Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 15 April 2002


Public Petition: Telecommunications Mast at Ballymena Bowling Club

Assembly: Committee for Employment and Learning

Report of the Committee for the Environment:
Inquiry into Transport used for Children Travelling to and from School

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister

Department of Regional Development

Department of Environment

Mosside Primary School, Ballymoney

The Assembly met at noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Public Petition:
Telecommunications Mast at Ballymena Bowling Club


Mr Speaker:

Mr Ian Paisley Jnr has begged leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I beg leave to present a petition signed by over 500 residents of Ballymena opposing the erection of a telecommunications apparatus in the grounds of Ballymena Bowling Club, adjacent to the People’s Park. The petition cites the controversial scientific evidence regarding health risks, the unsightly blot on the leisure landscape and the distress caused to local residents as good reasons for opposition to the mast. I present the petition to show my concern and to give my support to the residents’ campaign to oppose the telecommunications mast.

Mr Paisley Jnr moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.

Mr Speaker:

I will forward the petition to the Minister of the Environment and a copy to the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment.

Assembly: Committee for Employment and Learning



That Dr Ian Adamson replace Mr Roy Beggs as a member of the Committee for Employment and Learning. — [Mr Davis.]

Report of the Committee for the Environment:
Inquiry into Transport used for Children Travelling to and from School


The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Rev Dr William McCrea):

I beg to move

That this Assembly approves the Report of the Committee for the Environment on its Inquiry into Transport used for children travelling to and from school (1/01R) and calls on the Minister of the Environment to ensure urgent evaluation and to take full account of the recommendations.

Some might think that it has taken a long time, or too long, for the motion to come before the House, given that the Committee’s report was published in September 2001. I will deal with the reasons for the delay later.

I acknowledge that a motion on school buses was debated and agreed on 19 February 2002. Although I found parts of that debate interesting — especially the then Minister’s contribution, to which I will refer later — I considered it to be only a preliminary to today’s proceedings. I say that without disrespect to any Member. That debate was important, but my Committee’s recommendations take it a step further.

I will provide a background to the inquiry and an overview of the recommendations, and I will then deal with what has happened, or rather, what has not happened, since. I intend to give an honest, concise and open account so that no one will doubt the integrity and sincerity with which the Committee dealt with the serious issue of safety on school buses.

The matter was first raised with officials from the Department of the Environment in January 2000. In the light of the information that the Committee received about the dangers of overloading school buses, it decided on 8 June 2000 to make that the subject of its first public inquiry.

Following the public announcement of the inquiry, the Committee received 57 written representations. Those were from not only Government Departments and associated bodies, but from parents, a significant number of school principals, and even a school bus driver who had been transferred after questioning the practices of an education and library board.

For the benefit of any Member who questions the seriousness of the situation and the need to take immediate action, I will quote from just two submissions to the Committee, all of which are documented in the report. The first is from the mother of a child who travels from Saintfield to Belfast every day:

"I do find it difficult to believe that my daughter has no rights to travel safely to and from school . she usually does not complain. However, today, when she arrived home bruised, grazed and so sore from being flung against the seat when the bus braked severely . she did tell me. Only three weeks into the term she already dreads the ordeal of the bus."

The second submission is by the principals of two schools in Limavady, which states that some buses are overcrowded:

"Some buses in our area are allocated up to 90 pupils."

In addition, it reports that children have to stand on a crowded bus for journeys of up to 18 miles. The submission also refers to the intimidation of some drivers:

"The task of a school bus driver becomes impossible with 80+ pupils in a 54 seater bus, trying to drive along the Limavady/Derry road at rush hour!"

When the report was published, some accused the Committee of being overemotional about the value of a child’s life. I challenge them to respond to the mother of the schoolchild who came home battered and bruised, or to those principals who have to teach children who have had to stand for long periods on crowded buses before they even get to school.

Some people went as far as to criticise the Committee for using the phrase "a disaster waiting to happen". However, I remind the House that that phrase did not originate with any member of the Committee; it came from evidence presented to the Committee by Ch Insp Hiller of the then RUC traffic branch. I will quote from what he said:

"It would only take one bus jam-packed with about a hundred children colliding with a heavy goods vehicle to make this a major issue. We now see it as a major issue and we hope that the Committee and the Assembly will give us legislation that is workable and enforceable."

