the Bill of £30 million in England and Wales and £2 million in Scotland. Had it been even one-half or one-third of that figure, £10 million would still have had to be withdrawn from expenditure in the classroom and associated activities. We always felt that that was unjustifiable and unnecessary. That figure is now more likely to be £30 million.

When the Secretary of State conceded on 18 March that the changes wrought in the House of Lords would have to be acknowledged by the Government in this place, he did not announce that a further subscription was to be made through the rate support grant or in some other form to enable local education authorities to sustain their obligations to provide transport for children who need subsidised or free transport. Even more recently, in the press release published on Budget day and in the accompanying papers, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said:
"The Government will consider in the course of the 1980 Public Expenditure Survey, in readiness for the 1981–82 RSG settlement, the implications of the decision of the House of Lords on school transport which I accepted in the House of Commons on 18 March."
At the very least, during this financial year there will be £30 million less than expected in the Government's previous public and education expenditure pronouncements.

There is no guarantee that in this year's expenditure survey the Government will have a change of heart and reduce education expenditure—a course on which they are already set—by £30 million less than otherwise. They have acknowledged that it is unfair to anticipate a policy of reducing expenditure, accept defeat and then have to concede not only the wisdom of that majority decision but the financial implications for education.

I plead with the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his colleagues, as we did on 18 March, that as he has conceded that the proposition has been defeated I give him every thanks and accolade, because he still would have had a majority—the obligation that he takes on is to secure an additional £30 million, so that there is no danger of an even greater cut into the flesh and bone of the education provision. I hope that he will encourage us with news of such efforts or at least indicate that in the course of the expenditure survey in this financial year he will try to convince his right hon. Friends that they should find that additional £30 million.

It is out of order for me to quote the words of another place. It is a quaint custom, and on this occasion it denies the House the ecstatic pleasure of reading the speech of Baroness Young in her concluding remarks in the debate on clause 23. I have whet the appetite of the House, and I hope that I am in order in suggesting that hon. Members should rush out and purchase all remaining copies of the House of Lords Hansard of 13 March and note in columns 1270 and 1271 the remarkable insight provided into the thinking of the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science. She holds an entirely responsible opinion. It is a respectable perspective of our society in transition. It is one of the most extraordinary social surveys that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I hope that it will be widely read in the House.

12 midnight

I have given the Minister and the Government full credit for facing the realities of what was done in another place on 13 March. I hope that they will now face the realities of our education system and ensure that people shall not pay as a result of this decision.

My final point arises from the remarks of the hon. Member for Wokingham. He said that, having seen one Government burn their fingers on the vexed subject of school transport, he was sure that no other Government would make the attempt. I hope to contradict that by demonstrating that the policy of the Labour Party—which we enunciated in our manifesto at the last election—is to ensure that there are no demarcations of treatment between people living on one side of the border and people living on the other. We acknowledged the heavy cost of school transport, even over relatively short distances, and the necessity of transport to school because of the hazardous conditions on our roads. I hope that we can honour that commitment at some future date. It seems to be the only sensible way, in justice, in which we can make developments in the absolute guarantee and assurance that children can travel to school in as great safety as the local authority and the State can guarantee and at as low a cost as possible—and, therefore, the least disincentive—to parents.

Was it not the proposal of the Labour Party, when in Government, to introduce flat-rate charges for transport to school?

When Labour was in Government, that was among the proposals. We referred to that in Committee. I do not think that that proposal was ever put in any precise form, and certainly it was not promoted as part of the legislation.

The Labour Party policy which preceded or superseded—that is a matter for debate—that proposition was a development of that and a movement towards the provision of free school transport where necessary. I shall not make any promises from the Dispatch Box that would be idle gestures. We have considered the matter on other questions arising from the Bill. Whether it is the Conservative Party or the Labour Party that brings this about, the necessities of our modern, crowded society—with its dangerous roads, with communities that are becoming increasingly isolated, with falling school rolls and with a concentration and rationalisation of schools and school population—will continue to impose on any Government an obligation to ensure that children are able to travel to school at costs that are not only not prohibitive but are conducive to the involvement and assistance of parents in taking their children to school.

