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Mr. Bell: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will respond to the debate. I will not add to the acres of paperwork by making a long speech that will deluge the pages of Hansard, so I will not elaborate too much on the comments made by the hon. Members for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). I welcome their support; it is important that we reach consensus on these matters in the House and in the other place, and the wider the consensus, the better.
The Ecclesiastical Committee reviewed the Measure and supported it fully. I take on board the suggestion about how we might handle Church matters as they relate to the Synod and to the House in future. I am always happy to take the suggestions of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey back to the Commission so that they can be examined for the long term within the wider Church.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am delighted to follow the Church Commissioner and to present a petition on behalf of two groups of residents who live in park homes in Berkeley Vale park in Berkeley and in Riverside park in Eastington, both in my Gloucestershire constituency.
The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to consider a new lower band for park homes which better reflects the means and needs of these residents.
Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead): I have a petition from residents of Erith, Slade Green, Belvedere and Northumberland Heath in the London borough of Bexley, and a petition in like form signed by more than 1,000 residents is being delivered to the regional health authority.
The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Secretary of State for Health, in conjunction with the Bexley and Greenwich health authority, London borough of Bexley council and the Oxleas Trust to ensure that this much needed health centre project goes ahead.
Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): I thought for a moment earlier that we were to have a vigorous debate on antidisestablishmentarianism, but the moment seems to have passed, and I have the pleasure of raising the matter of home-to-school transport provision. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) in his place, and I know that he is familiar with the subject. It affects all our shire counties and many of our metropolitan areas.
This coming Monday will almost be a day of jubilation for the motorist. It is the first effective day of the school holidays. It will be possible to travel freely about the roads of our countryside. We will not have to deal with the fact that at 8.50 in the morning, 20 per cent. or more of all car movements involve taking children to school. I assume that the same situation appertains later in the day when children are collected from school, but that may be spread over a slightly longer period.
I remember growing up in the 1950s, and I see that I am in good company with others who may remember those times. At the age of six, I would walk from where I lived on the edge of an urban area to school across fields, down lanes and along roads. I was unaccompanied by my mother or father. It may be thought that I was especially precocious, but walking to school was relatively commonplace in those days; children would walk together in groups. Car ownership was rare; if there was a car in the family, one's father would have taken it to work long before the school hour approached.
Nowadays, car ownership is almost universal. Roads are dangerous and exceptionally busy; parents rightly fear the dangers of those roads for their children, and other, darker dangers that may lurk if children are allowed to travel unescorted to school.
The subject of the debate derives from the Education Act 1944, and the Education Act 1996, which deals with school transport. The formula is that, if the local authority is to provide free transport, the child must live 3 miles away from the school if older than eight and 2 miles away if younger than eight. That formula varied from county to county. In Essex, the local authority has modified those standards to be 1.5 miles for children in infant classes, 2 miles for junior school children and 3 miles for secondary school children.
Legislation also contains a fall-back clause, which allows local authorities, in exceptional circumstances, to provide free school transport for those who do not fit the mileage criteria. It is difficult to be precise about what constitutes those exceptional circumstances. One could hazard that it might be a child's health, a child's domestic circumstances, but there is an element of discretion. However, I have not commonly come upon its exercise.
Free school transport is also provided for children with special needs, who are normally taken to infant school by taxi. The nature of the travel and the distance often makes up a substantial part of a local authority's budget for home-to-school transport. It is not easy to find the exact figures for the number of children who use free school transport throughout England and Wales. I believe that there is an estimate--I am sure that my hon. Friend the
In Essex, 25,000 children out of a total school population of 200,000 receive free school transport; 10 per cent. of those have special needs. Excluding the special needs children, the percentage is little more than 11 or 12 per cent. The county is large and widespread since the exclusion from it of some urban areas to form the unitary authorities of Thurrock and Southend.
Like others who have served on county councils, I have become familiar with the tussles that occur when parents are denied free school transport for their child. There are stringent limits on local authority finances; consequently they sometimes seek to withdraw routes that hitherto existed on the basis that an alternative route can be found.
In my constituency, the distance by road between the famous socialist village of Silver End to Witham is a little more than 3 miles. Across fields and ditches, it is slightly less than 3 miles. A keen cartographer at county hall studied a large-scale version of the Ordnance Survey map and plotted a route, which took the distance slightly below 3 miles. I had the adventurous privilege of accompanying the county council inspection party that came to assess the route. It began along an especially dark and overhung footpath, and proceeded through ploughed fields, which were dusty in summer and caked in winter. A group of senior councillors proceeded along that route until we came to large ditch.
I knew that the county official had misdirected himself on the route, but I exercised my right to remain silent. A senior elderly lady councillor said, "I've seen enough. School transport shall remain." I hope that that extreme example illustrates the point: should the county or any of us consider sending children across fields, lanes and ditches--accompanied or otherwise--to avoid providing free school transport? The Government have made great strides in considering the way forward for home to school transport and the school travel advisory group has come up with a range of ideas in addition to school transport whereby walking and cycling to school might be increased.
I refer to a place that is indelibly carved in the mind of my hon. Friend the Minister--the village of Hatfield Peverel in my constituency, which he kindly visited recently in one of his other roles. Although the school is all but surrounded by that self-contained village, there are dangerous and busy roads so the parents and the school got together to form what is called a walking bus. I spoke to the headmaster, Mr. Jeremy Crook, this week and he told me that 80 children were involved at the scheme's outset. I do not know whether you are aware of the concept of the walking bus, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is not a bus at all, but a party of children gathered together in the presence of a number of adults who proceed along a defined route and stop at specified places to collect or deposit children. That enables children to walk to school in safety.
Although the walking bus and dedicated footpaths and cycle paths are great aids that facilitate travelling to school without using a car, I would not want it to be thought that we can avoid the home to school transport question by using such innovations. Car usage could be
I hope that this is an opportune time to raise these matters--the transport plan has been announced this very day, to a fanfare--and that I have shown that the sum expended on home-to-school transport is modest in terms of total transport expenditure. If distance requirements were lowered and councils given much greater discretion to book buses, sell off concessionary tickets and take a much broader view of who can travel on free school transport, we could achieve that which seems to have eluded people in the 20th and 21st centuries: planning and delivery following each other very rapidly indeed.
If that route is followed, we may achieve remarkable reductions in car movements at two particular times of day and I should be most interested to hear the public's observations on how they feel about driving during the school holidays as against term time. The benefits would go not only to the children, who would travel to school safely and accompanied, but to road users and to us all. We would all benefit from the lessening of pollution in the atmosphere as vehicles would not be used. Also, the strain on parents would be lessened as they would not have to accompany and drive their children to school twice a day, sometimes to more than one school.
I have seen figures for the number of children who travel by car, but I would estimate that the figure for junior and infant school children may be more than 50 per cent. Certainly, that is the estimate given by head teachers in the villages in my constituency of the number of children who travel by car to junior schools.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, who has a great heart for these matters, will discuss with his colleagues how he can increase the use of free school transport and make it universal beyond the age of 16 to 18, when children go on to further education. The benefits of that would be remarkable and the comparative cost, I suspect, relatively small.