Free travel for London children will not be scrapped at the start of the new school year – but will be cut immediately after half term, the Local Democracy Service can reveal.
Government ministers were pushing Transport for London (TfL) to suspend free bus journeys for 16 and 17 year olds on 6 September, but have now u-turned on the plans.
Ministers claim the policy will keep Londoners safe from coronavirus by preventing overcrowding on buses, as well as saving money at a time of huge financial pressure on TfL.
But London politicians opposing the cut say the delay proves the Government’s policy is “misguided” and should be dropped entirely.
The plans have been widely attacked with 95% of youngsters calling for them to be dropped, according to a recent survey by the Partnership for Young London.
The Mayor, Sadiq Khan, is firmly against scrapping free travel and has said he will not help the Government draw it up the scheme.
In a letter to TfL, seen by the Local Democracy Service, the Department for Transport now sets out which youngsters will still be eligible for free travel come October.
All children aged 10 or under will be bused to school for free, as well as older children who live two miles or more from their school or college.
Older children who live closer to their school will also be allowed to travel for free if:
- They have a social worker;
- They have an education, health and care plan for special educational needs;
- They are attending a pupil referral unit, or other alternative to mainstream education – often for children who have been expelled;
- They do not have a safe walking route to school;
- They cannot walk because of a disability or other health reason.
But children on free school meals will not be automatically exempt from paying – meaning those from worse off backgrounds who do not meet the criteria above will incur extra costs.
Labour London Assembly member Alison Moore, the group’s transport spokesperson, said the omission was “completely outrageous” in the current climate.
“The fact that [the Government] are excluding those families on free school meals is balancing the budget on the backs of those who can least afford to bear it,” she said.
Young people are looking ahead to a future “wracked with uncertainty” and will face a “pretty bleak future” if they don’t resume their education, she argued.
“Perhaps (the Government) have realised how unpopular this is – but more likely they’ve realised how incredibly complex it is to implement,” she added.
Ms Moore – who is also a Barnet councillor – said the criteria for exempting children are too vague for councils to manage.
“You want something that’s easy to understand, easy to implement, and not open to challenge – but some of these criteria are so unclear that it’s just a nonsense,” she said.
“It feels to me like [this policy] is unravelling in front of us.”
Liberal Democrat Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon agreed that the delay proves the plans are “misguided, complex and simply wrong”.
“Instead of pushing ahead with a foolish policy at a later date it is now time to drop this entirely,” she said.
“The Government has admitted they were wrong, and they should now just backdown completely.
“The last thing young people and low income households need is to face a further challenge this Autumn.”
But Conservative Assembly member Keith Prince, the group’s transport lead, said cutting free travel for youngsters is not “denying young people their rights”.
“The bottom line on all this is that TfL do not have the capacity to take all the passengers they need to take at the moment,” he said.
“Unless we’re going to put on more buses or buses are going to take more people I don’t see how we can do it.”
Mr Prince said that by opposing the policy Mr Khan is refusing to “make hard decisions” at a time of crisis.
“The Mayor will force the Government to do his job and then blame them for doing it,” he said.
The Conservative member admitted the current exemptions outlined by ministers are “subjective” – particularly the exemption for pupils without a safe walking route.
But a “small team of officers” could assess claims, which would be primarily a matter of traffic and dangerous roads not crime, he said.
Mr Prince said it was wrong for a “fit young person” to take up space on buses needed by older residents and key workers, when youngsters “need more exercise anyway” to combat obesity.
“If they want to use their pocket money to go on the bus they still can,” he added.
The Department for Transport was approached for comment.