That requirement will eventually boil down to the provision of free school transport. I hope that it will be found out of a Vote other than the education Vote. That is a campaign on which we can join hands across the Table. Nevertheless, that will be the only way in which this continuing dilemma, which is becoming harsher by the year, will ever be resolved.

I was ex-extremely pleased to hear what I think was a clear undertaking from my hon. Friend the Member for Beclwellty (Mr. Kinnock) that in due course a Labour Government will be in a position to provide free school transport for every pupil who needs it, whether in rural areas or elsewhere. I was grateful to my hon. Friend for the tribute that he paid to the campaign that was waged in the rural areas of the United Kingdom to preserve the existing degree of free school transport. A strong campaign was mounted throughout the United Kingdom. It is ironic that the representatives of the overwhelming majority of rural families who sit on the Conservative Benches let down their constituents. Those families had to rely on another place to protect their interests.

I was delighted to hear that the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) was not cowed by the ideas of those in another place. If he had as many members of another place residing in his constituency as I have in mine, he might pay more attention to them. I had the genuine privilege not long ago of taking part in a meeting of the Royal British Legion in my constituency, at which Lord Haig of Bemersyde, a constituent of mine whom my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) frequently quotes, was present. I paid tribute to the noble Lord in public on that occasion for his vote in the proceedings in another place. He took the opportunity to protect the interests of those in rural areas.

I am not in the habit of detaining the House at this time of night, especially when a number of Scottish hon. Members have trains to catch, but I have been goaded into contributing to the debate by a half-witted reply today from the Secretary of State for Scotland. Two weeks ago I tabled a question to ask the Secretary of State for Scotland by what amount he had reduced the rate support grant to the Borders regional council and Lothian regional council for 1980–81 as a result of his decision on school transport. It appeared as question No. 25 on the Order Paper. As a result of the verbosity of some of my hon. Friends, some Conservative Members and Ministers, the question was not reached. In due course I received a written answer to tell me that the deletion of clause 25 of this Bill would not result in any reduction of rate support grant.

I said that that was a half-witted reply, and I meant precisely that. How could the deletion lead to any further reduction of the rate support grant? The reduction had already taken place. It had taken place in all local education authorities throughout the United Kingdom. It had taken place in the Lothian regional council, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North (Mr. Fletcher), the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, probably knows better than I do because the whole of his constituency lies within that council. As many hon. Members will know, the council had decided, in common with all local education authorities in Scotland bar one, not to impose school transport charges.

It may interest the House if I refer to the one local education authority in Scotland which decided to impose school transport charges, which includes a part of my constituency, namely, the Borders regional council. I quote what the convener of the council said in a press statement. Major Jock Askew, the Conservative convener of the council, said:
"The Borders Regional Council is faced with having to consider a rate of 63p, an increase of 17p, and at the same time cut its services. As Convener, I view this situation with the gravest concern. I can appreciate that ratepayers faced with paying substantially more for a reduced service must be both perplexed and angry."
How true. That represented an increase of 37 per cent. on the rates and considerable cuts in public services, including the imposition of a charge for school transport. That appears in the papers that the council circulated, namely, item No. 41:
"Introduce a flat rate charge of 10p per day per pupil for transport to and from school £100,000."
I appreciate that that is peanuts compared to the figure that some of their reactionary brethren in the South-East and in the county of Kent have in mind. That is the figure for the Borders. Presumably, considerably more had already been deducted from the rate support grant to the other regional councils within Scotland by the Secretary of State for Scotland. We are given to understand that the total is about £2 million.

Even if I were to refrain from dwelling on the shortcomings of the Borders regional council, it must be accepted that in anticipation of the implementation of this clause—which has rightly been deleted by the House of Lords—the Secretary of State for Scotland took £100,000 from the Borders regional council. Overall, he has taken over £2 million from all education authorities in Scotland. As a result of the decision, which the Secretary of State has rightly accepted, that £2 million will have to be deducted from other education services in Scotland. That is outrageous.

The Secretary of State has accepted the decision of the House of Lords, and the decision and the will of the people in rural areas. If he accepts that decision, he should also accept that he is duty bound and honour bound to give back the money which he took away prematurely from the local education authorities. I sincerely hope that he will take the opportunity of this debate to make an appropriate announcement.

