School Transport Safety

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:00 pm on 8th February 2007.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 5:00 pm, 8th February 2007

The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S2M-5425, in the name of Maureen Watt, on school transport safety. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes that current legislation regarding the provision of seatbelts on school transport does not require all school buses to be fitted with seatbelt facilities; further notes that the mandatory fitting of seatbelts on school buses only applies to those vehicles first used on or after 1 October 2001 or those manufactured six months before that date; recognises that this loophole can result in children's safety being jeopardised, as was experienced at a recent accident in Aberdeenshire, and considers that the Scottish Executive should make representations to the Department for Transport in order to have legislation amended so that all school buses, regardless of age and size, are fitted with adequate seatbelt facilities.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party 5:08 pm, 8th February 2007

I begin by thanking all members who have signed my motion. The lack of seat belts in school vehicles taking children to and from school is an issue in which I have been involved for many years.

My children attended a rural primary school, and although they were not directly affected, as they were initially transported in school transport with seat belts—a people carrier—and then they walked or cycled, children from more outlying areas were carried to school in vehicles without seat belts.

As a school board member and subsequently the chair, I remember that the issue was raised at nearly every meeting as we battled with Aberdeenshire Council to insist on seat belts. Subsequent boards at that school and, according to my mailbag, many other schools and individual parents are still battling.

My decision to try to do something was prompted by a letter from a constituent who was distraught that her five-year-old, on her first day at school, was going to school on a bus without a seat belt. Then, just a few weeks later, a school bus crashed on its way to Netherley primary school. Several pupils were injured in the crash but, thankfully, none of the injuries was serious.

Current legislation seems to have too many loopholes that allow councils the leeway not to insist on seat belts in every vehicle that transports children. That is particularly ironic in light of other, recently introduced legislation, which requires that children under a certain height must, regardless of their age, be restrained in a child's seat or booster seat. The new requirement must cause great consternation to some parents whose children think that they are old enough to do without a booster seat.

The terms of the current legislation require all cars, minibuses and coaches to be fitted with seat belts, but the mandatory requirement for the fitting of seat belts does not apply to buses unless the bus was first used on or after 1 October 2001. Buses that are designed for urban use, with standing passengers, are exempt from the legislation.

An arbitrary distinction seems to have been drawn between coaches and buses. Since 1991, coaches and minibuses have been required to be fitted with seat belts and coaches have been required to have a speed limiter that must be set at 62mph. However, buses—defined as vehicles that weigh more than 7.5 tonnes—that are not capable of more than 60mph are not required to have a speed limiter and are not required to have seat belts unless they are new and came into service on or after 1 October 2001.

As I recall, when that legislation was introduced, many small rural bus operators feared that they would lose school contracts and be put out of business. Indeed, that happened to some operators. However, it is interesting to note that the bus involved in the Netherley crash was operated by one of Scotland's two main bus companies, which earns profits that run into millions and millions of pounds. In my view, the use of an older bus without seat belts was inexcusable.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

The company—Stagecoach—has informed me that the bus that was involved in the accident was new. It came into service in September 2005, so it was only 15 months old.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

That is interesting, given that the bus did not have seat belts. There is something wrong with the legislation if that is allowed. I suspect that the vehicle involved was an urban bus that was doing a school run. In my view, that should not be allowed.

Aberdeenshire Council has not lacked an opportunity to implement the legislation. The council's school bus contracts have been up for tender but, in spite of a Scottish National Party motion, the current administration has not insisted on the provision of seat belts as part of that tender.

In preparing for tonight's debate, I tried to contact all 32 local authorities to find out their policies. That is not as easy as one might think. It is interesting to note that the councils next door to Aberdeenshire—Angus Council, Moray Council and Aberdeen City Council—ensure that seat belts are provided on dedicated school buses. However, the situation across the country is patchy.

I hope that the minister will agree that the current situation is unacceptable. I ask him to enter into dialogue with the Department for Transport to see what can be done to enforce the legislation. I also ask him to chivvy local authorities in Scotland to require all contractors who transport children to school to provide seat belts.

The concern of parents is very real. The chair of Netherley primary school's school board recently wrote to me saying:

"I am acutely aware that I am still sending my son to school everyday on a bus which is not safe. If it is involved in an accident in which it turns over, children will die."

