North Yorkshire County Council is to stop charging 16-19-year-olds who use its school buses after a legal challenge over disability discrimination.
The council, in common with many others, charged post-16 pupils for using spare seats on school buses provided mainly for younger children.
But it received a threat of legal action from a member of the public over the practice, which earned the council £415,000 a year.
Bus operators sometimes used vehicles larger than necessary to transport younger pupils and the ‘spare’ seats would then be sold to older ones not entitled to free transport.
The complaint was that North Yorkshire was providing vehicles for fee-paying passengers in contravention of the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations (PSVAR) 2000 and the Equality Act 2010.
In the specific case complained about a bus with more than 22 seats being used in the Craven area was not accessible for wheelchair users.
A report to the council stated: “Prior to the receipt of the complaint it had been understood that home to school services were exempt from PSVAR regardless of whether spare seats were sold but the complaint had led to a review of this matter, involving taking legal advice as well discussions with the regulatory bodies involved.”
These had established that North Yorkshire’s view was widely held among other councils that PSVAR did not apply to home to school transport.
The complainant though intended to bring a private prosecution against a named council officer and officers recommended that continuing with the existing arrangements was not acceptable and that immediate action should be taken to address the issues, with a sustainable long term solution to be sought.
North Yorkshire said it had provided home to school transport in good faith and in a genuine belief that it complied with all legal obligations.
While it was desirable that all school transport should be accessible, services provided free of charge were exempt from the regulations meaning that mainstream home to school transport could be provided cost effectively using non-compliant vehicles.
The report said this meant that the council could use bespoke arrangements where needed for disabled children entitled to free transport.
To remove any doubt about compliance with the Equality Act 2010 and the PSVAR Regulations 2000 it would cease charging non-entitled and post-16 pupils for the rest of the academic year and would not take any further applications for paid travel permits until the legal position was clarified.
There would be soft market testing to establish the cost of providing compliant vehicles.
In the 2020-21 academic year the council would either reintroduce charges if a suitable clarification of the law had been provided.
If not, it would consider whether to continue to provide spare seats free of charge.
The report noted a threat to the bus operators’ market if the council insisted on the use of accessible vehicles for mainstream home to school transport, as there was a risk of the loss of operators with corresponding pressure on prices.
That in turn could affect ordinary local bus services if operators could no longer provide these having lost income from school routes.