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High Court to hear ‘double discrimination’ claim against Catholic parents

Swansea City and County Council withdraw free transport from pupils attending Catholic and Church in Wales schools

10 February 2015

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The High Court is to hear a legal challenge brought to overturn a school transport policy adopted by Swansea City and County Council the claimants argue discriminates against Catholic parents who wish their children to be educated in their faith.

The judicial review claim, brought under the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998, challenges the council's decision from July 2014 to withdraw the provision of free transport from pupils attending voluntary aided Catholic and Church in Wales schools in Swansea, save where they live more than two miles from their primary school, or three miles from their secondary school.

However, the council will maintain free school transport on a parallel school bus network used by pupils at all of the county's Welsh language schools, regardless of the financial circumstances of the families who would benefit from it.

The council's decision is due to take effect from September 2015, although transitional provisions will enable pupils currently in receipt of free transport to continue to do so while they remain at their current school.

'Double discrimination'

The test case is brought jointly by three parties; Bishop Vaughan Catholic Comprehensive School, the only Catholic and Church in Wales secondary school in the area, Child 'W', whose siblings currently attend the school using free school transport to which she will now not be entitled, and the Diocese of Menevia, which supports five of the six affected schools.

Together they argue the new policy is doubly discriminatory as it severely impacts severely black and minority ethnic (BME) children, as well as on those who seek a Catholic or Church in Wales-based education.

Welsh language schools in Swansea attract a disproportionately small number of children of BME origin. Overall, the percentage of children in such schools who are BME is 2 per cent. By contrast, the area's six denominational schools, five of which are Roman Catholic, are attended by 24 per cent of BME children.

Swansea Council is defending its policy on the basis it needs to save money and the affected children are 'statistically insignificant'. The council said its decision had a neutral racial impact, and did not place BME children at a particular disadvantage by comparison with White British children.

Representing the parties, John Halford, a public law specialist and partner at Bindmans, said: "People understand that local authorities are faced with hard financial choices. What they find very difficult to understand is a choice that bestows a benefit on one sector of the community who passionately want to be educated in Welsh, but withdraws it from another who, just as passionately, want to be educated in their own faith.

"Fairness, and the law, demands a very high standard of justification for discrimination of this kind. That justification is strikingly missing from the council's decision. In fact, it believed, and apparently still does, that it was not even discriminating."

'Brutal policy'

Laura Howden-Evans, bursar of Bishop Vaughan School added: "The new policy is brutal. If it stands, its impact will be devastating on Swansea children seeking a Catholic education. At our school, over half of the pupils live the most deprived areas of Wales, a fifth receive free school meals and a quarter rely on free school transport.

"Families like theirs will simply be unable to pay for transport to school once it is withdrawn. The first to be hit will be siblings of children already here, children just like Child W, who want to come to the school from September but need free transport to do so.

The Roman Catholic diocese of Menevia serves 27,500 Catholics in South Wales. Bernard Stuart, director of education, commented: "Withdrawing free school transport from those who need it most will make the exercise of their choice to attend local Catholic schools completely impractical. We are hopeful the court will see that and overturn this invidious policy."

John van der Luit-Drummond is legal reporter for Solicitors Journal

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