The inquiry took some time, but the Committee wanted to give everyone an opportunity to put their point of view. Consequently, in addition to the 57 written submissions that the Committee received, it took oral evidence from 13 different sources, some of whom had to be brought back to give further evidence. When all the evidence was gathered, Committee members sat down with a team of experienced public sector transport specialist consultants, who address similar safety issues day in, day out, and we arrived at our recommendations. The report was published in September 2001 and therefore has already been with the Department of the Environment for nearly seven months.

The Committee made 28 recommendations, many of which Members will note are not only detailed, innovative and challenging but go much further than the limited scope of the so-called school buses debate, which took place on 19 February. I will not go over all the recommendations, but they are grouped under headings such as: the "3 for 2" seating provision; schoolchildren standing on buses; seat belts; arrangements for getting on and off buses; signage; flashing lights; legislation governing the use of minibuses and coaches on organised trips; behaviour and vandalism issues; storage of equipment and baggage; and, not least, road safety education. Almost every aspect of travel to and from school was investigated and reported on in some detail. Unfortunately, time does not afford me the luxury of detailing every recommendation, but I will say that there is not one single recommendation that will not bring about the improved safety of our children travelling to and from school.

Some recommendations, such as abolishing the "3 for 2" concession, standing on school buses and seat belt provision, have far-reaching implications, including significant resource implications, and the Committee acknowledges that. The Committee makes no apology for this, and if Members read the report carefully, they will see that the Committee accepts fully that all recommendations cannot be implemented overnight. However, that does not mean that they should not be evaluated properly and implemented. I do not accept that nothing can be done unless everything is lumped together.

I now turn my attention to the Department of the Environment’s initial response to the Committee on the key recommendations. Suffice it to say that the recommendations will not be evaluated until much later this year at the earliest, and even that is dependent on resources being secured in a monitoring round bid. By contrast, some other Departments that are involved directly in the report, such as the Department for Regional Development and the Department of Education, have acknowledged readily some time ago that some recommendations can be introduced at a relatively low cost and relatively quickly.

What was the Committee’s approach in making the recommendations? Through extensive research, the Committee has faced up to the real problems with due consideration and pragmatism. For example, when it examined the serious problem of traffic overtaking buses while children are boarding and alighting, it recognised that there could not be a simple approach or solution for every road in Northern Ireland.

That is why the Committee decided that the banning of overtaking may be practical and necessary in some locations and was certainly worthy of further investigation. In tandem with that recommendation, the Committee also recommended that the Department of the Environment and the Department of Education should develop and publish a good practice guide in respect of risk surrounding boarding and alighting at, or adjacent to, school premises, to cover issues such as supervision, local traffic-calming measures, hazard signals and school bus signage in general. Are those measures so difficult to implement? Are they so expensive? How long do we have to wait before there is action on the recommendations? I mean action and not a vague commitment to review, with no specific timetable or output.

12.15 pm

During the debate on 19 February 2002 some Members expressed disappointment, some of it verging on criticism, that my Committee had not brought the report to the House earlier. Looking back now, I regret to say that my Committee’s trust in the Department of the Environment, with its lead responsibility — I repeat, its lead responsibility — for road safety, and in this case the safety of children on school buses, has proved to be misplaced.

Last September the Committee took a deliberate decision to defer bringing forward the report, so that when it was debated, it would be in an atmosphere of moving forward with the recommendations, together with the Department of the Environment and other Departments, in the most positive and constructive way possible. The price we have paid for our decision is delay and prevarication by the Department of the Environment. It took precisely five months to get an initial response of any substance from the Department of the Environment. The words "initial response" were used by the then Minister of the Environment, and, curiously, that response arrived on 18 February 2002 — the day before the debate on the motion I have already mentioned.

At last week’s Committee meeting, one Committee member wondered whether he was paranoid or whether it was just coincidence that every time the Committee was about to act on something, the Department seemed to be able to produce long-awaited replies at the last minute.

However, I must inform the House that by early December 2001 my Committee had received extensive initial responses from the Department of Education, the Department for Regional Development, the Department for Employment and Learning and even from Translink. It took until late in February 2002 for the Department of the Environment to respond. When that was questioned, the then Minister took umbrage and wondered whether his Department’s efforts had been misplaced. Those efforts primarily included taking more than two months to collate information that the Committee had already received from the three other Departments. I would add that, for the benefit of Members, my Committee has lodged copies of the relevant correspondence with the Assembly Library, so that everyone can see and understand the Committee’s frustration since the report was published last September.