The House of Lords did a grand day's work on this clause. It did so with a combination of Conservative peers, Liberal peers, Labour peers, Cross-Bench peers and bishops. It did it not merely with a decisive majority, but with a massive majority. In doing so it brought relief to hundreds of thousands of people in Britain, particularly in rural areas where there was real fear about families on wages just above family income supplement level—

Indeed. I am glad that the Secretary of State is saying that the peers were egged on by us.

I said that the fear was egged on by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who deliberately and persistently exaggerated, totally without regard to the provisions I included. I remember a speech in which he talked about figures which had no relationship whatever to the sort of figures that were being requested. That is fear-mongering by the Liberal Party.

They were the figures of the Kent county council. The hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) has already described the mess into which the Kent county council put the Secretary of State by putting flesh on the bone, quoting figures and bringing them before the—

In that speech—which I remember well—the hon. Gentleman did not mention Kent once. He talked about people living in his constituency and the appalling amounts that the council would have to charge at a time when it said that it would not charge anything. He was responsible for any fear that was created by the intentions of the Government—not the Government's proposals. That is the sort of propaganda put forward by the hon. Gentleman.

The propaganda was entirely true. I suppose that the Secretary of State is now saying that I misled Lord Butler, the Duke of Norfolk, half the bishops, and the majority of Conservative peers. The Conservative peers, with the aid of the Liberal peers, would not have needed the 96 Labour peers who voted in the House of Lords for what I am advocating. There were enough Conservative peers—misled by people such as myself—who pointed to the effects of these proposals.

My county council was one of the first to say that it wanted nothing to do with those provisions. It did not wish to implement them. The Secretary of State cannot say that it would have been all right in the hon. Member's constituency because the county council was refusing to do what I told it to do. Because it had extensive school transport obligations, it would have had to cut far more services than other authorities in order to satisfy that requirement. I welcomed my county council's decision, but it was not made thanks to the Secretary of State. The council was acting directly against his advice.

12.15 am

The fears were real. They were based on the charges that could have been imposed—not only in my constituency but in many other parts of the country where the threat was made by some local authorities—upon families whose incomes were marginally above the family income supplement and supplementary benefit level. Those charges could have been enormous.

It took a long time before we had the concession that the charges must be uniform. That did not come out at the beginning. It was wrenched out of the Government. It was not until the Bill went to another place that there was the concession that not all the children of large families would be affected. Never during the passage of the Bill through this House did any Minister say "We are prepared to make a concession. Only two children will be affected." The Government had to see the peers chasing them before they made a concession. The charges could still have mounted up to a high level for families with two children.

Great relief is felt by rural families, especially families that had gone through the whole traumatic business of having village primary schools closed, with the result that their children had to go further away, and families that had gone through secondary reorganisation, not simply in the past few years but throughout the years since the war, involving their children in travelling 15, 20 or even 25 miles to school, with the parents being expected to pay for that privilege.

The amendment has also brought considerable relief to the Roman Catholic community. Here I entirely dissent from the view of the hon. Member for Woking-ham. He may think that when people genuinely state their objections and anxieties in strong terms they are being strident. I do not find such expressions in any way objectionable. No letter or other representation that I received from the Roman Catholic community could be criticised in any way for having been other than a genuine expression of concern about the implications of the Bill. I totally disagree with the hon. Gentleman's view that it is somehow improper for people to express their views in those terms.

Perhaps in the clubland of London or the higher reaches of society there are discreet and polite ways of gently tipping the wink, saying "This isn't on, old boy. It's not quite the thing." But Roman Catholics in my constituency and in other parts of the country speak their mind in simple and straightforward terms. They said that they saw the proposals as a threat to their schools, and that view was strongly held throughout the Roman Catholic community—parents, teachers, headmasters and clergy. They put it to us honestly and straightforwardly. Some Members disagreed with that view, but nobody challenged people's right to put it, and it carried a great deal of weight in another place.

A number of hon. Members have said tonight that the Government must make up the money. I am not sure that I go all the way with that. My own local authority was among the first to be prepared to face up to making cuts elsewhere, and I must recognise that it was possible to do that. But at every stage when we argued with the Government about the assisted places scheme they said "If we dropped the scheme the money would not come back to education. It comes out of some other fund, a special new fund for projects that we really like. There is access there to funds that are not generally otherwise available to education."