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 5:14 pm, 8th February 2007

I congratulate Maureen Watt on securing tonight's debate on this important subject. She referred to the incident involving the Netherley school bus that occurred in my constituency on 1 December 2006. That incident, which involved school transport in which the children were not wearing seat belts, has increased the calls that have been heard over the years for every school bus to have seat belts fitted. Like Maureen Watt, I have long supported such calls and I believe that the law needs to be changed to ensure that all our children travel to school on buses that have proper seat belts fitted.

However, I issue a note of caution because the expert evidence shows that if seat belts had been fitted to the bus that was involved in the accident at Netherley, the fact that it was a side impact means that the children might have suffered greater injuries. The risk assessment that was undertaken after the accident said:

"The children were thrown clear of the seats by the impact and suffered relatively minor cuts and bruises. Had they been wearing seat belts, they would have been trapped in the seats and possibly suffered more serious injuries."

In spite of that opinion, I continue to believe that, on balance, most injuries can be reduced by the wearing of seat belts, and I have called on Aberdeenshire Council and the Scottish Executive to take action.

I wrote to the Executive to ask whether it would provide councils with funds to allow them to renegotiate their contracts with the bus companies. In a letter to me dated 16 January 2007, Hugh Henry wrote:

"Our guidance encourages education authorities to go beyond the minimum requirements when negotiating contracts ... and consider how they might best encourage pupils to wear seat belts for their own comfort and safety. However, the guidance does not have statutory force nor ... could it be made mandatory. You may note that the Dept for transport will be consulting on proposals to introduce regulations on the wearing of seat belts by children aged 3-13 when travelling on coaches ... These regulations will apply throughout the UK."

The response that I received from Aberdeenshire Council's head of transportation on 18 December 2006, confirmed that in 2004 the council's cross-party education and recreation committee—I emphasise the word "cross-party"—unanimously agreed to adhere to the legislative requirements. The school bus contracts were then let and the majority of them are not up for renewal until 2010.

We find ourselves in a situation in which the Executive cannot provide councils with funds to renegotiate their school bus contracts with the bus companies, the bus companies are unwilling to take extra measures that the law does not require them to take and we in the Scottish Parliament cannot change the law because it relates to a reserved matter, for which the Department for Transport has responsibility.

It seems to me that we should put pressure on the United Kingdom Government to change the law. My Westminster colleague Sir Robert Smith has already taken up the issue directly with the Department for Transport. It also seems that the only opportunity that exists for us to push for a change in Aberdeenshire is to request the council's all-party education and recreation committee to change its tendering requirements when the tenders—

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

In my speech, I said that in an effort to change the administration's mind, the SNP group on Aberdeenshire Council put forward a motion before the matter was discussed by the education and recreation committee. It was obviously defeated in its attempt.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Mr Rumbles, you are in your final minute.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

We must stick to the facts. In 2004, the SNP members on the education and recreation committee, along with all the other members of the committee, voted unanimously to adhere to the legislative requirements.

As a result of requests from people such as Maureen Watt and me, who favour a change, the chair of the education and recreation committee, Councillor Dick Stroud, is conducting a review of the whole process. It is a cross-party review.

The school bus contracts will not be renewed until 2010. I know that it is not what people want to hear, but it seems to me that the only effective way of ensuring that all our schoolchildren travel in school buses that are fitted with seat belts is to ask our councillors to make the necessary change when the contracts are renewed. I hope that they will do so. However, we must put pressure on the UK Government to change the law and that is why I support Maureen Watt's motion.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative 5:18 pm, 8th February 2007

I congratulate Maureen Watt on securing the debate. All of us in the north-east have an interest in the issue because of the state of some of the school buses that are being used there.

The Netherley bus crash took place just along from my home and I knew most of the children on the bus—they are neighbours' children. After the crash, I went to the school to talk to the staff and the school board, whose members, too, are neighbours. Mike Rumbles is right to say that the assessment of the crash concluded that some seat belt provision might have caused greater injury. However, the fact is that the bus was not capable of withstanding a side-on collision. A lorry was overtaking the bus when the accident happened. I will come to that in a moment.

