[Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Education and Skills Committee, Session 2003-04, HC 509-I, the Draft School Transport Bill, and the Government's response thereto, Cm. 6331. The Eighth Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2003–04, School Transport, HC 318, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 6254.]
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I have the honour to present an important and interesting Bill. It is important because it attacks a very significant social and economic problem that needs to be challenged: the school run, with all its negative effects on environment and health, such as congestion in many of our towns and cities. It is important because it gives local authorities freedom to do what they do best—to innovate, and to address and solve problems in their local communities. It is important because it finds ways in which to loosen the legislative straitjacket that has prevented any reforms in this area for many decades. It is interesting because it has the strong support of local government represented by all political parties, who know that the problems in their areas, for which they are responsible, must be solved.
We know that it is for that reason that many local authorities are ready to submit bids to "pilot" their areas, including authorities led by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. It is interesting, too, because we have the understanding of the churches, for which this has been a difficult question. They have made representations to me since I became Secretary of State, saying that these issues need to be dealt with so that their interests can be protected. We have talked to them at length, and we believe that our proposals do just that.
It is also interesting simply to observe the sheer naked opportunism of Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benchers, whose intention is to reap political benefits by sowing misleading and even untrue ideas about the consequences of the Bill.
Let me set out the history. Over a year ago the Government published "Travelling to School: an action plan" setting out a series of measures to encourage more walking, cycling and bus use. At around the same time the Local Government Association published "Children on the Move", which called for greater flexibility and the piloting of new approaches to home-to-school transport. As I said earlier, I am very grateful for the cross-party support from local government.
Since the publication of that document, we have engaged in extensive discussion and consultation on the proposals. They have been the subject of two substantive hearings by Select Committees, the
Transport Committee and—with pre-legislative scrutiny—the Education and Skills Committee. Let me express my appreciation to both Committees for the careful attention and consideration that they gave our proposals. They both said that they saw an urgent need for the issues to be addressed, and indeed urged us to take some of our proposals further. I think I can claim that we listened carefully to the Committees, and we have made changes—especially to the prospectus accompanying the Bill—to reflect the different views and concerns expressed by members of the Committees and in the hearings.
We did urge my right hon. Friend to go further, but we also urged him to go faster. If there is a problem and it will take 10 or 11 years for him to tackle it, that is too slow in our opinion. The environment, global warming and children's health are not things that can be put aside for 10 years.
My hon. Friend is quite right, and—if I do not misrepresent them—that was also the view of members of the Transport Committee. That is why, although the arrangements will be entirely voluntary—there will be no statutory requirement on a local authority—it will be possible, if authorities present proposals faster than is allowed for by the Bill, to use secondary legislation to enable us to move more quickly. I can assure my hon. Friend that that deals with his Committee's fear that we may be "frozen" at 20 pilot schemes. What we will not do is establish a statutory scheme that would compel an authority to institute a scheme of this kind. It must be for individual authorities to present their own proposals.
The suggested 20 pilot schemes are dealt with in secondary legislation. If more than 20 were proposed, it would be open to the Government to provide for us to move faster by means of secondary legislation. What there would not be is a primary legislation gap that would stop things going further. The primary legislation jump that we have not been prepared to make would be the establishment of a statutory scheme requiring my hon. Friend's local education authority, for example, to behave in a certain way. The arrangements are based on voluntarism rather than compulsion.
Can the Secretary of State give any guarantee that rural local authorities in particular will not be put under financial pressure to go ahead following the pilot schemes, particularly if the schemes indicate genuine difficulties for people in rural areas?
I can give that assurance. I shall deal with the money aspect in a moment. The sums spent on school transport by local authorities such as the right hon. Gentleman's are immense. A large part of our plan is to give his local education authority, and other rural authorities such as mine in Norfolk, more flexibility to deal with school transport in a more effective way.
Is the Secretary of State not being rather disingenuous when he says that he will not force local authorities? In fact the Treasury will withdraw the necessary funds, and either parents will have to pay charges amounting to several hundred pounds a year or everyone else will have to pay more council tax.
The hon. Gentleman is completely mistaken. I can assure him that that pressure will not be imposed. That is the sort of scaremongering that I mentioned earlier. There is no possibility of such action. What is a possibility is the provision of better local schemes to provide better services for communities more effectively.
Let me say something about the principles behind the Bill. Increased car use on the school run contributes to congestion and pollution. Encouraging more walking, cycling and use of public transport will bring both environmental benefits and health benefits to pupils, but the key point is that the issues faced vary from area to area: the solutions are different in rural, semi-urban and urban areas, for obvious reasons. So we argue that local education authorities need the flexibility to respond to local need, rather than being tied into a straitjacket that prevents the possibility of their addressing such questions effectively.
We do believe—this view is widely shared—that the current system is inadequate. It serves an average of only 10 per cent. of pupils across the country, but it is also inequitable. As research undertaken by my Department shows, families from lower income groups are more likely to have to pay than those from higher income groups. Again, we argue that LEAs need flexibility in this regard.
So the purpose of the Bill and its content is to enable LEAs to pilot school travel schemes. In the light of some of the remarks made, I emphasise that the Bill will force no local authority to take any action that it does not wish to take. It will be for LEAs to produce their own proposals—they will have to meet certain tests for approval, which I shall set out shortly—to enable them to deal with their own particular circumstances. Initially—this relates to the point touched on by my hon. Friend—the Bill allows a limited number of LEAs in England and Wales to run pilot school travel schemes. The details will be set out in draft regulations, which are available to the House.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier the position of rural authorities such as his and mine, which spend a very large part of their budgets on school transport. As a result of the Bill, will there be any additional money to provide school transport in our authorities, other than that coming from charges applied to parents and families who currently have free transport?
We have said that we will provide a small amount of pump-priming money to get these schemes off the ground, but I do not pretend that it is an additional significant subsidy for school transport, because it is not.
The figures are immense and it is worth setting them out, so that Members understand the situation. In 2002–03, Somerset—the hon. Gentleman's local education authority—spent just over £7 million a year on school transport. My own authority, Norfolk, spent nearly £17 million, and Cumbria spent nearly £10 million. We believe that there is a real question to be asked as to whether such money is being best spent, and on what is needed, in a given area. We argue that it is reasonable for us to give LEAs such as Somerset—I use that as an example simply because it was the hon. Gentleman who raised this question—the flexibility to argue that they could spend such money in a better way to serve the needs of their community, rather than every penny being spent in the straitjacketed way that I indicated.