I have never been able to understand the philosophy that there is a special kind of money that can be obtained from elsewhere. However, the Government have waived it at us often enough. It is time we waved it back at them. If they can pluck money out of the air for the assisted places scheme, they can mitigate the impact of the sensible and necessary decision that school transport must continue to be provided.

There are two important criticisms to be made of the speech of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). First, the Liberal Party goes on emphasising through the country the importance of local government. I agree. It says that this, that and another thing should be left to the discretion of local authorities. I agree about that, too. What I find astonishing is that the hon. Gentleman seeks to reconcile that general view with his virulent attack on clause 23.

The clause did one thing, and one thing only. It empowered local authorities to charge. I happen to believe that, generally speaking, they should not charge. I was very pleased that the Lincolnshire county council decided not to do so. But I also think that this is precisely the kind of area in which local authorities should have a discretion. If we are to have local authorities, it is very important that decisions of great consequence be left to them. I do not think that it is possible to reconcile the hon. Gentleman's remarks with the general principles that the Liberal Party purports to profess.

The other point that I want to make is this.

I shall deal with that matter in another debate—not tonight, because time is short. I shall deal with it when the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) intervenes in a proper way, and not until then.

I shall give way when the hon. Gentleman intervenes in a proper way, and I am referring to the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire, who is sitting down. As he is incapable of intervening in a proper way, I do not propose to deal with the point.

No.

The second point that I should like to make on the speech made by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed concerns his suggestion that the position of the Roman Catholic church was justi- fled. I think that he was wrong. If one goes back to the Education Act 1944, one sees that the only obligation on local authorities was to transport pupils to the nearest appropriate school. The denominational schools to which most pupils were being transported for free were not the nearest appropriate schools in all cases. The local authorities could, in the majority of cases, refuse to transport those pupils. In fact, the local authorities, exercising an undoubted discretion, chose to transport those pupils for free. I have no reason to suppose that that policy would have changed as a result of anything in clause 23.

I shall give way in a moment if the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene.

The position has been made worse, because, as the local authorities are going to find it difficult to raise money as a result of the deletion of clause 23, they may stand on their undoubted statutory right to decline to transport pupils to denominational schools if they do not happen to be the nearest appropriate schools. That was the second area in which the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made a major mistake. Because I am a courteous fellow, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Three-quarters of what the hon. Gentleman said is correct, and the Roman Catholic community knows it very well. Most of the transport of Roman Catholic children to school is at present discretionary. But what the hon. Gentleman neglects to understand is that if local authorities were charging to convey non-Catholic children to the nearest appropriate school, it would be virtually impossible for those same local authorities to continue to provide free transport for Roman Catholic children to schools at a similar distance from their homes.

I disagree. I must tell the hon. Gentleman what my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State told him. The Catholic community did not appreciate the true position. One reason why it did not appreciate the true position was the speeches made by Opposition Members who repeatedly misled people as to the true statutory position. The hon. Member for West Stirlingshire, who is sitting on his backside at the moment, has a great deal to answer for on this particular point.

It is perhaps a measure of this extremist and reactionary Government when the Department of Education and Science and the Scottish Education Department try to take up a position which is even more Right-wing than the Right-wing House of Lords.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland ought to be thoroughly ashamed to be members of a Government who had to be forced and almost kicked by the House of Lords into the position in which they are now. I think that we can all thank the grand old Duke of Norfolk to get this nasty clause deleted from this nasty Bill. It appeared that there was agreement across party lines in the other place. Indeed, many of the friends of Conservative Members voted against them in the other place. I think that one of the junior Ministers, who has a smile on his face, is grateful that the House of Lords let the Government off the hook on this matter.

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the vote in the other place simply underlines the fact that the Members of that place are no more than running dogs and lackeys of Conservative Central Office?

I never ever said that they were. If the hon. Gentleman reads my speeches criticising the House of Lords—especially those I made during the lifetime of the last Parliament—he will see that I never described them in the terms in which the hon. Gentleman has just used. Perhaps even I may take back some of the things I said about them. I may even postpone bringing forward my next Private Member's Bill to abolish the other place.

