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Adam Tugwell: School transport for disabled children is in big trouble

Adam_tugwell Adam Tugwell, a newly elected Councillor in Tewkesbury, wonders why no-one has noticed the significance of the repeal of Section 75 of the Local Government & Provisions Act.

Hopefully none of us will by now underestimate the ability of this Government to change things ‘under the radar’, whilst the media concentrates on issues which sell. On the face of it, transport stories seldom tap the imagination, unless there has been a fatal crash, charges for commuters are going up or some other kind of negative splash has been generated by a public brick or two being dropped into the seemingly still pool of all things which move.

Earlier this year, a story worthy of note did apparently slip past our ever watchful media when the Government repealed Section 75 of the Local Government & Provisions Act (1975). Admittedly, it doesn’t sound very exciting until you understand that it involves the provision of schools transport, and particularly, the carriage of children with Special Educational Needs.

For many years, Section 75 has been a happy bedfellow of our County and Unitary Authorities, allowing them to award contracts to transport operators and individuals who use private cars and MPV’s to carry small numbers of what are often disabled children, to and from school. The cars are not licensed by Local Authorities as Private Hire or Hackney Carriage vehicles and the clear stipulation from the Act is that they are carrying out a repeated journey for a week or more on a contract basis in order to avoid regulation.

What this has meant to our Education Authorities is that they have been able to get all of their non-bus or coach school journeys completed at a price which normally falls somewhat lower than it would if the work were to be carried out by taxi companies alone. Naturally, the Taxi Lobby have been pushing Central Government to repeal Section 75 for a long time in the hope that they would squeeze out what they see as being inappropriate and unfair competition.

From January 2008, the repeal of Section 75 means that all schools transport must be provided by Licensed vehicles, whether that be a bus or coach which is run under an Operators License or a Car, Minibus or MPV which is run under License from a Local Licensing Authority.

At this point, some of you reading will be thinking that this can only be a good thing. What it doesn’t tell you of course is that the majority of our Education Authorities have already been forcing all of their operators to manage their vehicles to higher standards than those which many taxi companies are required to do so under the terms of their Private Hire and Hackney Licenses. 

The change in legislation may result in some taxis being managed to a higher level in order to meet LEA requirements and that has to be a good thing. However, what the Taxi Lobby probably didn’t tell the Government was that there are not enough taxis available to do the work. Either through sheer lack of numbers, or because the drivers don’t want the responsibility of things like clearing up after children who are unable to remain clean for the duration of a school journey, they just aren’t there in the numbers necessary for the sums to add up. A question which needs to be asked is whether many taxi drivers could actually drive a school run every morning anyway, when we consider the European Working Time Directive which the Government has so enthusiastically embraced?

Why don’t the private car owners just get Licensed for Private Hire? What we need to remember is that many of the people who are actually doing this work, do so as a part of their lifestyle and not because of the financial rewards involved. I understand that to insure a car for Private Hire purposes will cost about £2000.00 after you consider the additional Licensing costs and in many County and Unitary areas, we are talking about many hundreds of vehicles where that additional cost would have to be passed on to the LEA. Then of course there is the hassle factor. We have all come across petit bureaucracy and many of the drivers will just not want the administrative burden for a job which they do for perhaps 2 hours each day.

So lets review where we are; the Legislation comes into effect in January, there are not enough cars and drivers to do the job and a there is a potential bill which some have estimated will treble the already spiralling LEA transport budgets – that is of course if the job gets done.

In basic terms, we are heading for a BIG problem, not only because of cost, but because there is the real possibility that children with Special Educational Needs will not have transport to school when they return from the Christmas break. 

Some of the more proactive Council Officers in Authorities such as Reading are desperately working to find a legally and economically viable alternative way to regulate these vehicles. However, others are completely blind to the size of the drama which is about to unfold before them and as I sit here, one must of course wonder if the potential collapse of transport to special schools is actually a back door attempt by this Government to push all children into mainstream education?


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