The criticism that my Committee has received from the former Minister of the Environment, and, most recently, from the current Minister, must be addressed. That criticism is centred on two supposed questions in a letter that the then Minister sent to the Committee in December 2001. On two occasions my Committee was specifically accused in the House of failing to give answers. My Committee totally rejects this attempt to divert the focus of attention away from the real issue of school transport.

The two alleged questions were suddenly referred to by the Minister of the Environment on 4 March 2002 during Question Time. One relates to the evidence obtained by the Committee to justify the cost benefits of implementing the recommendations, and the other refers to where the money is to come from. I must say to the Minister that instead of relying on his officials, it would be a great step forward if he were to read the complete report for himself and not just the recommendations. He would then see all the justification he needs.

I will say something about implementation cost projections in a moment. For example, on page 155 in volume 2 of the report there are statistics that have been provided by the police in relation to children who were injured or killed travelling to and from school between 1995 and 1999. During that period, 413 children were injured while travelling on buses, compared with 488 injured while travelling in cars. I will say no more on that subject.

The second supposed question was about where the money was to come from. The former Minister accused me, and consequently my Committee, of resorting to emotive slogans. However, in his December letter, it is he who wrote about making difficult choices between the needs of hospital patients, the elderly, the disabled, the homeless, the unemployed and educational underachievers. In what is clearly a rhetorical question, he asks if the money would be better spent on the Health Service than on implemention of the Committee’s recommendations. What about emotive language?

The Committee’s terms of reference focused the report on school bus safety. The Committee was not in the business of prioritising the Department’s budget, nor any other Department’s budget, to deal with the costs of implementing the report’s recommendations.

Mr McCartney:

Is it not correct that the 400-odd children who are injured will take up valuable time, surgical and nursing care, and beds in hospitals, if this is allowed to continue?

Rev Dr William McCrea:

I accept the position outlined by the hon Member, but my Committee’s responsibility was to investigate the safety of our children travelling to and from school, not to allocate the Budget; that is the responsibility of the Executive and the Departments. We were simply and directly dealing with a specific issue in our investigation. In brief, our concern in this report was to bring out the evidence that was given to us and to develop recommendations to improve the safety of our children. Is that not a laudable position for any Committee to hold? Hard decisions must be made, but at least let us make those decisions based on the facts. The investigation was all about facts such as those documented in the Committee’s report — not side issues. We did not make the evidence; we simply took the evidence.

Road safety, and therefore the safety of our children travelling to and from school in buses, is the Minister of the Environment’s responsibility. Therefore, the Department of the Environment is responsible for ensuring full evaluation of all of the recommendations within this report and the co-ordination, monitoring and reporting of subsequent follow-up implementations, as appropriate.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)

The Department of the Environment’s response in February promised regulatory impact assessment; reviews; research; and further research — without any reporting timescales. There has been no sign of action. As things stand, the regulatory impact assessment on the Committee’s key recommendations will not be completed by the end of this year. That is why the motion not only seeks the Assembly’s approval of the report, but calls specifically on the Minister of the Environment to ensure proper evaluation and to take full account of its recommendations.

I thank all of those who contributed to the report. I particularly acknowledge the perseverance and tolerance of my fellow Committee members, including those members who have moved on this since the report was completed. I also pay tribute to the Committee’s secretariat for its industry and attention to detail in the report’s preparation and delivery. I have great pleasure in commending the report to the House today. Rarely will we have a more serious issue before us than this one, and I ask the Members of the House to give their wholehearted support to the motion.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr Kennedy):

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this important matter. I hope that the personal safety of all children while travelling on school buses, particularly when getting on and alighting from them, is a matter of concern to every Member of the House and to members of the Committee for Education.

The issue has been raised at several meetings of the Committee for Education, and I am pleased that both the Minister of the Environment and the Minister of Education are here today.

The Education Committee welcomed the publication of the report on 13 September 2001 and acknowledges the Committee for the Environment’s detailed consideration of the matter. This debate is long overdue.