I should give some idea of the scale of spending, because many Members will not appreciate it. Let us consider total spending on public transport in 2001–02 for the country as a whole. LEA support for dedicated school bus services totalled some £630 million. Support for socially necessary local bus services, including the various support schemes, totalled £260 million, which is significantly less. Support for the London bus network totalled some £180 million, and spending on concessionary fares came to nearly £500 million. The bus service operators' grant came to £300 million, social services transport totalled just over £210 million, and non-emergency health transport came to some £160 million. Total public transport spending for 2001–02 came, therefore, to about £2.2 billion, of which nearly a third went on LEA support for dedicated school bus transport. This is an enormous amount of money, and it is right, in the light of wider consultation, for the Government to say, "Could we spend this money better? Could we enable LEAs to attack these problems more creatively, in order to deal with the real issues in every particular?"
I want to follow up the point about the cost to local authorities. Staffordshire's figure for this year is more than £13.5 million. In the context of a total education budget of £450 million, that might not seem a huge proportion—until one realises that £400 million of that budget goes directly to schools. The amount that the local authority holds centrally is therefore a huge proportion: much more than a quarter of its entire budget for the whole education service.
My hon. Friend makes the point extremely coherently, as I would expect a former Treasury Select Committee colleague to do. His command of the detail is clear and he makes the case very powerfully. Should we just take the view, as many local authorities have had to do, that here is a wad of spending, and one cannot do much to move matters forward? Or we should we say instead that we are going to try to use that money for socially beneficial purposes, in the way that my hon. Friend implies, by attacking environmental and health issues?
I want to press the Secretary of State on a matter on which, I suspect, all Members will agree: the need to protect children with special educational needs. He has gone through the figures and created the impression that a lot of money is being spent, and he has implied that in his view it could be spent better. He will know that the House of Commons Library has reported that 65 per cent. of all money currently spent on subsidising free school transport is used to support children with special educational needs. Is he prepared to guarantee, by amendment to the Bill, that no parent of such a child who currently has access to free school transport will lose that access? Is he further prepared to guarantee that in future, as now, two thirds of all spending on free school transport will benefit such children?
I think that I can help with the first guarantee but not the second. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that where such transport is required because of a statement concerning a child with special educational needs, it will be protected. If a clarifying amendment in Committee would help in that regard, I am happy to look at this issue in some detail. He correctly quotes a figure of some 65 per cent. for the country as a whole in respect of children with special educational needs, although it does vary from authority to authority. I cannot give a commitment that a certain fixed percentage will always be spent on transporting such children. In this as in other areas, it is necessary to look at what is the best way to use this resource, and my Department recently published further proposals for local authorities on the best way of doing that. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that this is indeed an issue. It is a question of whether the best way to spend this money is on minicabs whizzing around the country, as currently happens, or whether more coherent use could be made of that resource.
On the hon. Gentleman's argument concerning fundamental rights—the rights of the parent who has a child with a statement—I can give him the assurance that he seeks. If we can provide greater clarity on that issue in Committee, I am perfectly happy to go down that route.
My right hon. Friend will know that my Committee is delighted that this Bill has been introduced. Does he accept that his point about special educational needs is particularly important because many counties are unable to provide the level of care, in transport terms, that they would like, and they do not have sufficient flexibility to introduce improvements?
My hon. Friend is entirely correct. We explored that issue during the evidence session with the Transport Committee, and it is exactly why we need to establish the flexibility that will enable the particular and real needs of such children to be properly addressed. I appreciated the support of her Committee; she is not renowned for always supporting the Government, and securing her support on this occasion I regard as a tremendous achievement.
I listened very carefully to what my right hon. Friend said about children with special educational needs. Will he ensure that when this issue is dealt with in Committee, the debate, while dealing with the needs of such children, does not focus simply on children with statements? Otherwise, parents might be encouraged to seek statements purely to access transport. In fact, we are trying to move away from such a situation.
My hon. Friend is entirely correct. I chose to use such language in answer to Mr. Collins precisely because it is the statement that gives the legal right to which he referred. But in considering a proposal from any pilot authority, it would be right to look at provision for all children with special educational needs, whether statemented or not. Her general point is entirely in line with the direction of Government policy on special education across the piece.
I am sorry to return to this point and I may be overstating the case, but I do feel that the way in which this resource is currently being spent constitutes a real issue. We need to generate more flexibility for local education authorities to see what can be done generally—including, more particularly, for children with special educational needs, whether statemented or not.
We are talking about special educational needs, but does my right hon. Friend also understand that there is a real problem with school transport in respect of what happens post-16? I realise that we are dealing with an LEA presumption here, but regarding wider social needs post-16 and special needs, where there is still a bit of a black hole that we are unable to clarify, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the learning and skills councils engage with the LEAs that are undertaking this particular set of projects?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Indeed, I shall refer in a few moments to 16-to-19 provision. We come back to the central point once again. Do we want the straitjacket of the way things are, according to which decisions have to be taken, or do we want to say that if Gloucestershire, for example, were to produce a particular proposition for dealing with Stroud, we could look at the circumstances more flexibly and see what could be done?
Will the Secretary of State tell the House how he envisages protecting Welsh-medium education, where provision is very patchy and children often travel 20 or 30 miles to access secondary schools?
The requirement on Welsh-speaking education is the same as the requirement for those going to their first desired school in relation to a particular church. That will continue under the current proposals.
Private car use on the school run has doubled— I emphasise, doubled—in the past 20 years. We want schemes to change that and to encourage more cycling, more walking, more car sharing and greater bus use. Through that, we will achieve a range of benefits—environmental, health benefits for pupils, educational benefits stemming from pupils arriving fit to learn and better access to opportunities presented by the 14-to-19 curriculum. There are also social benefits such as improved social skills developed through travelling in groups and carrying forward those issues. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and other colleagues in the Department for Transport are working so closely with us on these questions. That is why we want schemes to support greener, safer and healthier journeys to school. That is why we want a Bill to enable LEAs to run travel schemes tailored to the needs of their particular areas.
To return to the point mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr. Drew, although the schemes will apply to children not above the compulsory school age, the prospectus will make it clear that we want local authorities to link their schemes to post-16 arrangements. We want the schemes to address issues surrounding the extended school day and after-school activities. By the way, that is a very important aspect of the development of the curriculum, because the fact that transport does not exist for some people seriously inhibits many schools from developing the extended day and out-of-school activities. We will address the 14-to-19 agenda.
The schemes will be required to address transport to denominational schools and, as I said a few moments ago, in respect of Wales, to English and Welsh-medium schools. We want LEAs to be innovative. We do not want to prescribe what LEAs should include, but we are aware of a number of important, positive emerging themes as a result of the overall discussion and debate. We are aware of the development of area-wide concessionary fare schemes, enabling weekend and evening use, as well as school use, of buses. We also know how inadequate public service provision has been tackled through dedicated bus services. There are also allowances for cycling and cycle loan schemes and we have also seen the use of some of the revenue generated to increase the number of school crossing patrols, escorts for walking buses and cycle training. There are a range of benefits, which we believe are important.
