A significant responsibility for “upper tier” local authorities is providing a passenger transport service to take disabled children to and from school.

Typically these councils manage to combine a poor service with huge cost to their Council Taxpayers.

This has come about due to inflexibility in allowing parental choice and well intentioned, but excessive, bureaucratic burdens which have diminished the number of firms willing to offer councils this service.

The manager of one firm has provided me with some background on some of the difficulties faced:

Staff licensing is a major issue for us. Drivers earn approximately £10,000 pa and passenger assistants approximately £7,000 for a 20 hour week. To be able to use them we have to have DBS (CRB) checks done, quite understandably.  The problem is that these pass through three different bureaucracies, our licensing authority (TfL/PCO), the DBS, and the police, which means that the process often takes up to three months. This makes recruitment extremely difficult, it’s like we’re saying: “Come work for us part time, fill in all these forms, and you can start in three months”.

Additionally, some councils we work with refuse to recognise the DBS check done by the PCO so insist on another to be done for them. The staff also need a medical and the drivers a topographical test. Councils also demand we give first aid training to all staff, as well as training in disability awareness, safeguarding, passenger assistant training, amongst others, and a driving assessment for the drivers. All for a part time wage!  It is very difficult to attract people under these circumstances when they can just go to Tesco and be working by the end of the week. Of course, all those hoops we have to jump through add costs all the way down the line. Passenger assistance training, for example, takes 11 hours which we have to pay to the staff at their hourly rate, on top of the training fees. So just to get a staff member on the road, we will have already spent about £600/£700 before they pick up a passenger.

Another recent regulation is Driver CPC training (this comes from the EU but other countries ignore it). This is where any driver with a D1 licence has to do 35 hours of training every 5 years in order to keep their licence. There is no pass or fail, they just have to attend, don’t even have to listen! This has led to many (mostly older) drivers letting their licences lapse because they can’t be bothered with the cost and the time. Many companies, including us, have had to pay for the training or lose a driver. It has also pushed up the cost of D1 drivers because there are now fewer of them. The same principle has occurred with HGV drivers.

Vehicle licensing is also a problem. Our vehicles require two industry MOTs per year, a PCO yearly inspection and – because of the nature of our vehicles – an IVA certificate because all wheelchair accessible buses are panel vans converted by adding windows and tracked flooring. TfL decided about three years ago to demand an IVA because they wanted the tracking and windows tested, but instead of just checking that, they make us go to VOSA testing centres for a test which was designed for kit cars, so absolutely everything is tested (most of which has already been tested during both the MOT and the PCO inspection!). This test is the reason we’ve had buses rejected for all sorts of weird and wacky reasons like sharp air conditioning knobs and frayed seat belts.

Another aspect is the fact that the test is so unsuited to our vehicles. For example, there must be no sharp edges anywhere, but tail lifts all have sharp edges. Therefore we’ve had to put rubber over the sharp edges to pass the test. The moment we have the certificate, we take the rubber off or else the tail lift doesn’t work. It’s utterly pointless. The same goes for seating. The tracking in the floor is there so we can move seats around depending on which types of wheelchair are being carried, it is the entire point of the vehicles. Yet when we go for inspections, the seats have to be in exactly the same place they were previously or the vehicle fails, so if we were to live by the letter of their law, when passengers on a route are changed, instead of moving seats to accommodate, we’d have to buy a whole new bus! We’d also not be able to use a bus on many different routes because we wouldn’t be able to adjust the seating plans. As you can see, the tests are ludicrous, they are simply not testing what the vehicles are designed to do.

MOTs are £45, PCO inspections are £100, and IVAs are £198. When TfL told us we had to get IVAs for all of our vehicles, we estimated the work involved and fees cost us £30,000 in total and we had to get rid of some perfectly good buses because they couldn’t meet the requirements of the test (mainly because we could not get documents from the conversion company because we didn’t know which company did it), so the £30k doesn’t include the cost of new buses to replace the ones we had to sell.

There are also costs imposed on us by the Mayors Air Quality Standard (MAQS) regulations. A couple of years ago we were told that our buses could not be more than 10 years old. We took part in the MAQS consultation along with other companies like ours and managed to get an exemption to 15 years for our tail lift vehicles, but not for minibuses. This results in us having to sell vehicles well before they are economically unviable. Just last week we sold a Renault Traffic minibus which was immaculate, but it had reached 10 years so would not be licensed. In the case of tail lift vehicles, these cost around £35,000 and only do about 10,000 miles a year. Modern technology means they are designed to do about double the mileage on them when we are forced to sell. Considering that after labour, our biggest cost on any route is the charge for the vehicle, it means councils are paying over the odds for the cost of the bus.

There are other things which might alleviate cost, for example we are banned from advertising which could be a form of income to reduce prices we have to charge out to councils. Also, we are licensed in London but if we want to do work in West Sussex (we had work down there at one time) we have to get another operating licence and license the vehicles in their jurisdiction, portability of licensing would be good and the Law Commission were looking at it, but getting flak from licensing authorities who want to protect their fiefdoms from competition between authorities. Lastly, it would be good if a DBS check was good for all purposes, but again we have to get checks done for different authorities, as I mentioned above.

So not all of the problems are due to the councils themselves. A lot is due to the regulations. Even if central Government wished to streamline the some damaging minutia (particular logos on windows for instance) is required by EU membership.

But sometimes councils do themselves no favours by making the contracts so big that it is hard for medium sized firms to tender. They might say that only firms with a minimum turnover of £10 million are allowed to pitch for the contract. Or they might make the contract for such a large area – an entire county perhaps – that only large firms can accept the contract.

In Hammersmith and Fulham, where I am a councillor, we used to provide this service in-house, at an annual cost of £10,197 per head. We contracted it out which reduced costs by about 27 per cent, or £326,000, a year.

There were very real initial problems.

The previous team would not cooperate during the handover. That was appalling given that the victims were disabled children. But considering the mentality of trade union militancy in the public sector perhaps that non-cooperation should have been predicted.

In any event, the new contractors’ staff should have been familiar with the routes and the needs of the individual children from day one. But they were not. The details matter hugely – for instance with an autistic child who requires a precise routine to stay calm.

Generally the service is now working well and there is not much demand from parents for it to go back in house. The previous arrangement lacked any rigorous performance monitoring or proper accountability.

But I wonder if the joint contract with our tri-borough colleagues was too big? A subsequent report noted “fewer bidders were attracted to the Tri-borough procurement phase than was expected”. Often joint procurement provides greater savings. Perhaps in this case, with such a constrained market, we would have achieved a better service at a lower cost with a smaller contract.

In any case there is a more radical way forward which should be embraced.

Parents of disabled children should be enabled to opt out of the service. Often these parents would like to take their own children to school but can’t for financial reasons. They should be allowed financial support to do so. Suppose the cost to the council was £7,500 a year to take their child to and from school. The parents could be offered £5,000 to take on that responsibility and make their own arrangements. It might involve reducing their hours at work so that they could take the child themselves. It might involve paying the child’s nanny extra hours to do it. This could provide both a better service for the child and a reduced cost for the taxpayer. Of course it would be voluntary. The council would continue to provide a transport service to those who needed it.

Extending parental choice in school transport arrangements sounds like such obvious common sense it is odd that council’s do not already do it. I am told the problem is that it would be illegal. Councils can only fund those who meet all the endless bureaucratic requirements of the sort detailed above. But when the parents take on the responsibility they should be exempted from all those rules and still be allowed financial help.

Trust the people is a good Conservative motto. There should be a presumption of trust that parents are best placed to care for their own children.