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School Transport (Clwyd)

Volume 23: debated on Tuesday 4 May 1982

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Lang.]

11.19 pm

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the subject of the rate support grant settlement and its effect on education in Clwyd. I wish to look at the effect of the settlement on a narrow sector of education in Clwyd—the transport of children to school. Children must be able to get to school.

Five or six villages in the county—Coedpoeth, Broughton, Penyfordd, Brynleg and so on—are two or three miles from schools. Bus passes have been withdrawn. Hundreds of children are involved.

The county council took the decision last year: the bus passes were to cease to operate from 1 January this year. Parents raised a considerable protest and the council deferred the decision. It came into effect about a fortnight ago at the beginning of the summer term. Further protests have taken place. At least 500 schoolchildren are not now attending lessons. That is serious.

Let me explain what is behind the parents' decision. The two basic issues are the danger of children walking to school and the expense of public transport fares. When the Education Act 1944 was passed, road conditions were very different. In a large city, transport may move at only 15 or 20 miles an hour. The road from Coedpoeth to Wrexham is a trunk road and traffic travels on it at 50 or 60 miles an hour. A considerable length of it has no footpath. Particularly in the winter, when children travel home after dark, there are considerable dangers.

Fares are expensive. I live in a rural area. I tend to use my motor car and have not used buses for years. I had not appreciated the expense of public transport. The fare to school and back is between 90p and £1·20 a day or £5 or £6 a week. Families with three children would have a bill of between £15 and £16 a week or £70 a month.

I give one example of a family with a total income of £78 weekly. The man is unemployed. I hope that the Minister realises that I am referring to an area with a high unemployment rate of more than 20 per cent. The family have three children at school. If the parents are to pay for their public transport to school, about one-fifth of the £78—about £16—will be paid out. I ask the Minister to pause and consider how serious that is, and how substantial a proportion of £78 that represents.

I can say with a fair certainty of being correct that there is not one child attending Eton College—perhaps one of the most distinguished of public schools—whose parent spends one-fifth of his income to send his child to that college. I do not know the annual fees for Eton, but assuming that they are £5,000 I doubt whether parents with children at Eton are earning less than £25,000 annually. It is, therefore, costing an unemployed parent in my constituency proportionately more to send his children to school in Wrexham than it costs a parent to send his son to Eton College.

I stress to the Minister that the parents involved are not given to emotional hot air, and so on. They are serious-minded, sincere people who are faced with a genuine problem. This was put graphically to me by a mother who said that in no circumstances would she allow her child to walk the 2¾ miles along this busy road. She said that she would rather have an uneducated child than a dead child. Walking to school was, therefore, ruled out—in my view, rightly so. The mother added that she simply did not have the money for public transport and that she could not raise the money. The problem is intractable for that mother. The present position is that her child is not attending the school in Wrexham but, in common with hundreds of other children, is attending makeshift classes that the parents have arranged.

That is the scale of the problem. One might have thought that perhaps the Department of Health and Social Security could help. I do not advocate that parents should be obliged to go to the Department of Health and Social Security to get their children to school, but the strange fact is that the Department is not entitled to help. I have a letter from the Welsh branch of the Department of Health and Social Security that puts the matters in a nutshell. The letter states:
"Regulation 4 of the Supplementary Benefit (Requirements) Regulations 1980 sets out the day-to-day living expenses which are provided for in the basic scale rates."
One of these expenses is normal travel costs, which one might consider applies to fares to and from school. The letter adds that regulation 11 provides for additions to be made to the normal requirements for certain specified expenses, but school fares are not included. In addition, regulation 6(2) of the Supplementary Benefit (Single Payments) Regulations 1981 specifically precludes the making of a single payment for travelling expenses to or from school. Therefore, the Department of Health and Social Security regards the question as being one for the Department of Education and Science and for the local education authorities.

The local education authority—in this case the Clwyd education authority—takes the view that this is a matter for the Government. The Minister will no doubt tell me that the matter is one for the county council. So we have the authorities—the Government, the Welsh Office and the county council—each saying that the matter is of no concern to them. The plain fact is that after 112 years of universal free education in this country we have now reached the position in Clwyd where many children no longer enjoy the right to universal free education. That is the reality of the situation.

The education authority is quite clear in its view. I have here a letter from the chief officer dated 8 April. It says:
"The county council contend that responsibility for meeting the additional costs devolving upon parents lies with central Government"
despite the various points made in the correspondence. The letter continues:
"All the foregoing is of national concern to both parents and education authorities. It does not affect our urgent review of the local situation. Whether there is something that Clwyd can do on a county basis to assist less well off parents is something we have under the most active consideration".
I understand that the county council proposed that a small proportion of the total number of parents would receive special grants, but this has been rejected by the great bulk of parents as just tinkering with the problem and not getting down to the matter proper.

The council has made an estimate. I am not clear how it has been reached, but I suspect that it was merely a question of counting all the children and multiplying by the average fare or whatever. The county council estimates that to cater for every child in the county of Clwyd who wishes to travel by public transport would cost about £1·6 million. The council says that it does not have the money.

