David Cameron drawn into row over Northumberland school transport

Prime Minister is accused by Labour councillors of wrongly saying the local authority could use a bursary fund for transport

David Cameron addresses FSB conference
David Cameron addresses FSB conference

David Cameron has been accused of getting his facts wrong after he weighed into the ongoing row over student transport fees in Northumberland ,

The Prime Minister said Northumberland County Council could use its share of a £180m bursary fund, provided by the Government to help 16 to 19-year-olds stay in education, to subsidise transport costs.

But Labour councillors pointed out that this money went to schools and colleges, and could not be spent by the local authority.

Mr Cameron spoke after he was quizzed in the House of Commons about Labour-run Northumberland County Council’s decision to save £2.4m by ending free transport for many post-16 students.

It follows cuts in grants from central government which mean the authority has to save £130m over the next five years.

Exceptions will be made for students with special educational needs, or those from low income families who attend their nearest school or college, but others will need to pay public transport costs or a flat fee of £600 a year.

An extraordinary meeting of the council to discuss the decision will be held on Friday.

Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith
 

Northumberland Liberal Democrat MP Sir Alan Beith, who represents Berwick-upon-Tweed, raised the row in the House of Commons, asking: “Is the Prime Minister aware that 16 to 18-year-olds in Northumberland who may live 50 miles from a further education college or 20 miles from a high school are facing charges ranging from £600 a year to several thousand pounds a year to get an education, because the Labour-controlled council has reversed the support given by the previous Liberal Democrat administration?

“Will he deplore that decision and see what central Government can do to promote fair access to education?”

Mr Cameron told him: “As he knows, responsibility for transport for education and training rests with local authorities. Clearly, this local authority, now controlled by Labour, has made this decision.

“Of course we have introduced the £180m bursary fund to support the most disadvantaged young people and perhaps that is something that his council and these families could make the most of. I certainly join him in agreeing that this is another example of the fact that Labour costs us more.”

But Labour councillor Scott Dickinson, who is set to contest Berwick at the next General Election, said: “The Government made changes which moved the bursary directly to schools and colleges. It seems the Prime Minister doesn’t know his own bursary scheme, because he suggests the council can use that bursary. Well no, it can’t, because it’s direct from Government to schools.”

The authority was forced to make cuts, he said.

“When they ask us to rip £130m out of the council budget, things like this will be the consequence.”

Coun Dickinson said a number of schools and colleges had said they would provide transport to all contracted students so that they would continue to receive free transport.

“If Liberal Democrats or Conservatives in the council had produced an alternative budget or explained where they believed savings could be made then we would have welcomed that debate, but nothing was put forward. So this is political opportunism afterwards.”

Read more on the row over transport charges for those in post 16 education

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