No, that would not be right. We talked a lot to the Church of England and it would be fair to say that it is supportive of what we are doing. The Catholic Church had some concerns, which have been widely discussed, about particular parts of the country where there have been particular problems. I chose my words carefully when I said that we had the understanding of the churches, but if the hon. Gentleman is inviting me to say that we have their wholehearted endorsement, I cannot say that because it is not the case in respect of every part of the country in every circumstance. It is the case that the churches came to us at the outset to say that the current arrangements were not working as they should, so they invited a discussion about how best to proceed and what we should do. That is precisely the discussion that we have had. The solution that we have advanced—of allowing flexibility, particularly local government flexibility, which at least some Liberal Democrats favour—is, I believe, a good solution to the problems. Part of the local flexibility in particular local areas will result from LEAs talking to the churches about particular problems.
Scheme arrangements replace the existing legislation contained in section 509 of the Education Act 1996, which requires LEAs to provide free transport for school pupils where it is considered necessary to facilitate attendance. LEAs that volunteer, by applying to become scheme authorities, will make travel arrangements that they consider appropriate, for which they may charge affordable fares.
I want to make it clear, particularly in view of several remarks by Conservative Members, that this is not a cost-cutting device. The revenue from fares will be re-invested in the sort of improvements that I have just described. The expectation is that fares will remain heavily subsidised, but that removing the sharp divide—the almost arbitrary divide that currently exists—between free and full-cost transport will enable more equitable and wider distribution of subsidy and will allow scheme LEAs to target resources according to local priorities. The rhetoric of the Opposition parties suggests that they support that, but when it comes to the reality, they are not prepared to do so.
The Bill defines protected children—children from lower income families who will receive free transport when they attend the nearest school. We have defined a national minimum level of protection, but want local authorities to put forward definitions suitable for their localities, which is important. Similarly, we have maintained the definition of walking distance as the minimum guarantee. The purpose of school transport remains to ensure attendance, but the prospectus makes it clear that we expect local authorities to address the needs of all pupils—those living within and outside the walking distance. The Bill shows that that can be done in a variety of ways—through safer walking and cycling routes as well as by better bus provision.
To summarise this aspect of the Bill, where transport currently exists, LEAs will still be obliged to provide transport beyond the walking distance for children who are going to the school that they need to attend. For children from lower income families, LEAs will still be required to provide such transport free. Those will be requirements that will have to be addressed in any scheme that is proposed. Outside that, we argue that we need more flexibility and greater possibilities.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the utmost priority of the UK Youth Parliament over several years of debates has been transport. Can he confirm that he will encourage local authorities to engage in full consultation with their local MYPs and members of youth forums about these issues so that imaginative schemes can be developed?
I can give my hon. Friend that precise assurance. Indeed, I have been lobbied to that effect by MYPs from Norwich and they raised the precise point that my hon. Friend mentioned. He is absolutely right that transport has been a matter of consistent concern over a long period. That is why I say we should use the substantial money that we now have to secure better results, better quality and better opportunities for young people.
The Secretary of State referred to the fact that the Bill provides for a continuation of free school transport entitlement for families on low income. Will he confirm that the definition remains that of families whose children are entitled to free school meals—namely, families whose income is below about £13,000 a year, which is well below the national average—and excludes the large number of families who receive the working tax credit?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we intend to keep with the free school meals definition. It is set out in the Bill and it is our intention, but I should say that there has been much discussion, as implied in the hon. Gentleman's question, about whether entitlement to free school meals provides the best definition of poverty. There are other approaches, as the hon. Gentleman said. We are prepared to consider alternative ways of defining it, but I can give the absolute assurance that the Bill works on the free school meals definition, which is the conventional one.
The Secretary of State will be aware that Barnardo's, the National Children's Bureau, the National Children's Home and others have warmly welcomed the Bill. One of their reservations was mentioned by Mr. Collins a few moments ago. A further reservation is that LEAs must do more, as far as free school meals are concerned, to deal with the issues of stigma and awareness of entitlement. If we are going to use that definition, we need to overcome some of those difficulties.
I entirely agree, and I am very grateful for the general support that the children's charities have given this Bill. My hon. Friend is right to say that stigma is a major concern in relation both to free school meals and to transport. I assure him that we will try to ensure that schemes operate in a way that does not stigmatise.
As a further safeguard, all schemes approved by the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales will have to consider the needs of all pupils. I give an assurance, in terms, that schemes that are purely cost-cutting will not be approved—that is unequivocally the case. We want to be as flexible as possible, to test the range of options and to keep the situation under review. For the optimists among us—I am certainly one of them—I am encouraged by the fact that the local authorities that have expressed an interest, whether formally or informally, are seeking not to cut costs but to improve the quality of their services. They know that they can innovate and do better, and that is what they want to do—even Conservatives, although I hesitate to say it to Opposition spokesmen.
The Bill includes a power to repeal if the pilots are not deemed a success, but it can be used only after we have had time to evaluate the schemes and have reported to Parliament, and it lapses after the evaluation period. If, as I consider far more likely, the pilots show the approach to be a success, the scheme approach will be open to all authorities that want to adopt it. It will remain voluntary, and if authorities want to continue under the current arrangements, they can. I emphasise yet again that it is a matter for local authorities to decide. Moreover, the Bill includes the power to relax the requirement in the Transport Act 1985 for local authorities to register closed services where a fare is charged. This will reduce the bureaucratic burden on local authorities.
This is a short Bill. It will introduce flexibility for the scheme authorities to address urgent cross-cutting issues of health, environment and safety. It is voluntary in nature, both during the pilot phase and in the longer term. It will enable local government to innovate and make arrangements that meet local needs in the 21st century. I repeat that it cannot be made statutory, the voluntarism cannot be removed, without primary legislation.
I believe that local government is at its best when it is at its most innovative, identifying local needs and taking on and responding to new responsibilities. With the Bill, the Government are saying to local authorities that they can design a system that is right for the schools, pupils and communities that they serve. Even at this late stage, I urge Opposition parties to abandon their dishonest opportunism and support their own colleagues in local government who want to build constructive policies for the future health and welfare of their communities. I commend the Bill to the House.
Let me begin with one of the few areas on which we may be in agreement: I agree with the Secretary of State that this is an important Bill with wide implications and join him in expressing thanks, on behalf of my party, for the work done by the Select Committees on Transport and on Education and Skills. I am sure that we will all draw on that work during this debate and, should the Bill get its Second Reading, in Committee. Unfortunately, that is probably as far as I will be able to go in cross-party agreement today.
