I am grateful for the opportunity, even at 1.40 in the morning, of raising a burning issue in the Burton division, as I know it is in nearly every constituency in Britain today—the problem of school transport.
The trouble is that it was a burning issue four years ago when my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), who was then Secretary of State for Education and Science—and a mighty good one at that—set up a working party to consider the problem. It was still a burning issue when the working party reported two and a half years ago, and nothing has come of it. I shall not say it has got buried: rather has it been kicked around, up and down, backwards and forwards. It is burning still, brighter than ever and it will probably explode in the hands of the Secretary of State who, as sure as God made little children, will be left holding the problem when it blows up if he does not do something soon.
If the problem was burning four years ago and one thinks of what has happened in the four years that have passed, one sees how the problem has been aggravated. With the oil crisis, inflation all but doubling costs, cars beyond the reach of many more families, bus companies giving up country routes, and with 70 per cent. labour operating costs, fares have had to be raised violently as Government subsidies have become more and more restricted. Add to this the educational reorganisation that has meant children travelling greater distances to new all-purpose comprehensive schools. and the seriousness of the problem and the urgency of a solution becomes apparent.
Three fine villages just outside Burton-on-Trent in my constituency provide me with what I think is a typical example of the problem that exists now all over the country. The villages are Tutbury, famous for its castle. Mary Queen of Scots and Tutbury glass, Stretton, which is also famous, both of which send their secondary schoolchildren to the Forest of Needwood School at Rolleston-on-Dove.
About the problems of these schoolchildren, parents, local authorities and bus operators have been in endless correspondence. There have been private and public meetings. I visited the Secretary of State 10 months ago, and much good it did me. He visited the Labour Party in my constituency. No good did it do it or him. No good has it done anyone. The problems remain and grow in seriousness.
What are they? First, there is the unfairness of the three-mile limit. Why should parents, sometimes taking their children to the very same bus stops, get totally free or totally paid bus fares for their children depending upon whether they lie just inside or just outside the three-mile boundary? Secondly, while children between 14 and 16 years of age have to pay full fare all the time, children up to 14 pay half fare but only after 9.30 a.m. Since schools start at 9 a.m. concessionary fares are nothing but encouragement for the poorer-off families to miss the early morning assembly and part of the first class. What on earth is the educational sense of such an absurd situation? Are we really so incapable of devising a more sensible use of our transport resources?
The Headmaster of the Forest of Need-wood School, Mr. Wraight, has provided me with a breakdown of the situation as it affected his pupils coming from Tutbury and Stretton on Tuesday last, 18th May. I have handed a copy of this document to the Minister. There are 151 children on the roll from Tutbury. Fifty go by bus to school in the morning—10 travel on the 8.24 a.m. and 40 travel on the 9.24 and are late for school. Why? Because the full fare from Tutbury Castle Inn to the school is 23p single, 34½p for a day return, because half fare is charged before 4.20 p.m. on the return journey. This is £1·72½p a week for a parent. If a parent has four children, it amounts to a cost of £6·90p a week. This is a rather extravagant price to have to pay for State education.
A further apparent absurdity, certainly an unfairness, is that if one goes to Burton, a journey which is four miles further on, the fare is the same—23p by the State bus—the Motor Traction Company—and 15p by the private enterprise bus run by Stevensons. Why is there this discrepancy in the fares? The parents ask why nothing is being done about it. The answer is that the Government will not actually do anything about it.
There are 280 children on the roll at Stretton. Eighteen go by bus to school in the morning, six pay the full fare and get there on time and 12 pay half fare and get there late. Why? The Stretton full bus fare is 19p from one point and 14p from another, which costs a parent £1·37p or £1·05p a week per child.
These examples raise the third problem, that of safety. About 100 children out of the 280 from Stretton walk or cycle to school. But the road is potentially dangerous, particularly on dark mornings and evenings. The footpath changes from one side of the road to the other. There is a dangerous bend. There are no street lights for some of the way and there were no warning lights, pedestrian crossing or crossing warden last winter.
The parents conducted a traffic survey between 8.15 a.m. and 9 a.m. one morning and 276 vehicles, 29 of which were heavy lorries, hurtled along the road, and 66 cars and buses pulled into the school yard. Is that safe for children who are encouraged, or made, to walk or cycle because the buses are too expensive? Do we have to wait for injuries or even deaths before something is done?
Is the clamour for action, of which my constituency provides but one example, not now growing so loud that the Government will have to act? I know that the Government have been taking soundings and that the Secretary of State, since he has not had agreement from local education authorities, is proposing to do nothing. That is just not good enough. The working party produced some sensible proposals. The Government then produced a consultative document which, following the working party proposals very closely in the main, improved upon some of the matters of detail.
It is surely right that we should implement a number of those agreed proposals—first, that the statutory walking distance of three miles for those over 8 and two miles for those under 8 should be abolished; second, that local education authorities should have the duty to provide or arrange transport to and from the appointed schools; third, that there should be a flat-rate charge, regardless of distance from the school or age of the pupil, for all children; fourth, that the flat rate should be a uniform proportion of the adult fare, which would allow for local variations; fifth, that in needy cases there should be relief or a rate rebate; sixth, that handicapped pupils should have special or free arrangements; finally, that in some areas some relief could be obtained by a closer integration of school buses and other public services. I understand that rural services in some parts of the country are being maintained, although subsidised, where an operator has been able to combine his services with profitable school journeys.
None of these suggestions is original or novel. They have been kicked around these past four years. I appreciate that there are difficulties, especially the fact that many parents who now pay nothing for their children's transport would have to start paying. But the wit of man has overcome greater challenges and there should be no incapacity to overcome these, even if it requires a change of Government to do so.
But at the very least all these measures would achieve the merit of fairness. I believe that the experts say that they would bring in no less money than now and so would not be expensive. If the county councils cannot agree, an act of real government is required. The question is whether we have such a real Government.