I have discussed the issue with both the city and the shire councils and I have got involved with local taxi and minibus companies and with coach companies. I have spoken to Stagecoach, which operated the bus that was involved in the accident, and FirstBus, which has some dedicated school buses, although not many in our part of the world. The boss of Stagecoach was sympathetic, but he said that a business is a business and that he is happy to enter into negotiations about a contract. That is positive, but it takes two to run a contract.

The question is why companies are allowed to use service buses, which are exempt from the legislation. Surely the legislation should apply to any bus that is used to transport children. I presume that the minister would not argue with that.

Councils tell me that they want a legal agreement between pupils and the education authority that states that, if seat belts are provided, pupils will use them. I presume that that is partly to do with insurance.

The other important issue is the lack of a safety framework for the buses. They have thin walls and they cannot withstand a side-on impact. If the bus in the Netherley accident had not been pushed on to a wall, it would have rolled and there would have been very serious injuries.

As Mike Rumbles said, the contract still has a few years to run. There is a need for Executive input to help councils and operators to adopt new contract conditions and get over the difficulty of retrofitting seat belts and restraints, which is not easy and does not always work properly. We need supervisory staff in buses to ensure compliance and to control unruly behaviour, which can distract drivers, and we should end the use of double-deckers on bendy rural roads, because they are not stable.

If, like the Americans, we fitted warning lights and signs to school buses, and if our ministers put pressure on the UK Government to prohibit the passing of stationary school buses on rural single carriageways and on housing estates, some of the accidents that happen when children get on and off buses would be prevented.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The member will be aware of the Education Committee's keen interest in school transport. We considered a petition on the very matter, and we took responsibility for writing to the UK Government about it.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative

I am grateful for that, and I am sure that the committee has the Parliament's support.

The debate is not about petty party squabbles about what happened on a council. The Parliament should be involved in standardising the approaches in Scotland, because we have a duty of care. Parents, schools and local authorities must be assured that the buses that are used for contract runs are fit for purpose and have the appropriate safety features to protect children. That will not be cheap or easy. Retrofitting is not always an option, and there is more to it than just seat belts; other protective devices are needed.

I call on the minister to assure us that he will raise the issue with Her Majesty's Government at Westminster. That should be our starting point when legislation from Westminster needs to be amended. In the interim, however, I am sure that the Executive could help councils and operators to up their standards.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 5:23 pm, 8th February 2007

I am sure that there is unanimous agreement that we all wish to do whatever is practical and within the law to protect our youngsters. At the core of our thinking about that, we have to be aware that accidents are about not statistics or probabilities but people. When we take action to address an issue, there may well be unhelpful consequences.

It would be useful if, in responding to the debate, the minister stated the extent to which he agrees with the specific requirements that members have mentioned and then explored the routes by which it might be possible to meet those requirements, because, as we have already heard, the routes are part of the difficulties.

I first fitted seat belts in my car 43 years ago, in 1964. I did so because I met someone who was an accident victim and their brain, frankly, had disconnected from reality. He was a vegetable living in a hospital. That had a profound effect on me. What kind of profound effect must an accident involving a child have on parents, grandparents, siblings and other school pupils? The campaign led by my constituent Ronnie Beaty, who has given evidence to the Public Petitions Committee on another issue related to school bus safety, perfectly illustrates the problem that parents and others face.

We have to concern ourselves with road safety; indeed, the Parliament has duties in that respect. Although we do not have any control over a number of matters, including the construction and use regulations that determine whether seat belts are required to be fitted in certain vehicles, we have control over road markings, the quality of our roads and speed limits, such as the 20mph limit outside schools. Given that responsibility for these matters is divided—in saying that, I am not making a political point; it would not be appropriate—we have to be innovative in how we exercise our powers to achieve our shared objectives.

The fact that the Parliament is, essentially, the source of the transport budgets that schools spend gives us a firm lever—should we choose to use it—to persuade councils to work that little bit harder to write the kind of contracts that we all want and to pressure school bus providers into increasing protection through seat belt installation and other means. On balance, seat belts improve people's circumstances in most cases, although Mike Rumbles quite properly pointed out that, in certain cases, they can make things worse. I have no monopoly on knowing everything that should be done, and I suspect that the same can be said of everyone else.

Although our guidance is not statutory, that does not mean that we cannot take steps to ensure that it is followed. Indeed, just to be partisan for a tiny moment, if my party colleagues on Aberdeenshire Council have got this wrong, I am entirely happy to tell them so and give them the message that the Parliament is sending. I know that Mike Rumbles never hesitates to take a similar approach in his own party ranks.