Whenever the Government talk about modernising something, they end up wrecking it altogether, and, sadly, that is what is due to happen to the entitlement to free school transport under this Bill. For 60 years, children living long distances from their nearest school have had the right to use a school bus. For 60 years, it has not mattered how much their parents earn, how many siblings they have or whether they get a free school meal. The right has been simple: if the journey is too long, the bus will come along. Now, Ministers say that the right is a "legal straitjacket"—a phrase that the Secretary of State used repeatedly—and they plan to strip it away.
What will be the result? Yet more means-testing, yet more cost—hundreds of pounds a year—for families struggling to make ends meet, yet more problems for parents of disabled children, many of whom may lose out badly and yet more redirection of resources out of rural areas and into Labour's big-city heartlands.
Let me deal with one argument that the Secretary of State advanced in favour of the Bill. It is, he says, merely deregulatory. He asserts that it simply enables local authorities to volunteer. He also argues that, since some Conservative and Labour local authorities favour some or all of the provisions, our party should support it here too. It is strange for him to argue that no party can take a stance on an education issue unless every member of that party is wholly united behind it. He is, after all, the Secretary of State who pushed through top-up fees against the bitter opposition of rather a large number of his Back Benchers and party members. So let us dismiss that argument.
As for deregulation and setting local authorities free, it is an odd enabling of local government that gives councils no new powers or resources bar the power to levy charges for a service that has been provided free for six decades; but it has been a feature of the past seven and a half years that a declaration of a new freedom usually turns out to be a new tax, or what the Prime Minister prefers to call a "user fee".
We have five major areas of concern about the Bill. First, there will be many vulnerable people who will lose out, and lose out badly. More children will be forced to walk long distances in darkness and cold. Walking a mile or so along well-lit urban roads is one thing—perhaps it is the only world that Labour Ministers understand—but walking several miles up and down narrow, twisting, hilly and unlit rural roads in Cumbria or elsewhere is something entirely different. Do not the Government understand that in the Lake district, for example, the nearest school for many pupils may be a very long way indeed from where they live?
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it is okay in those circumstances to walk 2.7 miles? Transport is now provided by law for those who live 3.2 miles away. What does he propose to do for those who live 2.7 miles away?
I favour providing a guarantee, as now, and as for the past six decades, that those facing long distances will, willy-nilly and irrespective of means-testing, have access to free school transport. Of course, I agree that providing better school transport for those who do not live quite such a distance away is desirable, but not at the expense of charging people for something that they have had for nothing for a very long time.
The Secretary of State has confirmed that parents on earnings well below the national average would, under the Government's proposals, if they want to spare their children such a long walk, be required to pay perhaps £400 or £500 extra for each child every year.
It is not scaremongering. The Secretary of State has confirmed that, under the Bill, anybody earning more than about £13,000 a year could be charged for a service that is now provided free. That is well below national average earnings and the threshold for the working families tax credit. Many people receiving the WFTC, whom the Chancellor deems to be on low incomes, would lose entitlement to free school transport.
As many voluntary groups concerned with children with special educational needs have said, the Bill provides no specific protection for children with disabilities. I welcome what the Secretary of State said on this point when I challenged him. He went some way towards reassuring some of the groups, but I am sure that they would want me to press him further. He said that he would guarantee that children with a statement of special educational needs would not lose any of the entitlements that they receive under that statement and that he anticipated that those children would therefore continue to be eligible for free school transport, but he will know—indeed, some Government Members pointed it out—that many children with special educational needs do not have a statement. Perhaps he can clarify the point now, or perhaps we can tease it out in Committee, but the implication of what he said was that the rather larger group of children with special educational needs would not be provided with free transport under the Bill, even if they live beyond the statutory distance. Furthermore, he specifically said that he could not guarantee that two thirds of spending on school transport would continue to be for the benefit of children with special educational needs. It is important to stress that point, because the thrust of his argument in the early part of his speech was that large amounts of public money were being spent and he believed that that money could be spent better. If two thirds of the money that is spent now is for the benefit of children with special educational needs, it is proof that that money is largely well spent, not that it is being badly spent.
If a more efficient form of transport were devised as part of an imaginative pilot scheme, which benefited the many and not just the few who benefit at the moment, it might be possible to deliver a successful scheme for children with special educational needs who are not on a statement and those on a statement at a reduced proportional cost in respect of the whole budget.
The hon. Gentleman invites us to believe that spending a smaller proportion of a relatively fixed budget on children with special educational needs would serve their interests better than they are served now. I am sceptical about whether that is what would happen.
The second major concern about the Bill is that it is based on a false analysis. The Government have given a seriously inaccurate account of how children get to school. The Secretary of State talked about the growth in the numbers of children who are driven to school. What he did not point out is that journeys to school by car remain a small minority of overall journeys. The Department for Transport's national travel survey shows that only 30 per cent. of children are driven to school and that proportion is falling, according to the most recent data. By contrast, nearly half—46 per cent.—of children walk to school and that proportion is both rising and officially thought to be under-recorded. A further 22 per cent. go to school by bus, train or bicycle and that proportion has barely shifted at all over the last decade. We must get the figures in perspective.
Proportions always obscure detail. It is important to look at individual LEAs, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State suggested. For example, buses into Bristol this week had a clear road because the lack of cars going to school—because of half term—meant a 15 per cent. drop in congestion. Nationwide, the hon. Gentleman's figures may be right, but in specific areas use of the car is higher and a new and imaginative scheme could therefore lead to much greater falls in numbers on the road.
I shall come in a moment to congestion, what really causes it and what needs to be done to deal with it. The hon. Lady put her finger on what is behind much of the thinking behind the Bill. Much of what the Secretary of State said concerned national figures, but she is right to say that there are differences between different areas. That is the whole point. Because the present system is pegged to assistance for long journeys, the bulk of the money spent benefits children who live in rural areas, not urban areas such as those that the hon. Lady and other Labour Members represent. I suspect that that is what the Government do not like about the present scheme. We fear that the Bill is about a redirection of resources from the countryside to other areas.
While there is of course a case for further encouraging alternatives to the car for school journeys, it is worth noting that many more than two in three parents already use them. The practical steps needed to encourage further expansion of alternatives to car usage, such as better bike facilities in schools or greater co-ordination of bus and school timetables, do not require this legislation. The fear of "stranger danger", which leads some parents to resist any option involving their children travelling on their own, relates to worries about the state of our society and of our criminal justice system that will not be addressed in any way by this Bill. The Bill can be seen as both an over-reaction and a distraction.