One of the most dangerous parts of the journey to school is when pupils board or alight from buses. On 19 February the Assembly endorsed my motion noting the number of children who have been killed while getting on and alighting from school buses by motorists and called on the Executive to conduct an urgent investigation of measures to protect the welfare of children when using school buses, taking account of the relevant laws introduced in the United States of America.

In recognition of that, I urged the Executive to put in place pilot schemes in rural and urban areas of Northern Ireland to assess the impact of preventing motorists from overtaking school buses when children are getting on or alighting, and to see whether regulation through legislation, as applied in the United States of America, could be implemented here.

My motion recognised that school transport is a cross-cutting issue and is not the sole responsibility of any one Minister. Therefore, I am using this opportunity to urge the Executive to take a co-ordinated and cohesive approach involving the Minister of the Environment, the Minister of Education and the Minister for Regional Development to ensure that progress is made.

The importance of pupil safety cannot be overemphasised, and full consideration must be given to measures aimed at enhancing the care and protection of children being transported to and from school. While the Department of the Environment provides advice on the safety of pupils travelling on school buses, the Department of Education is responsible for policy on home-to-school transport, and services are arranged by the education and library boards.

Many of the recommendations in the Committee for the Environment’s report will, if implemented, have a major impact on the education and library boards, and the Committee for Education has sought their views and those of the Department of Education.

Some of the recommendations could improve safety while not requiring major expenditure. Those include involving a means of communication for bus drivers and taxi drivers. The report also recommends the development of a code of conduct for everyone involved in home-to-school transport and the publication of a good practice guide on arrangements for getting on and off buses. The Committee for Education has been informed that the Department of Education and the education and library boards are taking appropriate action on those issues, and we look forward to progress on the matter.

It is also clear that some of the key recommendations, if implemented, will involve significant costs. Those include the abolition of the "3 for 2" seating arrangements, the provision of new seat belts and the prohibition of standing on school buses.

12.30 pm

Examples of the estimated costs include an additional capital amount of approximately £41 million and an extra £22·5 million a year for additional running costs if the recommendations to abolish the "3 for 2" seating arrangement and standing on buses are implemented. Although that is largely a matter for Translink, the additional cost would undoubtedly be passed on to the education and library boards. Provision of new seat belts would require a large capital investment by the education and library boards of approximately £15 million, and ensuring that pupils complied with the legislation and wore the seat belts would present a practical problem.

Implementation of the recommendations would have an important impact on the already critical financial situation in education. The Committee for Education does not wish to see funds taken from the classroom, as schools already exist on limited resources. Every Member is aware of the poor standard of accommodation in the schools estate. Therefore, the Executive would have to provide extra funding. I seek assurances from the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment and the Minister that any financial bid made by the Department of Education or the Committee for Education will receive the full backing of the Committee for the Environment.

Given the heavy cost of implementing several of the Committee for the Environment’s recommendations, it is important that a cost-benefit analysis be carried out as quickly as possible. The next step, therefore, must be a clear evaluation of the recommendations so that long-term decisions can be properly made.

I endorse the motion in general and welcome this important debate. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Members including those who are members of the Committee for Education. I especially look forward to contributions from the Minister of the Environment and other relevant Ministers.

Mr Gallagher:

I welcome the motion and commend the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment for moving it. The Committee has looked at all the key school transport issues. I agree with the Committee Chairperson: although this is a complicated issue, and progress is not a simple matter, that should not be a reason to delay the implementation of simple measures, some of which have been mentioned, to make boarding and alighting from school buses safer. I remind Members that the facts show that most fatal accidents happen when children are boarding or alighting from school transport.

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment referred to the Department for Regional Development. However, the matter poses challenges for several Departments, including the Department of Education. It is important that the Committee’s report signals the need for those Departments to co-operate in the development of a strategy to tackle the issues that have been identified. An end to overcrowding on school buses would be most welcome.

We need to keep in mind the safety of all schoolchildren. While the priority is school transport, some children travel to school on foot or on bicycles, and there are dangers for them. In that regard, I want to talk about ending the "3 for 2" seating arrangement rule. While it appears to be a measure that can be implemented and, at face value, it appears to be fairly straightforward, the impact in rural areas must be carefully assessed, as there are cost implications. The Chairperson of the Committee for Education covered that ground, and he clarified the main points to everyone.

