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Petitions

Volume 497: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2009

Petitions

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Observations

Children, Schools and Families

School Transport (Hertfordshire)

The Petition of residents of Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire, and others,

Declares that residents of the village are deeply unsatisfied with the current allocation of free school transport from the village of Little Gaddesden to Tring School; further declares that the treatment of children living in the Little Gaddesden pupil catchment area for Tring school is unfair and divisive.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to rectify the situation and provide free school transport for all pupils regardless of the location of their home within the village

And the Petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Mike Penning, Official Report, 25 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 1035.]

[P000383]

Observations from the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, received 22 July 2009:

Local authorities have to make transport arrangements where they consider it necessary to secure an “eligible” child’s attendance at school. Where they consider transport necessary, it must be free of charge. Schedule 35B of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 defines “eligible children”—those categories of children in an authority’s area for whom travel arrangements will always be required. Local authorities have wide discretion in deciding whether transport is necessary, but they must provide free home to school transport for pupils of compulsory school age who are attending their nearest suitable school, provided that the school is beyond the statutory walking distances. These are two miles for pupils below the age of eight and three miles for those aged eight and over.

The Government are committed to increasing choice for all parents and securing fair access to schools—especially for children from low income groups, where lack of affordable transport can act as a barrier to choice. This is why we extended entitlement to free school travel for pupils entitled to free school meals or whose parents are in receipt of maximum Working Tax Credit.

This has meant that since September 2007, primary school pupils aged over eight have been entitled to free travel to their nearest school where this is more than two miles from their home. At secondary age, since September 2008 pupils attending a suitable school that is between two and six miles from the child’s home, (as long as there are not more than three nearer schools) and those attending their nearest school preferred on the grounds of religion or belief between two and 15 miles, have been entitled to free school transport.

Hertfordshire County Council has advised that the availability of schools in the Little Gaddesden area and the unusual extensive lay out of the village means that the nearest school to a child’s home will be different, depending on the location of the home within the village. The layout of the village has resulted in some children from Little Gaddesden not qualifying for free travel as their parents have chosen to have their child educated at a school that is not their nearest school.

With the exception of children from low income families, the courts have held that local authorities do not have a duty to provide free school transport for children whose parents have chosen to send them to a school other than the nearest suitable one; even if it is beyond statutory walking distance

On securing a place at a school, admission authorities must explain clearly whether or not school transport will be available and, if so, to which schools and at what cost (if any). Information about school travel and transport options available to parents must be set out in the authority’s composite prospectus.

It is the Government’s belief that Hertfordshire County Council, acting through the Local Authority, is fulfilling the school travel and transport duties in providing free home to school transport to “eligible” children from Little Gaddesden to Tring School.

Work and Pensions

Council Tax Benefit

The Petition of members of The Royal British Legion and others,

Declares that some 25,000 signatures were added to a petition delivered to Number 10 Downing Street in support of Council Tax Benefit being rebranded as a rebate; further declares that over a third of veterans and their dependents over 65 live on an income below the minimum required for healthy living and that Council Tax bills are probably the largest household expense for this age group; notes that uptake amongst pensioners of Council Tax Benefit has dropped sharply since the abolition of the old domestic rates system’s rebate and that £1.5 billion of Council Tax Benefit is left unclaimed by pensioners each year; further notes that more than half of the ex-Service community think veterans would be more likely to claim Council Tax Benefit if it was known as a rebate.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to commit now to rebranding Council Tax Benefit as a rebate before the time of the next general election.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Mr. Paul Burstow, Official Report, 21 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 1704.]

[P000367]

Observations from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, received 12 August 2009:

Improving Council Tax Benefit take-up for pensioners is a key priority for the Department and we are taking active measures, working with local authorities, to ensure people understand, and are encouraged to claim their entitlement.

For example we have made considerable effort to make the claims process easier and change was made last November allowing pensioners to claim Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit in a single telephone call at the same time as Pension Credit. We are waiting to see the results of that important initiative.

Even so, the take-up of Council Tax Benefit is disappointingly low and around 10 per cent of pensioners in poverty, or 200,000 people, are there because they do not take-up the benefit. The most recent figures for 2007-08 show that around 62 per cent to 68 per cent of all those whom we believe to be entitled to claim council tax benefit actually do so—the percentage for pensioners is smaller.

We accept that we must do more to remedy the situation and have been impressed with the case made by the Royal British Legion that the name “Council Tax Benefit” is an obstacle to claiming. In recent weeks, the Department has liaised with the Royal British Legion over what can be done in the short term in partnership with local authorities to help them re-market Council Tax Benefit as part of their work to promote benefit take-up.

The Government acknowledge that renaming Council Tax Benefit to reflect its true nature as a tax rebate may encourage more people to claim their entitlement. This is something that we believe is worth doing and we will consider carefully the case for making the change when Parliamentary time and resources allow.