As a private individual, I have made a number of submissions on safety issues to the Department for Transport. Although I hope that the minister will take every opportunity to get that department to help us, there are things that we can do to help ourselves, our children and our councils to add protection.

Photo of Nanette Milne Nanette Milne Conservative 5:27 pm, 8th February 2007

I, too, congratulate Maureen Watt on securing this debate. I want to speak about this matter because, like all MSPs who represent large parts of rural Scotland, I have been involved with bus safety for some time now.

In March 2006, following a parliamentary outreach meeting in Huntly at which a number of my constituents described as prehistoric and a disgrace the school buses that were being used to transport children to and from school in Aberdeenshire, I wrote to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, Stephen Ladyman. His response was very like the motion:

"since 2001 seat belt installation has been a requirement in all NEW minibuses, coaches, and buses apart from those specifically designed for urban use with standing passengers ... we aim to bring regulations into force during September 2006 that will require seat belt wearing by seated passengers aged 3 years and above where seat belts are installed".

That provision is now in force and I welcome it as a step forward, but the UK Government has not addressed the safety of children, mostly in rural areas, who travel in older buses along some of Scotland's most dangerous roads—including the A96 in central Aberdeenshire and the adjacent narrower rural roads. Many parents are extremely concerned for their children's safety on those roads, particularly in wintry weather such as we have experienced this week. Indeed, I have received representations from parents from the Insch area and Gartly, whose children travel without seat belts in double-decker buses along those dangerous roads to the Gordon Schools in Huntly.

In light of the recent tightening of the seat belt laws as highlighted by Maureen Watt, the UK Government should also examine the safety of buses that carry schoolchildren and require seat belts to be provided on such vehicles.

Another problem is behaviour on school buses, which David Davidson mentioned. Many parents and teachers think that behaviour would be improved by the use of seat belts. Many bus drivers have complained that children who travel on buses without seat belts often move around the bus in transit, which puts their own safety at risk and distracts the driver.

In the absence of legislation to make seat belts compulsory on all buses, I would like local authorities to progress the matter and take more responsibility for pupils' safety on school buses. Moray Council did so some four and a half years ago, when it decided to make seat belts a requirement on all its school buses. I commend it for taking such a responsible initiative.

It is time to put our children's safety first by bringing school buses into the 21st century. As we approach the five-year tendering cycle, I would like all of Scotland's local authorities to take a leaf out of Moray Council's book and put out tender documents that state that seat belts are a requirement in all their school buses. I ask the Executive to encourage that approach and to put pressure on the UK Government to update the seat belt legislation by making the installation of seat belts compulsory on all buses that are likely to have children as passengers.

In recent years, much has been done in various ways to improve the safety of our children. Safer school buses would provide reassurance to the many concerned parents throughout rural Scotland whose children depend on school transport.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party 5:31 pm, 8th February 2007

I am interested in all the speeches that have been made. The reasons for members from the north-east speaking have become apparent.

Avondale, where I live, lies in Central Scotland, which I represent. The secondary school for Avondale—Strathaven academy—will soon be replaced under South Lanarkshire Council's public-private partnership schools contract. That matter has been debated in the Parliament, so I will not discuss all the wrongs that are involved. The aspect that is relevant to this debate is school transport. The outlying rural communities and households of Avondale are already served by school buses, so the debate is relevant to them.

Later this year, Strathaven academy will close for demolition. Despite a continuing campaign by parents, the council continues to insist that, rather than investigate building a new academy in Strathaven, where sites are available, and moving pupils in, it will bus schoolchildren to a school some nine miles away, in East Kilbride, along a rural road that is deemed by locals to be potentially dangerous. It seems that around 20 buses will travel along that road every day and return along it. I understand parents' worries about that. We do not know what kind of buses will be involved—whether they will be single-decker or double-decker, or whether they will be old or new. Despite the plans for what will happen later this year, parents do not know what safety issues may arise for their children or whether there will be supervision on the buses.

I want to put it on record that the issues that members have raised should be addressed. Mike Rumbles talked about lobbying Westminster. I hope that the minister will agree to do that, but we must consider the matter as a whole rather than only one issue.