We therefore question the real motivations behind this Bill. The suspicion is that it is in part an attempt by Ministers to appear to be doing something about congestion, which has indeed got much worse in urban areas in recent years. However, the figures show that that has little to do with school trips. Indeed, as the Labour-dominated National Assembly for Wales has said:
"if charges were levied for transport that was previously free, then more parents might decide to transport their children by car."
Worsening congestion has far more to do with the fact that this Government have by far the worst record of investing in roads of any Administration in the last 200 years.
I am listening to this nonsense with great attention. Has the hon. Gentleman talked to Conservative-controlled Cheshire county council? That council could explain to him, as he obviously finds it a difficult concept, that it is not the children of rural households who block roads, but people who live within a short distance of the schools, who for various reasons—some legitimate, some not—use cars when there are a hundred better ways to get their children to school.
The hon. Lady makes my point, not hers. The problems that she sees in her urban areas—and those that Valerie Davey sees in hers—have nothing to do with the provision of free school transport which, principally but not solely, benefits rural areas. In other words, if she believes that the Bill provides a solution to that problem, she reinforces our suspicion—articulated by my hon. Friend Mr. Fallon—that the Treasury will redirect resources from local authorities on the basis that they can now charge for school transport and from rural areas to urban areas. She said that there is a problem in urban areas and what happens in rural areas does not help. Something needs to be done, and she wants to redirect resources to do it.
If that is the case, can the hon. Gentleman explain why Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders of county councils in rural areas support the legislation? I can give him names if he wants them. Why do those leaders support the Bill if what he fears could possibly come to pass? It could not: it is nonsense and a fantasy.
The Secretary of State says that, but he knows that many Conservatives in local government strongly oppose the Bill. He is right to say that some Conservatives in local government are quite interested in some of his proposals, although some of the people whom he believes to be in favour of the Bill have begun to revise their views. He might have meant Essex county council, which has expressed an interest in the Bill. It pointed out:
"We would rather not make a charge, but that would mean the Government giving us considerable grant aid".
The Government have created a system that has so boxed in many local authorities that, no matter who is in control, they will look at any and every method of giving themselves a little more flexibility. It does not follow that Conservatives in the House have to take the same line, any more than the Secretary of State could possibly say that his party was unanimously in favour of top-up fees. If he contends that political parties should be unanimous on the issues, he hardly managed to deliver that on his flagship legislation earlier this year.
Our third concern about the Bill echoes the logic, although not the conclusion, of the Education and Skills Committee.
When it considered the draft Bill, it concluded:
"The Government seems confused as to the objectives of its draft Bill. The Secretary of State has said that it will encourage more children to walk or cycle to their local school, yet this does not sit easily with Government policies to increase diversity in schools and to allow for the expression of parental preference: an approach that encourages greater mobility."
The Committee concluded, in effect, that the Government should keep the Bill and scrap choice. We urge them to do the opposite: make choice a reality and scrap the Bill.
The Committee is right to say, however, that Ministers cannot stick by both the Bill and their words on choice. For thousands of parents, perhaps ultimately hundreds of thousands, the Bill will make choice entirely unaffordable. They will have to send their child to the nearest school, whether or not that is their real preference, simply because it is the cheapest option for them.
Worse still, the Government explicitly acknowledge that those who choose to send their children to a faith school may lose out. The explanatory notes refer to article 2 of the European convention on human rights, which provides that
"the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure . . . education and teaching in accordance with their own religious and philosophical convictions"; yet the Government state in the notes:
"However, in the Government's view this does not mean that there is any positive obligation to subsidise a particular form of education in order to respect a parent's religious or philosophical convictions. Consequently this Article does not of itself create any obligation to make arrangements for school transport or for free school transport to assist or enable parents to send their children to schools of their choice."
That means that, although at present about 80 per cent. of local authorities have provision for free school transport to denominational schools, under the Government's arrangements, such provision would be much less prevalent. Conceivably, it might disappear completely in some areas.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the cost of getting to and from school is a critical factor in deciding which school one's children should attend and how they should get there. Is not it rather odd, therefore, given that the marginal cost of using a car—if one happens to be lucky enough to have a car—is often less than the cost of sending the child by bus, that the Government think the measure a good way to get more people on to buses?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is also right to remind the House that many parents, both in rural and urban areas, cannot run a car, or, because both parents work, cannot provide school transport for their children. For them the calculation would be straightforward: do they feel comfortable sending their children to walk what might be a considerable distance or are they prepared to pay several hundred pounds a year of their post-tax income on transport? The Government have not properly thought through the incentives and we could see many perverse consequences.
Is not it equally possible that there will be a further perverse incentive? Parents who decide that they cannot afford to pay £400 or £500 a year may decide to change their work pattern and take their children to school by car, thereby negating the entire object of the exercise.
My hon. Friend makes the point that I quoted earlier from the National Assembly for Wales, a Labour-dominated authority, which said that that could indeed be the case. In relation to the effects from carbon and our Kyoto obligations on greenhouse emissions, the increased usage of the car in rural areas, which is likely at least to counterbalance any reduced car usage in urban areas, means that the net effect on global warming will be negative or unmeasurable. The Bill will not achieve the Government's objectives and, as my hon. Friend says, it could result in many more cars on the road in some areas.
Our fourth concern is that the Bill is, once again, a redirection of resources from rural to urban areas. Because the present system of funding school transport is based on distance criteria, it inevitably means that a large proportion of resources is directed to areas where significant numbers of children live several miles from their nearest school. We believe that that system actually reflects differences in need. A long journey is clearly more difficult and expensive to undertake than a short one. The Government are already providing far less funding per pupil for rural than for urban areas. That is at the heart of the cross-party campaign mounted by the F40 group of local education authorities, which seeks a fairer basis for distributing resources.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks has already pointed out the probable implications for the Treasury. The Secretary of State said something extremely interesting, which may result in a good debate in Committee. He said that there was no possibility at all—I think that that was his phrase—that the Treasury would use the introduction of charging in some areas as a means of redirecting resources.
The Opposition remember similar assurances from the right hon. Gentleman and from previous Secretaries of State for Education on whether the Treasury would take into account extra income raised from charging tuition and top-up fees. None of those assurances turned out to be worth the paper they were printed on. If the Bill receives a Second Reading, we shall attempt to do in Committee what we tried to do with the Higher Education Act 2004, and include a requirement for the Treasury not to redirect resources as a result of the introduction of charging. I suspect that Ministers will say, as they did then, "We can't accept that amendment, but don't worry, just trust us." Then, a few months or years down the line, it will turn out that they are doing exactly what we expected.