I know that the county council has a discretionary right to spend moneys on a range of services. I understand that it makes a grant of about £1·4 million to rural buses, yet quite often those buses travel the rural roads of Clwyd pretty well empty. One could argue that the council should alter its list of priorities and uprate the priority of the school children so that the buses are at least fully used. More use would then be made of the money spent by the council.

That is a pretty short-term answer to a real problem. It will become bigger and bigger, and many other councils will gradually face the same kind of problem. Therefore, I trust that the Welsh Office will seriously look at this problem, because it is a real one of considerable importance. In the immediate future, I hope that it will make available a specific grant for this purpose.

I do not think that anything like £1·6 million is required to deal with the problem, which affects those children who have had bus passes and have had them withdrawn. Those who have never experienced the provision of free bus services are not really concerned. This applies to people living in certain areas of the country. My guess is that the amount of money involved would be substantially less than the £1·6 million estimate of the county council. I hope that a specific grant will be made, just as recently a grant was made from the council's general budget in respect of education for children over 16.

Secondly, in the longer term I hope that the Government will consider the whole question of the need for these schools, particularly in Wrexham where we have a sixth form college.

In my opinion, where a sixth form college exists, there is hardly a need to have schools of 1,100 or 1,200 pupils up to the fifth form. I should have thought that schools with 300 to 500 pupils could become viable units. If that is so, schools could be located as they were a few years ago—in the villages that they used to serve—instead of being centrally positioned in towns.

I have raised a serious problem, and I hope that the Minister will reveal at least a glimmer of light.

11.34 pm

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis) is deeply concerned about the problem that he has raised, as are the parents of many of the children in his constituency. Therefore, I shall state the facts involved.

The level of local authority expenditure on individual services has to be considered in the context of the whole rate support grant settlement for 1982–83. The RSG settlement is a matter of major importance not simply in relation to individual services and to the local authorities concerned but for the Government and the country as a whole. Public expenditure has to be kept to a level that the nation can afford. Local authority expenditure accounts for a substantial proportion of total public expenditure and it cannot be exempted from playing its part.

The rate support grant settlement for 1982–83 is a very fair and generous one for Welsh local authorities. The £94 million increase on the settlement provision for current expenditure compared with 1981–82 should enable local authorities to maintain their services at broadly the same level as was envisaged in last year's RSG settlement.

Not only was the current expenditure provision of the 1982–83 settlement £94 million—9·1 per cent. —higher than the RSG settlement for 1981–82 but also the amount of grant increased by £72 million—8·3 per cent. —over that for 1981–82. As a result of the generous settlement Eind our decision to reduce the level of domestic rate relief to 18½p in the pound, local authorities have been able to limit their general rate increase to only 4½ per cent. on average-the lowest increase for very many years. Clwyd county council has kept its precept unchanged from that of 1981–82.

The rate support grant is of course unhypothecated, and therefore the amount spent on the education service as compared with other county councils is solely a matter for the county council concerned to determine for itself. It is free to decide its priorities and the level of expenditure on each of the services which is appropriate to the circumstances. If a local authority chooses to protect one service at the expense of another, that is a matter on which I cannot comment, nor would I wish to intervene. The concern of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and myself is that local authorities in aggregate do not exceed the total expenditure provision which underlies the RSG settlement.

Having said that we are mainly concerned about the aggregate level of expenditure, I should add that Clwyd county council has been able to benefit from the generally fair settlement. The county's share of total grant-related expenditure is virtually unchanged from last year. Although grant-related expenditure is not a precise measure of an individual authority's level of expenditure, the fact is that Clwyd county council has maintained its position and shared in the general benefit.

There are some who continue to repeat the statement that local authority services are being savagely reduced because of the Government's action. What are the facts? The facts are that on the basis of the latest estimate there has been no reduction in local authority spending in Wales in real terms between 1977–78 and the last financial year. Where, then, are the draconian reductions in Welsh local authority services, given the very severe economic circumstances the country has had to face in a period of world recession and massive increases in oil costs? I do not remember Opposition Members complaining in 1977 that local authority services were grossly under-funded. I would also wish to remind hon. Members that since that time the largest single sector of local authority expenditure—education—has seen a fall in the number of pupils in Wales by 40,000, a reduction of nearly 8 per cent.

It must be said that, if pay and price increases exceed the levels allowed for in the settlement, authorities will be expected to make compensating savings within their budgets. That discipline applies to local authorities as it does to central Government. The Government consider that savings can be achieved through increased efficiency and effectiveness without authorities resorting to reducing services. However, individual authorities may decide that a reduction in service levels is necessary to keep within the Government's expenditure guideline. Their choice is taken in the full knowledge of local needs and circumstances and is not dictated by the Government.