However, there are entitlements to school transport, and there is a qualifying distance. As Members know from their constituents, the practicalities are that, where possible, education boards allow children who live within walking distance of their schools to travel on the school bus if it can take them. If a family has two children, and one child is at secondary school and the other child is at primary school, the secondary school child may qualify for school transport because he has to travel a greater distance. The parents may send the younger child to school with the older child, and it is difficult for the education board to instruct the school driver to pick up the older member of the family and not to take on board the younger member, who may be a four- or six-year-old.

If we end the "3 for 2" arrangements, the qualifying limit will be applied very strictly. That will mean that more children will walk to school. As Members who represent rural constituencies know, that is a problem. It is also a problem in urban areas, and it will cause a great deal of worry for parents. Children who walk to school have to negotiate road junctions and cross busy roads — even in rural areas — and that throws up dangers. While the ending of the "3 for 2" rule will help to alleviate the pressure on the school transport system and reduce overcrowding, more children will walk to school, because many families do not have access to school transport, and they cannot take their children to school. We have to keep the safety of all children in mind.

With regard to the Department for Regional Development, I emphasise the recommendation in the report about the need to bring all school bus routes into the winter gritting system. People who live in rural areas, quite rightly, claim that there are inconsistencies and inequalities in the system. It is difficult to disagree with those concerns, and improvements should be phased in before next winter. That would be consistent with what the Chairperson said about the key Departments moving now to advance the strategy and improve safety. As I said in a previous debate, the Department of Education should recommend that particular attention be paid in schools to the personal safety of all children who rely on school transport and use it daily.

Mr M Murphy:

As a member of the Committee for the Environment, I support the motion. Given that the Minister has not implemented the ‘Report on the Inquiry into Transport used for Children Travelling to and from School’, which involved months of hard work, his commitment to the road safety of schoolchildren leaves a good deal to be desired. I take on board the fact that the Minister is new to the post; however, his Department shows a lack of interest in implementing the Committee’s recommendation that legislation be introduced to set minimum safety standards for vehicles that transport schoolchildren. I appeal to all the Departments involved to play a constructive role in implementing the report.

I recognise the significant cost involved in implementing the Committee’s recommendation; however, what price can we put on a child’s life? That strong principle emerged from the evidence that the Committee received. No cost can justify the death or serious injury of any child travelling to or from school. Every Member has a copy of the report, which details fully the Committee’s recommendations, and I appeal to everyone to approve it. It is time to evaluate the 57 written representations to the Committee from service providers and other witnesses. In addition, I call on the Minister of the Environment to put into action the Committee’s recommendations.

Mr McCarthy:

I support the motion, and I record the Alliance Party’s thanks for the Committee’s hard work on this serious subject. I welcome the report. However, it was produced in September, and I am disappointed that it has taken seven months for it to reach the Floor. How long will it take to implement the important recommendations, or is it a question of how many more schoolchildren will be killed before action is taken?

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment has already covered every aspect of this important subject, but I will mention a few of the main concerns and recommendations. Standing on school buses should be a thing of the past. On the Ards Peninsula, in my constituency of Strangford, particularly in September, it is almost a matter of how many youngsters can be squeezed onto a bus, and I am sure that that unacceptable practice is replicated throughout Northern Ireland.

I have seen schoolchildren standing against the door at the front of a bus. I pay tribute to bus drivers for keeping their buses on the roads in such circumstances. The A20 from Portaferry to Newtownards, for example, is a winding road that runs adjacent to Strangford Lough. If a school bus were to collide or swerve anywhere on that road — and coastal erosion can happen in that area — the bus would topple into the lough, resulting in many young casualties. That could occur in many places in Northern Ireland, so standing on school buses must be done away with as soon as possible.

12.45 pm

I agree that the "3 for 2" seating policy for children should be a thing of the past. Every pupil should be entitled to a seat, and a seat belt should be available. I understand that seat belts are already compulsory on many buses and coaches — private operators have accepted that policy. They must feel aggrieved that the public operators can get away without that safety provision. What is good for the private operator must be good for the public one.

Front and rear signage on school buses must be of paramount importance. Members of the Portaferry Women’s Institute suggested to the Environment Committee the possibility of enacting legislation to have traffic stop to the front and rear of school buses when children are alighting. The Chairperson of the Environment Committee and the Chairperson of the Education Committee also mentioned that. That idea was prompted by the unfortunate death of a pupil who had alighted from his school bus and crossed the busy road between Kircubbin and Portaferry. There are other sad instances. If young lives are to be saved, all proposals must be investigated as quickly as possible.

