Councillors have labelled a possible review of free transport to faith schools in Wrexham as ‘discriminatory’, with others pointing out no decisions have yet been made on plans as the Welsh Government final financial settlement is not yet known.
It comes despite a majority of participants in Wrexham Council’s difficult decisions consultation backing the suggestion to potentially remove the service in a bid to save around £302,000.
A total of 1,123 people responded to the question, just over half of whom said there should be a review. Around 18 per cent of respondents voted against the proposed changes.
Currently transport is provided to 17 faith schools in Wrexham, with around 406 pupils who would be affected by this proposed change.
However Wrexham Council say that due to the “current financial challenge is it facing”, it has no choice but to consider reviewing a large number of services.”
But many felt parents should bear all or some of the cost when choosing for their child to attend a religious school, but members of the authority’s lifelong learning scrutiny committee said it would be unfair.
Speaking at yesterday’s meeting, Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Alun Jenkins was among those who strongly opposed the review.
He said: “I’ve got great concern that what we’re embarking on here is totally unacceptable.
“It’s discriminatory and in terms of equality and Human Rights it’s something we shouldn’t be pursuing.
“I know that if the shoe was on the other foot and we were talking about charges being made for parents of children who had chosen to go to Welsh education, then I would be feeling extremely annoyed that the suggestion was being put forward.
“If we can’t discriminate against those that have chosen on the grounds of language then we shouldn’t discriminate against those that have chosen on grounds of faith either.”
The suggestion has also been criticised by the headteacher of St Joseph’s Catholic and Anglican High School, which is the only faith-based secondary school in the area.
In response, leading councillors have stressed that no decision has been taken, and any changes would not take place until September 2021 at the earliest.
The proposal was outlined as Wrexham Council is faced with a budget gap of £9m next year unless the Welsh Government announces any further funding for local authorities this week.
Cllr David A Bithell (Ind), lead member for environment and transport, said: “I think to be fair, just to put it into perspective, we’re facing really difficult financial times especially in the environment department.
“This is a discretionary service and the total service cost is £300,000. All we’re asking is that a review is undertaken for faith transport which is a discretionary service.”
Labour leader Cllr Dana Davies questioned whether the review could leave the council open to legal challenges.
She said: “I’m concerned about the risks around potential legal challenges arising from the proposal.
“One legal challenge to the High Court could wipe out our savings straight away so that’s the worry for me.”
Despite the issues raised, council leader Mark Pritchard (Ind) said he was unhappy that the committee had asked for details on the review before the final settlement was known.
He also accused those who called it ‘discriminatory’ of being unfair.
He said: “Can I just say from a personal point of view, I’m disappointed to be sitting here this morning and the reason being is that we all know we’re not going to have our final decision until the 19th of December.
“Politically as an alliance or coalition we haven’t made a decision on any of these areas.
“I have had some concerns here this morning on what was being said about discrimination. I think it’s unfair and untrue at this stage.”
The majority of committee members voted that the review should not be taken forward.
It will now be considered by the authority’s executive board at a later date.
By Liam Randall – BBC Local Democracy Reporter (more here on the LDR scheme).
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