Maureen Watt is to be congratulated on securing the debate. When we hear stories about what can happen—such as those that we have heard today—we should agree that safety should always come first, as Nanette Milne said. I ask South Lanarkshire Council please to listen to the parents in its area and to understand that, like all parents in Scotland, they have safety concerns. I ask it to rethink its idea of charging buses along the road, and back, for two years.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat 5:33 pm, 8th February 2007

I welcome the chance to make a brief speech in the debate. I acknowledge the cross-party support for the motion that was initiated by Maureen Watt on the importance of school transport safety and give the assurance that many members have requested that we will stress to the Department for Transport the specific points that have been raised in the debate and the more general observations on the legislation, which is reserved, as members have said and as the motion points out. We will certainly take the matter up in a number of ways with the department.

It is important to consider the efforts that we are making. As Mike Rumbles and Stewart Stevenson said, school transport safety is not simply a reserved matter. We should consider the powers that we have to take action. It is important that we make every effort to meet and bring down our road casualty targets. The current target for 2010 is to reduce all road deaths and serious injuries by 40 per cent—the target is a 50 per cent reduction for children.

In 2005, fatal and serious casualties were 39 per cent below the 1994 to 1998 average and child fatal and serious casualties were 56 per cent below that average. There is progress, but we must not be complacent, given the context of the incident that Mike Rumbles spoke about or the general points that were made by Linda Fabiani and other members.

Ensuring the safety of children on our roads is paramount, especially on journeys to and from school. I will deal with the steps that we are taking in this area.

We are grant funding local authorities to help safeguard children by introducing a 20mph speed limit around all schools. The most recent figures from local authorities show that those schemes are now in place at seven out of 10 schools in Scotland. The motion also seeks to ensure that all school buses are fitted with seat belts. Legislation on that point is of course the preserve of the United Kingdom Parliament, but education authorities have a statutory duty to provide school transport and they are required to have regard to the safety of pupils.

Our guidance covers both pupil and bus safety issues and advises on contracting with transport providers, including stipulating the maximum age of vehicles that are to be used for school transport. The guidance also covers matters that are reserved to the UK Parliament, such as the statutory provisions regarding seat belts, school bus signs, hazard warning lights and the use of vehicles that are in a fit and roadworthy condition. Therefore, we take seriously Stewart Stevenson's point about ensuring that the approach to safety is a complete package for local government, and education authorities in particular, across the country.

Although the guidance is not mandatory, the legal requirements must be complied with. Although not all types of bus are required to have seat belts fitted, it is open to education authorities to specify, in negotiating school transport contracts, that only vehicles with seat belts should be used. The Scottish Consumer Council's report on school transport contracts, which was published in 2005, was helpful in that it commended that point and others to local government. Among other issues, the report raised the possibility of a good-practice guide, which we have taken forward in conjunction with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and following concerns raised by the Education Committee. We expect to receive a report on a range of bus and pupil safety issues within the next few weeks. We believe that the good-practice examples that are included in the report will help authorities to drive up the quality and standards of school transport, thus making it more attractive to pupils and parents. It will also provide local authorities with enough further inducement to secure school transport contracts that meet the wishes of parents and pupils without recourse to further legislation.

It is important to recognise that bus and coach travel is very safe in this country and deaths and serious injuries are fortunately relatively rare. Seat belts offer passengers increased protection, even though I take the points that Mike Rumbles and David Davidson made about the assessment of the incident at Netherley. The majority of minibuses and coaches are fitted with seat belts and some buses are also being produced with them. A European Union directive envisages that the new rules on buses and coaches will apply to every passenger over the age of three. The UK Government has not extended the legal requirement to use seat belts to children under 14 on the larger buses and coaches because of the difficulty of enforcement.

It is generally the driver's duty to ensure that child passengers under the age of 14 wear seat belts, but there is a practical difficulty in making bus and coach drivers responsible for ensuring that children are wearing seat belts. The Department for Transport proposes to conduct further consultation and will prepare additional regulations to reflect the outcome. I will ensure that the views that have been expressed this evening are fed into that consultation.

We take these matters very seriously. As Linda Fabiani and others made clear, child safety is an extremely important issue. No one wishes to compromise on achieving all that we can in that area and I will certainly ensure that we take these matters forward to our discussions with the Department for Transport.

Meeting closed at 17:39.