Is the right hon. Lady aware that some local authorities seem to have a policy of never providing school transport when they are not obliged to do so, however difficult or dangerous may be the journey to school?
Local education authorities have a very wide discretion. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman exact figures. If I had had them, I would have given them to him. We know of a number of local education authorities who make exceptions and give transport costs for shorter walking distances than those laid down in the Act. In addition, a large number give discretionary allowances in individual cases. A circular was issued some time ago asking local education authorities to have regard to this matter, especially where there were problems of safety.
Would my right hon. Friend agree that the time has come to have a comprehensive review not only of the mileage question, involving the two or three miles distance limit but also of the catchment areas which are used in bringing children to primary schools. The situation is a nonsense, particularly in view of my right hon. Friend's reply to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Terry Davis). I am sure the time has come for a review to take place.
I do not think we could initiate a comprehensive review of that kind without consulting local education authorities. These authorities have recently indicated that they, too, are worried about this problem.
I support the idea of a comprehensive review. If the right hon. Lady is prepared to consider this matter in consultation with local authorities, will she also bear in mind the fact that many bus companies—and this certainly applies in my constituency—are now not allowing half fares before 9.30 a.m.? This means that many children who do not qualify for free travel because they are within the limits laid down must pay full fare to get to school. This is a considerable hardship to many parents.
I am very well aware of most of the problems connected with school transport, but I must point out that many of these problems are local and that local education authorities are there to know local problems. Most of them are every bit as aware of the safety problems as are we at headquarters.
Local education authorities already have discretionary powers which enable them to provide transport to school where they consider traffic conditions dangerous.
Is the right hon. Lady aware that the regulations under which local authorities operate were laid down at the time of her illustrious predecessor, Dame Florence Horsbrugh, and that, if for no other reason, a change is appropriate under the present régime? Is she aware, further, that the regulations are totally out of date in the light of modern traffic conditions, and that the withdrawal of many rural bus services and the closing of many rural primary schools are exacerbating the difficulties? In any review of the situation, will provision be made for parents to state their views, in addition to those of local authorities?
The regulations allow complete discretion to local education authorities within the statutory distances. The total amount of money spent on the provision of school transport up and down the country is now £28 million a year. As for the hon. Gentleman's point about the closure of schools, he will know that permission to close some small primary schools in Cornwall has been withheld pending consideration of the transport problems.
Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that an increase in traffic, especially in rural areas, can suddenly import a new factor of danger into village surroundings? Will she have discussions with the Department of the Environment about the possibility of requiring very heavy lorries to keep to certain routes and not to take short cuts through villages? This has a great bearing on the safety of children.
I agree that heavy lorries going through narrow winding lanes have a great bearing on the safety of children. Local authorities themselves should be aware of the problem, and I should expect them to take the necessary action, if need be.
While it is true that local authorities have discretion within the regulations, it is the right hon. Lady who makes the regulations. Is she aware that there are two new factors affecting transport for school children? One is the reorganising of schools into larger units, resulting in many more children having to travel further to school. The other is the steep rise in bus fares and, in places like London, the ending of cheap fares for children. Will not the right hon. Lady agree to the suggestion about an inquiry, with the help of local authorities, into the problem of school transport?
I am prepared to look at the possibility of an inquiry. I know that this causes considerable problems. But this is one of those areas where local education authorities themselves have enormous discretion and can deal with the problems.