There are many recommendations in the report, such as codes of conduct for all concerned; good practice guides for getting on and off school buses; and a reduction in vandalism, bullying, and so on. It is imperative for all the proper authorities to come together to grasp the nettle and put into practice actions that will mean that schoolchildren can travel to school in safety, even if those actions are implemented over a number of years. Costs will play a large part in the implementation of the Committee’s many recommendations. The question is: what price a child’s life?

Ms Morrice:

I join the other Members who welcomed the report. It was enlightening to hear how the inquiry was conducted and to be aware of the delays, and I too must express my disappointment about that. It is not before time that the report has come out.

Many of the 28 recommendations on child safety are extremely important, and the Women’s Coalition supports the motion’s call to deal with them as a matter of urgency.

I will deal with some of the recommendations, but in reverse order. There are some valuable points in the report that have not been touched upon. First, I welcome recommendations 16 and 20 that propose a strategy to deal with bullying, vandalism and bad behaviour. I assume that that would also include intimidation. The Committee’s recommendation that an action plan be drawn up to deal with these problems is a valuable one, as is the idea of setting up a telephone hotline to deal with incidents on school transport.

The report mentions the amount of baggage that children must carry to school, and, as a mother, I am very aware of that. It is a difficult problem to deal with. Perhaps the Minister of Education could take on board the need to provide facilities in schools for storing books and equipment so that children would have less baggage to carry. In that context, space to store pupils’ bags should also be provided on school buses.

I also welcome the idea of using yellow buses. There was an opportunity to examine how that system was introduced into the USA. According to recommendation 12, research into the yellow school bus system will be valuable with a view to possibly adopting it in Northern Ireland. The system seems to work well in many American states. Other recommendations with regard to the use of flashing lights, signage and road safety education are important.

As is my wont, I started with the soft issues, and I will move on to the difficult issues. The Committee’s proposals for dealing with standing on buses and seat belts are too lenient. It is inappropriate that timescales have been set for the introduction of seat belts, for example, over the short, medium and long terms. Seat belts for school buses should have been introduced yesterday. They should not be phased in.

Members understand the Department’s concerns and its need to prioritise. There is a question about whether money should be given to the Health Service or to education. I was impressed by Mr McCartney’s point that a reduction in the number of accidents involving school buses would reduce pressure on the Health Service. The argument about where money should go does not stand up in that case.

Standing on buses should also have been dealt with yesterday. Parent-teacher associations have addressed the need for safety on school buses. Serious pressure should be applied to speed up the implementation of the report’s recommendations, if not yesterday, at least tomorrow.

The Committee’s remit concerned the specific issue of safety on buses. However, the debate must be broadened to include safer routes to school, whether children travel on foot, by bicycle or by bus. For example, approximately 2% of children in the UK cycle to school, compared with 60% in Denmark. That is understandable, because a cyclist is 12 times more likely to be injured or killed in Northern Ireland than in Denmark.

We could also discuss children walking to school to avoid rush-hour traffic. However, that may be outside the remit of the debate. Perhaps the best example of a school bus is the "walking" bus, which is a pilot system that is being operated in north Down. There is no need for seat belts, because all the children walk to school. However, only children who live in close proximity to the schools can do that.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

This is an important debate. We must help two sections of the community to the best of our ability — the aged and the young. The motion deals with the children of Northern Ireland.

As I understand it, at present a 53-seater bus can carry 101 children. That will not make them safe — just think of 101 children crammed into a 53-seater bus.

Something must be done as soon as possible. Otherwise, we are waiting for a calamity to happen. If a calamity happens, every voice will be raised. Every voice and every hand will be raised in horror that the Assembly tolerated such a system. The finances of the situation, as the Chairperson said, are not the responsibility of the Committee for the Environment. That matter will arise when the Budget is being distributed and when cries are being made for certain amounts of money to be put to certain good causes.

I trust that the Minister will not try to defend a 53-seater bus carrying 101 children, that he will admit that that cannot be tolerated and that he is prepared to do his best to remedy the situation. Some of the recommendations would take little or no money to put into operation. Why can the Minister not say, as an act of good faith, that he is going to seek the immediate implementation of that which does not put strain on his present budget? That would be an assurance to children, and to their parents, that a start was being made.