Our final major concern is that, although the Bill is often described by Ministers as merely an enabling mechanism for a few pilot areas, it actually includes a provision to make its changes permanent and, in all probability, universal. The Secretary of State referred to clause 3, which covers the power to repeal new provisions and accurately described what could be done if the Government concluded that pilots had not succeeded. What he did not point out, but which is clear in the explanatory notes, is that, as they state, if a repeal order
"is not made the new provisions will continue after the pilot is competed and there will then be no limit on the number of participating LEAs."
The system could thus become permanent and there would be an expectation that LEAs would volunteer for it, and we anticipate that there would be Treasury pressure for them to do so.
Although the Secretary of State mentioned a number of organisations that he believed were supportive of the measure, a large number have expressed concerns about some or all parts of it. The National Governors Council said:
"Affordable fares are a must and free school meals are not necessarily a good indicator".
The Secretary of State indicated that the Government might think again about making free school meals the determinant and I very much hope that they will.
"This will cause uproar amongst parents. They will ask whether this is the beginning of an attack on free education. It will be deeply unpopular and could be extremely expensive for those with several children."
"This moves away from the principle of free education for all."
"I think probably what brought it home to me was . . . talking to a set of parents who had moved and were actually going to need to buy a second car in order to bring their child to school if the free bus places were taken away."
That is the point. We are talking about something that will have a massive impact on the quality of life and living standards of large numbers of people, many of whom are not even remotely wealthy.
"It's definitely going to be the rural families who don't have a choice . . . it's quite an anomaly isn't it, government are telling us to remove cars from the roads and yet they allow councils to make a provision that is no doubt going to increase the number of cars on the school run."
As recently as July, the Secretary of State indicated that he was undecided on whether to proceed with the Bill, telling the Select Committee that he was concerned that there was no cross-party consensus to proceed with it. He is right about that: there is no cross-party consensus to proceed with it. Let me make it emphatically clear to him today that Conservatives will oppose the measure vigorously.
The Bill will hit some of the weakest, poorest and most vulnerable in our communities; it will impoverish tens of thousands of parents and, yet again, disadvantage rural areas. It fatally undermines the principle of free education for all. The Bill should not have been introduced in the first place. We urge Ministers to think again and we shall fight the Bill tooth and nail until they do.
I welcome this Bill. It is modest, sensible, practical and long overdue, and it will allow local authorities such as mine in Merton to experiment further with reducing traffic on the school run through the introduction of safe cycle routes, walking bus schemes and so on. That should be encouraged.
I am at a loss to understand why Mr. Collins, the Opposition spokesman, and his party should have chosen to oppose this sensible measure so rigorously. For three reasons, their opposition will ring rather hollow. First, the Conservative party had plenty of opportunity when in office to deal with this matter, yet did nothing. The hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest that it was a virtue that there had been no change, modernisation or reform in more than 60 years.
Secondly, a Conservative Government would not be able to afford even the modest £50 million that is expected to be needed for this measure's introduction. The Opposition's current education budget proposals mean that the money would not be there. Thirdly, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, many Conservative local authorities around the country are looking forward to this Bill. It is a great shame that we are not able to achieve a measure of cross-party support even for a measure as sensible as this.
The hon. Gentleman said something extraordinary—that a Conservative Government could not afford even £50 million from their schools budget. Is he not aware that my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor has committed the Conservative party to increasing school spending, not just by £50 million, but by £15 billion a year by the end of the next Parliament?
This is not a debate about the Opposition's education budget. All sorts of incredible and incompatible claims have been made, and we shall see what their actual proposals turn out to be.
The Opposition's claims about this Bill ring hollow. It is a pity that we cannot achieve a measure of cross-party support for a measure as sensible and practical as this.
Although I would not say that the Bill has a deficiency, we should take this opportunity to address a number of issues that I believe merit cross-party support. In particular, there is a need to do much more for the parents of children with special educational needs, and for the children themselves. Safe transport between home and school must be secured for those children.
This debate provides an opportunity to consider the difficulties that still exist, in Merton and many other local authority areas, with the safe transportation of children with special educational needs. The Bill might offer a suitable vehicle to reform the regulations governing this area, and I look forward to exploring that possibility further in Standing Committee.
I should like to share with the House some of our experiences in Merton, and the difficulties that we have encountered. The problems are a source of wide concern and have been raised by various organisations. In preparation for this debate, Mencap wrote to me and many other hon. Members to make the point that many families with children with a learning disability experience difficulty in accessing appropriate transport to school. Along with the National Autistic Society, Mencap is concerned that the Bill makes no mention of the special transport needs of disabled pupils. That is why I felt it very important to add my voice to the debate on these matters, and to examine whether this Bill is the right vehicle for reform.
At the end of 2001, I was approached by Mary Powell. She is the mother of an autistic daughter who attends Merton's very good St. Ann's special school. Her daughter is transported between home and school by minicab. All sorts of problems have arisen in connection with that transport, which involves a minicab, a driver and an escort to ensure that the child is not left alone in the car. We should remember that children such as Mary Powell's daughter have great difficulty in expressing themselves, which makes it very difficult to know what happens during the journey between home and school.
On one occasion there was a 25-minute delay, and longer delays have been reported. Naturally, that caused concern among parents, and Mary Powell contacted me to say that she had raised those concerns with Merton council. However, the council had not been able to say where her child had been for those 25 minutes, even though the problem had recurred over a period of weeks. During that time, Mrs. Powell noticed that her daughter had become distressed, but she still had no clear explanation of what had happened. In her letter to me, Mrs. Powell said that her daughter was autistic and had learning disabilities and that she was unable to tell anyone about what happened on the school journey. In fact, there are many more examples of what Mrs. Powell called "dangerous practice".
Mrs. Powell did the right thing and got together with parents of children with similar difficulties who shared her anxieties. The parents formed an SEN network and raised their concerns with Merton council in an appropriate way, but found it very difficult to get the council to take action. Indeed, they found it very difficult even to secure a meeting with the officers concerned. It was not clear where the responsibility lay and, although I do not question their good faith or want to suggest that they were not trying to do their best, there was a tendency on the part of those officers to put their heads in the sand. It is possible that they were not sure how to address this difficult issue, or perhaps they did not have the resources to resolve it.
In addition, the parents found it difficult to arrange a meeting with the directors of social services and education. It was difficult to get anyone to acknowledge that there was a problem, but once it was acknowledged that a problem existed it was difficult to get anyone to take responsibility or to act. Over a long period of time, the parents saw no improvement in the situation.
One of the biggest difficulties—and one of the parents' greatest concerns—was that many of the minicab drivers and escorts involved in the transportation of their children between home and school were not being properly vetted by the police. In fact, Mary Powell and her colleagues in the SEN network conducted a little experiment: they telephoned the minicab company contracted by Merton council to provide the service in an attempt to get a job as a driver. They recorded the conversation, and when they asked about police checks, the minicab firm told them not to worry about it. That increased the parents' concern.