However, it is quite clear that on this crucial issue there were a minority of courageous Members of the Tory Party in this House—the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Pawsey), for example, and one of his benighted hon. Friends whose constituency I cannot recall—who led the attack against their party here. Most of the lapdogs obeyed the three-line Whip when they voted. However, Members in another place decided to take a strong line on the matter. It was quite clear that it was not just the Tory Party that was divided on this issue. Families were divided. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram), for example, voted in this place for the retention of the clause, whereas his father the Marquess of Lothian and his uncle-in-law the Duke of Norfolk voted for the deletion of the clause in the other place.

I noticed on checking the Division list that the father of the Secretary of State for Scotland did not even turn up to support his son. I do not know whether that was a conscientious abstention. It may have been that Viscount Younger had been persuaded by the eloquence of his local Member of Parliament, because he happens to live in my constituency. I used to ask "Can anything good come out of the House of Lords?" This was one good result which did.

The hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr van Straubenzee) referred to anomalies which occur under the existing legislation and which will continue because of the two and three mile limits which have been restored. The hon. Member for—Hailsham, is it?

The hon. Member foz Grantham (Mr. Hogg) referred to the desirability of giving a certain amount of discretion to local authorities. There is no contradiction between the two. One can lay down a national statutory minimum while giving local authorities a discretion to be more generous. That is precisely what the two Labour-controlled education authorities in my constituency—Strathclyde and Central regional councils—do. The former, for example, imposes a limit of one mile for all primary schoolchildren and two miles for all secondary schoolchildren. There is, therefore, no contradiction there, and I look forward to hearing the hon. Member's justification for his rather ambivalent stance in wanting to give discretion to local authorities on school transport but not on the sale of council houses.

In general, I think that those local authorities, the churches the National Farmers Union and the trade unions, expecially those representing the workers in rural areas, ought to be congratulated on their campaign. It was reasonable. The adjective "strident" has been used. Sometimes one has to be strident in this place, and even in the other place, to attain one's objectives.

12.30 am

I turn now to another important matter—and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is responsible for education, has not yet fallen asleep. The Rate Support Grant (Scotland) Order 1979 states:
"Provision for education is 4½2 per cent. in real terms less than the coresponding figure for 1979–80. It has been assumed that authorities will be able to effect substantial savings in expenditure on school meals, school milk and school transport as a consequence of the increased freedom that they will have in providing and charging for these services under the Education (No. 2) Bill now before Parliament."
That wording was misleading. Instead of "increased freedom", the Government should have talked about deprivation of children's rights to free school transport. That is no longer applicable. There has been a change of circumstances. The Bill, as proposed by the Government when the rate support grant was approved by the House, has been substantially amended. It affects the rate support grant.

The financial memorandum states that the amount that the Government hoped to cut or save by removing children's legal rights to free school transport in Scotland was £2 million. That means that the Government should now introduce a supplementary rate support grant order for Scotland providing at least an extra £2 million. I hope that the Minister will comment on that.

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, who was a member of the Committee on the Bill, does not realise the position. As usual, the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) was mistaken about his constituency. Before the Lords amended the Bill all Scottish local authorities had made it clear that they would not charge. I presume that they therefore adjusted their 1980–81 budgets accordingly. In those circumstances, there is no need for an alteration to be made to the rate support grant for this year.

Nevertheless, the total rate support grant to the Scottish local authorities was calculated on the assumption that £2 million would be cut. Now the legal obligation is to be continued, the rate support grant should be increased by at least £2 million to enable local authorities to fulfil their statutory obligation.

The Ministers will say that no money is left in the kitty. Earlier this week was the closing date for submissions on that tatty document on the assisted places scheme. There is little if any support in Scotland for that silly scheme on which he proposes to spend £5 million a year. Let us scrap the assisted places scheme and find at least £2 million in rate support grant so that local authorities can continue to provide free school transport.

The Secretary of State is not entitled to say that, because the Scottish Office played little or no part in the debate, in spite of three major clauses in the Bill which refer to Scotland. It is not right to slip Scottish clauses into a Bill and complain when Scottish shadow spokesmen and hon. Members take part in a debate. It is not up to the Secretary of State's usual standard to complain about our contribution to a debate. That is out of character.

I shall direct most of my remarks to the deletion of clause 25 but I shall say something about the debate so far. There is a feeling that we should debate all over again whether local authorities should have discretion to grant free transport or whether a statutory obligation should be placed upon them.

