The focus of last week’s Full Surrey County Council meeting was on the five motions submitted for debate – three from the Lib Dem Group, one from the majority Conservative Group and the other from Labour.
The living wage
The first was from the one Labour County Councillor calling for the Council to pay the ‘Living Wage’. As I have tried this before at both County Hall and Woking Borough Council – the Lib Dems supported this move again, even though we had a feeling it was sadly doomed. Which it was, as the local Conservatives continue to oppose the living wage.
The next motion was my Group’s first of the day – were we called for home to school transport to be improved – since the Council had recently announced a review of the policy, but from the start has said that it wasn’t proposing any changes.
I know from casework that many children and parents face difficulties with the present arrangements. There are a number of anomalies that mean that it can be unfair for many children, who are denied free school transport by the County Council – which causes them major problems in getting to school. It is a total nonsense for the Conservatives to announce a review but say the status quo is fine, it’s pre-determination and makes a mockery of the consultation process.
Us Lib Dems wanted a full review by Councillors of how home to school transport in Surrey is run so that urgent changes can be made. We wanted a review of six major problems with the present arrangements which have been raised by Surrey parents. They are:
- The discouragement that the present system gives to parents returning to full time work, given the Government’s focus on getting people off benefits and into work. At present if parents cease to receive maximum Working Tax Credit or a child ceases to qualify for free school meals, Home to School Transport stops immediately.
- The difficulties in obtaining school transport by children living in rural parts of Surrey, especially for pupils wanting to go to their nearest school within the Borough where they live, where there are community ties, but who live close to Borough or County boundaries.
- The difficulties caused by the nearest school to a child’s home being denominational when a child is of a different religion.
- People being denied free Home to School Transport when the shortest practical route is far longer than the distances used under the qualifying criteria because there are major physical obstacles (such as railway lines, major roads and reservoirs).
- The difficulties caused to children who live more than 3 miles from any school but who are denied free transport to the parent’s school of choice because the parents have not opted for the nearest school.
- The difficulties caused when a child does not live in a school’s catchment area, even though it is their nearest school.
Sadly this motion and the merits of setting up a full review was deferred to the Cabinet, so I don’t hold out much hope that much-needed changes will be made.
Young people and politics
County Councillors from across all parties voted to support the motion from my colleague Ian Beardsmore for better youth representation across the county. This will mean the establishment of a County-wide youth democracy platform which will include representatives of young people from schools and colleges – complementing the existing youth councils at Borough level.
Then we had a motion from me, calling for a ban stopping any culling of badgers on Council land – the idea behind this was to head off any Government plans to cull Surrey badgers like they have tried to do in Gloucestershire and Somerset to fight Bovine TB. I’m a strong supporter of protecting our countryside and environment, and that must include all the species that make it their home.
I had hoped I would be pushing on an open door with this call, as Conservative-run Hampshire County Council agreed a similar ban there – and the science is not proven nor conclusive that a call of badgers is the answer to eradicating Bovine TB from the countryside. The pilot culls in the West Country have been so unsuccessful that Owen Paterson infamously blamed the badgers for moving the goal posts!
However, my hopes were misplaced – the Conservative majority (joined by Independent and UKIP Councillors) voted down my motion thereby encouraging a badger cull locally.
Finally, we had a motion on apprenticeships. Despite the continued tough but improving economic climate, both County Hall and the Coalition Government has managed to do a lot of good on apprenticeships. For example, 520,600 new apprenticeships were started in 2011/12 – that’s an 86% increase since 2009/10.
So although it was a very self congratulating motion, apprenticeships are thankfully a real success story.