I think that the House will agree that that is bad practice and that it needs to be stamped out. The difficulty experienced by Mary Powell—ultimately, it is the reason that she came to me with this matter—was that there is no way of knowing where responsibility in this problem lies, nor how the problem can be solved.
Whose responsibility is it to make sure that police checks are conducted and followed through? Would not it be better for the local authority to provide the service, even though there may be substantial cost implications? In that way, the authority could assure itself that minicab drivers and escorts were properly vetted and that they provided an appropriate level of service.
In the end, I had to get involved. I had meetings with council officers, but it took a long time to arrive at a plan of action. Progress was made only when I was able to bring the matter to the attention of Ministers. Those Ministers included Baroness Ashton and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Frequent meetings were held involving the Department for Education and Skills and Merton LEA, and they led to a review being conducted.
The difficulty, however, is that the law talks not about regulations but about guidelines. If a local authority is having difficulty or failing to meet the guidelines, it is difficult to see where we can go for redress. Ultimately, by working together, engaging in the review and committing ourselves to introduce improvements, changes have been made. Drivers and escorts are now required to have badges. The local authority has redrafted the policy document on SEN transport. Reviews and surveys are being undertaken, and it is examining the feasibility of becoming a minicab operator itself.
Three years on, it is still a problem; all of us, including the local authority, have acknowledged it. Janet Yerbury, who works for the local education authority, said at a recent meeting with parents of children with special educational needs:
"It is an issue that can keep you awake in the middle of the night. Where we are completely stuck is that we cannot carry out checks on other mini cab employees . . . It is something we are still trying to improve upon."
There is a tendency to think that all the good work that is going on in improving social services and education always takes proper account of the needs of special educational needs children. Unfortunately, my experience is that we have failed to do so effectively. We must examine whether we need to tighten the law, introduce stronger regulations, especially on the safety aspects of transport for children with special educational needs, and provide the appropriate resources so that councils cannot hide behind the claim that they are unable to act properly because they do not have the money. The most vulnerable children are those whose rights we must do most to protect. There is a tendency to think that because of their vulnerability they will be properly looked after. Sadly, in many cases they are exactly the people who are left out.
I support the Bill. I understand that it is not aimed directly at the transportation of children with special educational needs, but rather at how we get people out of cars and find alternatives for them to get to school. I also understand that it is a modest measure that is aimed at certain pilot areas. However, we should examine—perhaps we can come back to this in Committee—whether the Bill provides a vehicle to address the serious deficiency in the law that led to the situation that I described. That problem exists in many other authorities and has proved difficult to do anything about.
At the same time as introducing the measure, can we also make the necessary changes to the law so that there is no question of anyone failing in providing the right level of transport and safety for disabled children? My constituent Mary Powell and other parents of children with special educational needs would like that to happen. I think that my local authority would now like that to happen, and we are working together to improve the situation, but it is difficult. Mencap and other such organisations also want the law changed. I hope that the Government will listen to our representations and see how we can address the issues during the passage of this sensible Bill.
On the surface, the Bill is modest, consisting of seven clauses and five pages. It creates an illusion at first sight of not doing much, but it is potentially dangerous—just how dangerous it is depends on the shape of future regulations, which are something of a moveable feast.
The problem, with which we all identify, is the increased volume of school-to-home transport. Hon. Members are acutely aware of the school run in both urban and rural constituencies. There is the additional problem, which the Government must confront, of the increased cost of public transport, both regular scheduled services and contract services that are provided directly to schools. As has been said, many large families find it easier to bundle the children into a car, which is certainly more financially worth while, than to put them on the bus. The increased cost to LEAs of providing transport drives some of them to curtail discretionary support for things such as denominational school transport, and there have been many celebrated cases in connection with that.
Following the Government's agenda, there is the increased probability of challenge to LEAs and increased demands on them for transport. Surely the specialist school programme creates the opportunity for parents with a child of special ability to argue plausibly that the nearest school is not the appropriate school—a point that the Select Committee made. Of course, there is the increased problem, which we have all identified and discussed, of childhood obesity and the fact that children are not as active on their way to school as they once were.
Those are the problems. We all share them, know what they are and seek to address them. The Government's solution is to authorise school travel schemes and to permit pilots. Doing both together is a neat move because if the pilots fail on a score of criteria there is nothing to stop the Government encouraging roll out across the country, although I stand to be corrected on that. There are only two essential features that any scheme must have. It must not charge protected pupils and it must have Ministry approval. The scheme does not have to be a good scheme. It does not have to meet quantifiable targets or measurable environmental successes, to increase public transport use or to reduce congestion; it merely requires ministerial approval.
Bizarrely, almost all of what the Government envisage and hope for in the Bill is already well within the capacity of most local authorities. Most of what has been talked about and what the Minister vaunted is being done in different places by active local authorities, save the capacity to opt out of existing arrangements that followed earlier legislation and to charge for what once was free. That is what the Government call flexibility.
With that new flexibility for local authorities comes—this is perhaps just as bad—indirect encouragement of local authorities to roll back from discretionary commitments to faith schools and disabled pupils just as we are becoming a more multi-faith society and more disability conscious. What will the new charging regime guarantee? There is no guarantee that it will increase travel by public transport, reduce car use or increase the capacity of parents to exercise choice, but there is a guarantee that some local authorities will have more money. They will have a monetary advantage compared with other LEAs. I think that that will be followed up by a move towards the child pays system, which will disadvantage a range of individuals, such as children who reside far from their school, children from large families and children in rural England.
The reality—I think we all suspect this and feel it in our bones—is that charging will eventuality become the norm. The Bill is simply the thin end of the wedge.
Does my hon. Friend accept that to encourage people not to use their cars in urban areas, any charge for new school transport for people close to a school would have to be very low? The only resources that the local authority could plunder to keep that charge low, apart from the charge itself, would be higher charges or much lower costs for getting rural children to school. The Minister gave no indication of how local authorities such as Northumberland and Cumbria, with large geographical areas, could achieve that objective at substantially lower costs. The only answer must be that children will be charged a lot more.
There is no evidence that charges will be low or, for that matter, will stay low. There are administrative costs associated with implementation of the charges.
Fundamentally, the Bill removes entitlement. The Minister has a nice word for that. He calls it a legislative straitjacket. It removes an entitlement and introduces the possibility of a charge. It means asking families to resolve the problem that they do not directly create.
Like most problematic measures that the Government think of—the congestion charge is another example—they by and large sell it to local authorities as local autonomy. I have to say that it is not real autonomy when the Government have tinkered so much with other aspects of education that directly impinge on transport, such as the structure of schools, admission and curricula arrangements and attendance times. We can argue anyway whether there should be autonomy and diversity among LEAs in delivering basic entitlements. After all, health trusts are not allowed to vary prescription charges, and nobody would argue for that.