Local authority expenditure in 1982–83 is, however, being closely monitored and the Secretary of State has emphasised that, if the Wales RSG aggregate level of expenditure for the year is exceeded, he will need to withhold grant. In the event that it becomes necessary to withhold grant, the Secretary of State has made it clear that he will seek as far as possible to protect those authorities which have made an effort to keep their expenditure at a reasonable level.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of difficulties which a number of parents in his constituency and, more widely, in other parts of Clwyd, are facing in paying for the transport of their children to school following the recent decision by Clwyd local education authority to withdraw discretionary school transport from certain groups of parents in the county.

I would not dispute his figures—the hon. Gentleman knows the local circumstances—and I would make the point to him that I am not unsympathetic to parents who find themselves in such a position. However, I would like to put to him and to parents, on whose behalf he has spoken tonight, a certain number of points and I hope that in so doing I shall make our position quite clear.

First, this is without a shadow of doubt a local government matter in that it is for local authorities to determine their own policies on school transport within the framework of the law. This law provides in effect that local authorities must provide free transport, or its equivalent, from a child's home to the nearest suitable school when a child lives more than three miles away if it is aged 8 or over, or two miles away if it is under 8. That is the statutory position and I know of no authority which is failing in its statutory duty in this regard. If children live closer to school, then the authority may, at its discretion, assist with transport and, of course, it may also give the same assistance if parents choose a school which is not the nearest suitable school for religious or other reasons. But transport provided in such circumstances is entirely discretionary.

That is the first point I wish to stress to the hon. Gentleman. The authority may provide transport or they may take it away according to their judgment of local needs and circumstances. Of course, it is very helpful, if you are a parent living some distance from a school, to have your child's travel provided by the local authority. But I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there should be limits to the beneficence of local authorities in this matter. Were all children to be provided with free transport irrespective of where they lived, the cost would be enormous and a serious strain on the resources available for education. Clearly, that could not be supported and it must therefore be right for parents to take responsibility for getting their children to school where the distances involved are not excessive. Let us remember that it is not necessary always to contemplate paying for bus fares. Over these distances it is not unreasonable in many cases, if not in all, to expect children to walk or to cycle to school. It would not be reasonable to expect children to walk or cycle more than three miles, which is why the law provides that transport over this distance should be free. That is my second point—that it is entirely right for parents to have certain obligations placed upon them for getting their own children to school.

It is wrong to present, as the hon. Gentleman has done, this action by Clwyd local education authority as a direct result of the restrictions on public expenditure which the Government are setting in the course of returning the economy to a sound base. How a local authority decides to spend its resources is, within the framework of the law, entirely a matter for it alone to decide and, if authorities like Clwyd should decide that there is more value in spending their resources on books and teachers, which are central to the education system, than on such ancillary services as school meals and school transport, this is entirely a matter for them.

Here we come to a most vital point. I understand that to make transport provision within the Clwyd local education authority which would cater not just for the children of parents who have lost their former free school transport for their children but for the children of other parents who live equal distances from schools in the county—to make this provision based on providing free school transport over distances of two miles and one mile instead of the statutory distances of three miles and two miles—would cost Clwyd an extra £1·6 million. That is a lot of money and the hon. Gentleman must say from where it should be found if he wishes to see this provision made.

The £1·6 million is the equivalent of approximately 200 teachers. Would it be sensible to sack 200 teachers to provide more school transport? That £1·6 million is the product, approximately, in Clwyd of a 5p rate. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that rates in Clwyd should go up by this amount with the effect that that would have on industry and employment? Or is he suggesting that the money should come from the education budget? Again, were it to come from the education budget, we cannot escape the decision as to whether that money, if it could be made available—and I am not suggesting for a moment that it can—would be better employed in providing books and teachers rather than on providing school transport. Decisions on its use of resources are for the county council to consider, but it is right for me to make it clear that the issues involved are not all straightforward ones.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that Clwyd local education authority already spends heavily on school transport—a total of nearly £3·5 million each year. I am sure that he also realises the large number of children who have to 'ravel to school in that largely rural county. He will know that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of parents in the county who are already paying for school transport for a distance of under three miles to enable their children to get to school. Such parents far outnumber the relatively few from whom this transport concession has been withdrawn. Does the hon. Gentleman think it right that certain groups of parents within the county should be

The Clwyd education committee decided that there should be equal treatment for all parents in the county on the school transport issue and this decision was endorsed by the whole Clwyd county council. I understand that it is determined that, if any future changes are to be made in school transport policy, they should apply to all groups of parents in the county. This policy was confirmed by a full meeting of the Clwyd education committee this morning.

I am sure that Clwyd county council is not in any way insensitive, or unsympathetic, to the real difficulties facing some parents from whom this concession has been withdrawn, and I understand that Clwyd has said that it will provide free transport for children living anywhere in the county who have to travel more than 2½ miles to school if their parents are in receipt of certain benefits. This concession is designed to assist those who are least able to cope with their present difficulty, in a constructive and helpful manner that is fair to all.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of undertakings which had been given to the parents. I recognise that undertakings made by a pre-existing authority at a time of different economic and social circumstances may in some cases cause difficulties for the successor authorities——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eleven minutes to Twelve o'clock.