Seat belts are important. It is preached every night on television that not wearing a seat belt endangers not only oneself but others as well. However, the Assembly is prepared to tolerate a situation with school buses which completely ignores the facts that are being presented. The Minister can take a positive step forward by telling the House that, although finance is an issue, there are recommendations that do not demand large amounts of money — and perhaps some that do not require any — and that he is prepared to take steps to implement those immediately and progress to those others that are important. However, the Assembly must face up to the glaring fact that money will have to be spent on the problem. That cannot be avoided.

My Friend, the Chairman of the Committee for the Environment, who presented the report, and the other Committee members must be congratulated on it. They have faced up to the situation. The hon Member for North Down, Ms Morrice, is not happy about parts of the report. She thinks that parts of it should have been implemented yesterday. I agree with that. The Assembly should never have let the situation get so far. However, we must face the facts.

I have told the Minister that he can start his tenure well by assuring parents and children that he will do all that he can in the circumstances. There must be movement on this, and that movement must then be carried to a successful conclusion. The Minister will receive the plaudits of the people if he pursues that path. However, telling the Assembly that that is not possible because of finance and other things that need to be done is simply putting it off. I hope that the Minister will not put it off, but will announce that this is the day when action will be taken to address this serious problem.

Mr K Robinson:

The fundamental point of principle in the debate is that nothing exceeds the value of human life. Indeed, the existence of the Assembly is based on the sanctity of human life after a 30-year war that saw the loss of so many innocent lives.

For that reason alone, we should place the protection of lives, especially young lives, at the top of our agenda.

1.00 pm

In December 2001, two children were knocked down while alighting from school buses; both were young teenagers. Many lives have been blighted as a result of such accidents. Indeed, over many years, a series of such awful incidents have resulted in the loss of young lives. The tragedy is that they are all avoidable. The creation and enforcement of a simple set of traffic rules would considerably reduce the risk of such incidents recurring.

I recently visited the United States, where I went to a school to observe how the authorities deal with what is a universal problem. In many states, school buses are painted yellow and are easily visible. They are fitted with bright flashing lights that operate when the vehicle is stationary. When those lights are flashing, no traffic is allowed to overtake the bus. That dramatically reduces the risk of child being hit by a car when alighting. Such lights are easily fitted and are already present on many vehicles. Furthermore, the expense is not extraordinary.

An extendable arm is another device used in the United States that significantly reduces the risk to children alighting from school buses. Normally forming part of the front bumper, the arm extends outwards, parallel to the footpath or roadside. It causes children to walk a considerable distance from the bus and reduces the opportunity for them to dash or walk out unwarily on to the road. Again, that measure is simple and easily fitted. Importantly, it could save lives.

I do not accept that the risk of greater traffic congestion as a result of these measures is an acceptable reason for doing nothing. Frankly, that argument belongs to the Stone Age. On balance, to save one human life is worth whatever minor traffic delay is caused. One would have to be a cynical, uncaring person to recommend inaction, simply because the measures might delay traffic somewhat.

In continental cities, vehicles automatically stop to allow a person to alight from, or board, a tram. Why could traffic here not automatically stop to allow children to enter or exit a school bus?

In America, mirrors on school buses that allow drivers to see children who are close to either the front or rear wheels are fitted extensively. That again reduces the risk at the point where children have lost their lives in the past.

The case appears clear-cut and simple. As an Assembly, we have reaffirmed the protection and preservation of human life as a paramount consideration. Therefore, we should recommend the adoption of the measures that I have outlined: brightly painted buses; buses with flashing lights that operate automatically when stopped; a ban on cars passing stationary buses when those lights are flashing; and an extendable arm fitted to bus bumpers to prevent children crossing close to the vehicle. That is a raft of simple measures, but they would go a long way to reducing what is currently an unacceptable risk.

Recommendations 9, 12, 13 and 14 of the report go some way to highlighting the facts that I have mentioned. Recommendation 14 deals with the supervision, scheduling, queuing and signing systems, design of drop-off and pickup points, and local traffic calming. All those aspects are vital to create a mindset that this is a central issue that must be addressed by everyone: schools; transport companies; parents; and drivers of all other road vehicles. I am sorry to say that we are currently very glib in our approach to road safety. Recommendation 14 focuses the attention of all who have a part to play in reducing what is a serious problem.

