Council leaders under fire over the introduction of transport charges for students are still paying “significant” subsidies for travel, government bosses have said.
Labour run Northumblerland County Council has been criticised having decided to impose fees of up to £600 for those in post-16 education.
Prime Minister David Cameron even joined the attacks on the authority in the House of Commons recently when claiming “Labour costs us more.”
Yet now, department of education insiders appear to have sympathised with the council in saying the £600 charge, for students without access to public transport, “still represents a significant subsidy on the actual cost for the majority of students.”
The stance was last night welcomed by Labour who claimed it represented an “embarrassing flip flop” for the Conservatives.
Yet the Tories insisted education bosses were not at odds with the Prime Minister and once again criticised Labour for their reintroduction of the charges.
The council brought in charges blaming cuts to its funding from the government, but faced an angry backlash from parents, pupils and opposition politicians.
Mr Cameron joined in following a question from Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith, saying: “I certainly join him in agreeing that this is another example of the fact that Labour costs us more.”
One county parent recently wrote to the prime minister voicing concerns over the introduction of the charges.
A reply was sent to the parent by an official in the department of education which appears sympathetic to the council.
It says: “I note that Northumberland County Council has changed the arrangements for 2014/15, although the £600 charge for the provision of transport for those students without access to public transport still represents a significant subsidy on the actual cost for the majority of students.
“I also note that the council intends to continue providing free transport for students from low income backgrounds, and for those with learning difficulties and disabilities...
“I do, however, recognise that the majority of students entering post-16 education and training for the first time, in September 2014, will have to pay significantly more than they would have done previously.
“However, it is for the council to decide on the exact level of support in its area and arrangements may change from one year to the next, based on local circumstances and the council’s priorities.”
Last night, council and Labour leader Grant Davey said: “The ‘flip flop’ by the government is an embarrassment for Northumberland Tories who have shamelessly played party politics with the issue of post 16 transport.
“They forced an extraordinary meeting with the sole purpose of overturning a lawful decision by the council’s policy board and they shamelessly leant on public servants for their own party political ends.
“You won’t often hear me say this but I agree with the government and its a shame that the prime minister felt the need to stoke up the political hyperbole in Northumberland in prime minister’s questions.”
The Tories insisted the education department was not at odds with Mr Cameron, claiming both were stating that the decision to bring in charges was one for the local authority.
Leader Peter Jackson said: “Whatever reply the parents have had from sources at Whitehall, the situation on the ground is not acceptable and it is about time that the Labour run county council started doing something about this really serious problem.”
Seahouses parent Sue Patterson said: “It’s still unrecognised by politicians in London or even Morpeth for that matter how bad our transport links are.
“I think government made these changes, instead of being fobbed off they should be implementing ways of getting our children to schools/colleges.
“No-one is taking the blame here, they’re all just burying their heads and blaming each other, with lots of lies thrown in for good measure.”