The effect of the deletion of clauses 23 and 25 is to leave local education authorities in England, Wales and Scotland with the statutory obligation to provide school transport within certain limits. Beyond those limits they have discretion. I take it that the House is not engaged in a debate about the principle.

What surprised me was that when the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) was making what I regarded as a courageous speech—I did not agree with it, but I regarded it as courageous—the Secretary of State kept nodding in agreement and apparently saying "Hear, hear." If that is so, it leads us to the clear conclusion that the Government simply have not had the courage to overturn a decision of the other place which is not acceptable to them.

Instead of having the courage to overturn that decision, the Government are saying in the most generous terms they can muster that they will accept it but will not provide the money—as my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirling-shire (Mr. Canavan) said—to implement their acceptance.

When clauses 23 and 25 are taken out of the Bill, there will be a statutory obligation on LEAs throughout Great Britain to provide free school transport. The Secretary of State has made it clear that he is imposing that obligation by virtue of the fact that he is accepting the decision of the other place. There can be no ifs or buts about that. As a result of that acceptance, the Secretary of State is saying "I shall still go ahead and punish the LEAs, and I will not give them the money."

Before the hon Member develops his argument on the financial point, may I ask whether he has not been intrigued, as I have been, by the fact that since the Lords defeat the Government have kept saying "All we were trying to do was to give the LEAs what they asked for—the freedom to charge for school transport and relieve them of the statutory obligation"? I asked the Secretary of State for Scotland this week whether the removal of the statutory obligation to provide free school transport was done at the request of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and I got a one word answer—"No".

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). The simple fact is that there is nothing in the Bill in relation to Scotland that has been done with the agreement of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. As the Minister knows, the Convention is strongly opposed to the Government's provisions on school meals, milk and transport. The Bill has no friends in Scotland, and the Minister well knows it.

That brings me to the financial aspect, and I shall relate my remarks exclusively to clause 25. I get the feeling that the Minister simply does not understand the rate support grant in Scotland. He certainly does not understand the Education (No. 2) Bill. The rate support grant settlement was not agreed with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities; it was imposed on Scottish local authorities. In that rate suport grant settlement imposed on Scottish local authorities, there was a reduction of £2 million to take account of the Government's decision to abolish free school transport.

I take it that the Minister accepts that the explanatory and financial memorandum says that £2 million less will be made available because the Government have decided—it is in corporated in the Bill—that free school transport for children should not now be available but should be at the discretion of the local authority.

I shall take the Secretary of State through this stage by stage. Does he accept that £2 million less will be made available? I have to spell it out in simple terms for the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Having taken him through the first stage—that the rate suport grant settlement leaves £2 million less available to the Scottish local authorities because he decided that free school transport should be a discretionary aspect of education at the disposal of the education authorities in Scotland—I should tell him that the position has now changed. What the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying is that Ministers have changed their minds. Whereas, before, school transport was to be discretionary, it is now mandatory. I take it that the Minister agrees with that. That is the implication of accepting the amendments from the other place.

If the Minister accepts that the provision of free school transport is now mandatory and that there is a statutory obligation upon local authorities in Scotland to provide this, his decision has been changed. He is, therefore, under an obligation to restore to the Scottish local authorities the £2 million. If he does not do so, basically he is stealing £2 million from the local authorities in Scotland in respect of school transport.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), the Minister said that the arrangements made no difference to the budget plans of the regional authorities. That is misleading, to say the least. It is not true and the Minister knows it. Of course, the authorities budgeted on the basis that they would not have the £2 million. But they did so on the advice given by the Scottish Office that free school transport would no longer be available. That is not what the Minister is now saying. He is saying to local authorities in Scotland that, as a result of the decision in the other place, free school transport is a statutory obligation, but the Government will not give back the £2 million which they took away when they thought that school transport provision would be discretionary. There is no dispute about that.

Earlier today, the Minister sought to answer questions about a reduction in rate support grant to various Scottish authorities. The question was not about the effect of the deletion of clause 25 from the Bill, and the Minister knows that. He is an expert at not answering questions. He knows that the question was about the reduction in rate support grant. We shall press him and we shall find out—whether he wants to tell us or not—how much each of the Scottish regional authorities is having stolen from it by him as a result of the Government's refusal to restore the rate support grant.

