School Transport – Westminster Hall debate

Transcript:

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.

I have a great interest in this motion and I thank the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) for securing this debate. In Glasgow this afternoon, there are people outside Glasgow City Chambers protesting at the cuts to bus services within the Glasgow city area. Glasgow City Council has decided to raise the qualifying distance for free bus passes in the city from 1.2 miles to 2 miles for primary school pupils, and from 2.2 miles to 3 miles for secondary school pupils. Those are quite considerable distances, especially for primary one pupils who will be starting school, aged five, come August.

I may not be able to refrain from being partisan in my comments today, because that choice has been made as a result of austerity programmes and cuts being made here, then passed to the Scottish Parliament and down on to councils. Councils have a difficult choice to make in coming to these decisions.

In Scotland, we also have a slightly less complex picture of schools, with fewer choices for pupils. Although Glasgow has catchment areas that can be complex, by and large children go to local schools of their choice in the catchment area; they do not often have to travel past a school they want to go to, to get to the one they have a place at.

Glasgow City Council’s decisions on changing the cost of bus passes—putting that back on parents—could cause serious difficulties for parents who cannot afford to pay for one. If their parents cannot afford it, children will have to walk significant distances, across busy roads and perhaps through industrial estates and derelict areas. If that is a daunting prospect in our glorious Scottish summer, what will it be like in winter time? In Scotland it is often dark on leaving the house in the morning and dark when coming back in the afternoon. It is a pretty grim thought.

Parents are advised by Glasgow’s education department that children should be accompanied—and of course, young children should be accompanied. But that causes serious difficulties for parents with more than one child who have to take their children to different places in the morning. There may be drop-offs at a nursery in one area, at a primary school in another and perhaps even at a secondary school, too. It is practically impossible for parents to make all those journeys.

The level of car ownership in Glasgow is low, particularly in deprived areas, where there is greater reliance on bus services. In 2012, only about half of households in Glasgow had access to a car. Bus transport is important for families and a lot of people without access to a car, because there is no other option for them other than using public transport.

The Labour council administration has made several attempts to introduce the proposal I have mentioned, but it has been rejected by the people and eventually rolled back on by the council; I hope that this time the council sees sense and finds the money elsewhere. More significantly, the proposal means that Glasgow City Council is reneging on promises it made during city school closures in the past, when lots of schools were closed or merged: parents were reassured about transport costs and told that school bus passes would be provided so that children could get to the schools. That was in 2008. Now parents find that the council has reneged on that promise and they are facing serious costs for school transport. That is unfair and will lead to further disadvantage for children in many parts of the city—areas with food banks and areas of multiple deprivation—who are already suffering from significant poverty. People trying to get several children to school face a disproportionate cost. It is deeply unfair that the cost of transport is falling on families at this time.

I understand that some rules about qualifying distances come from a House of Lords ruling in 1986. If that is so, it is time for that to be revised; something decided so long ago that is affecting people now is surely ripe for revision. Things have changed—far more cars are on the road and our cities are much busier, with heavier goods vehicles moving across them. We need to be mindful that young children, some of whom may want to walk to school, will find a great deal of traffic on the roads.

I support this debate. There should be further action on and consideration of this matter, particularly in respect of Scotland, where we have a slightly different situation, with children trying to go to their local schools and parents trying to get them there. We could do a lot to help parents in this situation, including looking again at the qualifying distances to find out whether something better could be put in place.