I wish to draw attention to recommendation 19 in the Committee’s report, which returns us to the core of the matter. Many incidents and accidents go unreported. The Committee’s recommendation that there should be a formal system of reporting such incidents and accidents is positive. That can better inform our way of addressing them within the schools, when parents come to collect their children, when children are about to cross the road and when other vehicles come upon a school bus.

I commend the report, and I congratulate the Committee and the Chairperson on their detailed and necessary work. We now rely upon the Minister and his officials to take the recommendations forward and build them into legislation.

I remind Members that a former Government Minister in this Building dared to be different in the past. He introduced the R-plate system specifically to address the problems that Northern Ireland’s newly qualified drivers were causing. I hope that the Minister today will follow that lead.

Mr A Doherty:

With his fixed, nice-guy smile and his anxious eyes, Tony Blair said "education, education, education". I was quite impressed, even though it was election time, when dramatic slogans are highly valued and sometimes quite effective. Then I began to wonder — why education times three? Why not just education? Education is education. That is it. Then I wondered a bit more. Perhaps the champion of new Labour meant that there are three educations — education for the privileged, education for the ordinary and education for the underprivileged. If that was what he meant, he would be very much in tune with some people in this enlightened little place. However, I am sure that he did not mean that. I hope he did not mean that, although much of what he has done about education since he uttered that rousing call has been alarming.

You might ask what that has to do with the motion. It is simple. Like every other aspect of education, this is an issue of equality and human rights. All children have the right to an appropriate education, and I do not mean that it should be appropriate to their parents’ bank balances or their social standing. It follows that people who have a duty to provide education have a duty to ensure that children arrive safely, and in reasonable comfort, at their places of education — hence the great effort put into this inquiry by the Committee for the Environment. All the report’s recommendations are reasonable and achievable. There are cost implications, and we appreciate that there is competition with other areas of great need. However, a start must be made immediately, and much can be done at no great cost if the will is there.

I must emphasise that the inquiry deals with proposals to change transport arrangements that serve an education system which itself is in need of reform — a system which is in many ways an affront to equality and children’s rights. There are proposals to improve the system. Whatever comes from those proposals, the results must be far-reaching and right. If we mess it up — and I fear that we will — I will be long gone before there is another chance. Members might say that that will be no great loss. However, they and their children will also be gone.

I do not stray from the motion, for if we get the system right there will be bonuses with regard to school transport. For example, it is daft for hordes of children to travel 10 to 20 miles to school in one direction, meeting hordes of other children travelling in the opposite direction. Before anyone sneers about "postcode schooling", I know that if neighbourhood schools are to be the norm, those schools must all be excellent, and every neighbourhood must be made tolerable. That is not the case at the moment, and that must be put right.

"The rich man in his castle;
the poor man at his gate
God made them, high and lowly;
and ordered their estate."

Sadly, that mentality still haunts us. It must be changed, and we must change it.

The principals of Limavady High School and St Mary’s provided the Committee with oral evidence. I know both gentlemen and their schools well. At paragraphs 551 and 554, Vol 2, Appendix 4 of the report, Mr Bradley told the Committee that

"In Limavady, we have pupils from a largely rural community travelling anything up to 18 miles - the distance from Strathfoyle to Limavady. It can be a long and arduous journey, taking 35 to 40 minutes, during the morning rush hour and, again, between 3.30 pm and 4.00 pm. Having 22 or 23 young people standing for that time will lead to problems. In my paper, I mentioned misbehaviour, bullying, vandalism, and sectarian taunts and fights. In that respect, Limavady is no different from any other area. I stress that 95% or more of the pupils travelling on those buses are well behaved, but a small minority takes up an inordinate amount of our time and that of Translink."

"The first housing estate in Ballykelly is King’s Lane. The distance has been measured by Translink and the estate was found to be within the three-mile limit for Limavady High School and St Mary’s. The children do not get a free pass, and their parents must pay. Fortunately for those who attend Limavady Grammar School, which is slightly further up the road from us, the distance from King’s Lane to school exceeds the three-mile limit and children get a free pass."

Those are just two examples of situations that are strangers to the concepts of equality and children’s rights and are far removed from the acceptable standards of safe and comfortable travel. The report is full of such examples. I recommend that it be carefully studied. I support the motion.


Next >>