While I join my hon. Friends in welcoming the decision of the other place, I do so, not with regret but certainly with mixed feelings, because I wish that the other place had had the courage to take matters to a logical conclusion and remove the provision inserted by the Government concerning school meals and school milk. The other place, while it has done us a service in one respect, has done us a disservice in another. It could have made a major contribution. We owe a debt of gratitude to Lord Butler, to whom I freely give thanks. I wish that the other place had deleted those other provisions.

The Secretary of State is about to reply. I can understand his touchiness. No one likes to receive the humiliating defeat which he has had to suffer on this clause. I hope that, in replying, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will complete the answer he gave to us on 18 March and tell the House and local authorities throughout Great Britain that he accepts the decision fully, that he will not punish local authorities and will restore the rate support grant, and that he will also ensure that common sense prevails in the Scottish Office so that the rate support grant is restored in Scotland, too.

I start by apologising to the hon. Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing) for what I said when he got to his feet. It was not that I objected to his intervening as a Scottish Shadow Minister. It was merely that there had been one speech from the Opposition Bench and I did not realise that we were to have two. If the hon. Member felt that I was discourteous to him, I apologise.

Perhaps there is one thing to be said for this matter. If it means that, for the first time, Labour Members are ready to accept the importance of a bicamarel legislature, some good will come out of the decision made by the Lords.

12.45 am

I am immensely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) for the support that he attempted to give me on this clause throughout the passage of the Bill through this place and for his speech tonight. I regret the decision that was made in the other place. I made that clear at the time, and I made it clear in my statement when I said that, nevertheless, the Government, being realistic and seeing the size and composition of the majority in the other place, thought that the only right thing to do was to accept the decision. The fact that one accepts the decision does not mean that one necessarily believes that the other place was right, and, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham gave, I regret the decision that it took.

The hon. Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth spoke about the penalty on local authorities. His hon. Friends the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) and for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) demanded that I should put back into the rate support grant the money that had been allowed for to provide school trans- port. I must repeat what I said quite clearly in my statement on 18 March in accepting the decision taken by another place. The fact that it is not now open to local authorities to make savings in this way in no way withdraws from them the need to make savings in their education budgets.

The Government made it clear at an early stage last summer that they would look for savings in public expenditure because they were essential in the public interest. We believed that it was right that in looking for those savings local authorities should have the opportunity, if they wished, to make part of those savings by bringing in charges for school transport. Parliament has decided that that option is no longer open to them, but that does not mean that those savings do not still have to be made. The rate support grant has been fixed, the cash limits have been fixed, and the fact that this is a matter for local authorities is confirmed by the fact that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) agreed that several counties had decided to make the savings that we were looking for in other ways.

Local authorities have always realised that we were looking for savings of a certain percentage in their budgets and that it was up to them to decide how they were made, but many of them asked that in looking for those savings they should be able to look for them in transport provision. So it is not a question of penalising them. It is not a question of putting money back. They recognise that the savings that have to be made will have to be made in ways that do not include modest charging for transport.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). It is extraordinary that the Liberal Party, which seems to support the concept of giving more power to local authorities and is always arguing for the devolving of power to local authorities, objected to a principle when this occurred. I can only assume that the principle of devolution to local authorities was outweighed by the principle that Labour Members did not want to support anything that might be unpopular with the electorate.

The hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who, unfortunately, has left the Chamber —I know why he has had to leave—said that he was glad to hear the clear undertaking by his hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty that the Labour Party was now committed to free school transport for all. I did not think that the hon. Member for Bedwellty was quite as clear as the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian thought he was. I thought that the undertaking was hedged around with ifs and buts and "I should like to say but I really cannot quite."

If that was a commitment by the Opposition, the hon. Member for Bedwellty might like to reflect on the cost of it. The cost of school transport in the current year is likely to be £125 million, and it benefits only one of 10 families. If one considers for a moment the cost of providing free transport for the other 90 per cent. of children, I think that the hon. Gentleman—if he gave that clear undertaking, which I rather doubt—may live to regret the fact that he did so.

Question put and agreed to.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wanted to put a brief question to the Secretary of State before he sat down, and I wonder whether I can ask it during our discussion on clause 25.

Lords amendments Nos. 18 and 19 agreed to.