That, in a nutshell, is my analysis of the Bill. It would be bad enough if it were just my analysis, but it is not. The Secondary Heads Association says that it is very concerned about any charging in rural areas, and states that the measure will do nothing to improve attendance. The National Association of Head Teachers says that it "potentially undermines parental choice", and it
"will not be surprised if parents vote with their feet and transfer to cars."
On a pedantic note, I am not sure how one votes with one's feet and transfers to a car. The NAHT says that the Bill totally undermines other Government strategies. In a damning verdict, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association says:
"It knocks one prop from under free state education."
Those comments are hardly surprising when there are about 150,000 primary school children who live more than 3 miles from school, and 83 per cent. of them will be debarred from free transport if charging is universally employed by local authorities. More than 500,000 secondary school children live more than 3 miles from school, and 85 per cent. of them will be excluded from free transport if all local authorities charge. I accept that that is a worst-case scenario, but as I pointed out, we may well get to that.
What would that do? If one assumes an average of 1.7 children per family, the switch to car use could result in 337 children going by car who might previously have gone on a free bus. Putting it another way, that is 75.5 million extra trips on the road. If one has a definite environmental tinge to one's thinking, one could think of it as 7,550 extra tonnes of CO 2 emissions. Those are the possible effects of the Bill, so it is no wonder that the Transport Committee claimed that the Government
"fails to consider school transport as part of a wider transport system".
I have given the views of head teachers. There are also the views of the voluntary bodies: Barnardo's and the National Children's Bureau are concerned about the effects on disabled and SEN pupils. They are also concerned—we all share this one—about how the pilots will be monitored and evaluated. We see the presumption in what the Secretary of State said earlier that almost any pilot will be agreeable as long as it is within the basic parameters. Voluntary bodies express the worry, which we have heard before, about larger families. They welcome wholeheartedly the commitment of the Greater London authority and Transport for London to free travel for all children.
The National Autistic Society is worried about autistic children being
"increasingly vulnerable to less favourable treatment".
The only solution to its predicament would be a guarantee that transport needs will be written into SEN statements. However, that would run counter to the Government's strategy to move away from reliance on statements as a way of dealing with special needs and to concentrate instead on amicable negotiations between parent and school. The NAS demands that the basic entitlement on grounds of disability be written into the Bill.
I could go on; the Bill's opponents are many. Despite the understanding that apparently exists between the churches and the Government, the Catholic Church is concerned that the social mix of its schools will be adversely affected, laying them open to the accusation that they are not choosing from the full range of pupils. The Catholic Church worries, as I suppose it might, about the effect on, and the choices that will be made by, larger families, suggesting that most tend to use a car for school travel.
The Bill simply does not have enough friends; it has few takers. Why? The explanation is relatively simple: it provides no certainty about environmental gain; it provides no certainty about congestion reduction; it provides massive uncertainty about people's future entitlements; and it provides absolute certainty that there will be charges. The tragedy is that free school transport has the best take-up of any benefit, even better than free school meals. It is almost invariably taken advantage of when it is offered, and it automatically ensures less congestion, less pollution and a safe journey to school. Nothing in this Bill does that.
I welcome the Bill. The Government are being incredibly brave—some would say foolhardy—but somebody, somewhere, some time has to do something about the problem of school transport. The collective view of Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen is, "Sorry, we haven't a clue." In neither submission did I hear a suggestion.
One can oppose and criticise, and one can say that the Government are being opportunistic, but in this case I have to say that they are being anything but opportunistic. This is not an easy subject; it is a minefield. We all know that we are going to get letters because there will be some losers. Sadly, however, there are already many losers under the existing system, as I shall explain. The Government are right to look at this matter.
We want constraints on the pilot schemes. I can say from the outset that my local authority in Gloucestershire is not looking to be a pilot. I know because I have asked it, although it may change its mind. I can speak freely because I cannot in any way fetter its views. The authority has done a great deal of research on this matter. As the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen managed to prove between them, it is easy to find the problems but much more difficult to look for solutions.
I genuinely think that this is an enabling Bill; it is about pilot schemes. The Government have tried pilots in the past, and where those have worked they have gone headlong into extending them, rather than trying more pilots. I hope that they will learn a lesson from that, and that they will try to learn from the experiences of the different schemes.
Inevitably, we have talked almost exclusively about the bus versus the car, but one of the good things about the Bill is that it allows other things to be considered. The view is that school transport is principally about motorised forms of transport, but many children walk to school. I am not sure where Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen got their figures from, but the figures that I have seen show a gradual decline in the number of children walking to school. Interestingly, the number who cycle bobs up and down between 2 and 4 per cent. The latest figure for those who walk is 44 per cent., but that has fallen from over 50 per cent. seven or eight years ago. That is not down to the election of the Labour Government; it is the result of a change in culture that means that people see themselves as more dependent on the car. We all know the impact that that has on people's health, let alone on congestion.
My first accusation about those who do not want to see any attempt at change is that they view the past as a different country. I cannot believe that what is happening in my local schools today is radically different from events in the local schools of Opposition Front-Bench spokesman.
The hon. Gentleman is endeavouring to speak to those who do not want to see any change, but there are no such people in the Chamber. Most of us want some change, but we do not necessarily want the charging that the Government envisage.
I want to see exactly how the measure will work out and, if chosen to sit on the Standing Committee, I shall try to be my usual, helpful self and to scrutinise the Government's proposals carefully. However, it is a mistake to view the Bill as saying that charging is a wonderful way to sort out school transport. There are many other aspects to the matter, not least the fact that we have a pot of money that is reasonably limited, unless we are going to spend even more of our education funding on moving children around, which most of us would agree is not a good way to get the best out of the funding. We shall have to suck it and see.
It seems that there is an historic view. Now, however, many of the primary schools in my constituency are beginning to run after-school clubs. There are also breakfast clubs. They would like to get back into providing sporting activities. As I said in my intervention on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, we are doing our level best across the political spectrum to get more children to stay on at school post-16, or into college post-16. One of the great unfairnesses is that a pupil of lower means can go from having free school transport up to 16, only to find that because he or she wants to go to college, transport is no longer free.
Stroud college is not in my constituency—it is in the area represented by Mr. Clifton-Brown—and the student may live in Wooten-under-Edge. They then have to pay exorbitant charges, if they can get to the college at all, to travel by bus on a circuitous route. We must have regard to the 14–19 curriculum, and even more so to the post-16 curriculum. As I have said, there are great unfairnesses.
I welcome flexibility but I shall set out where I do not see room for change. I am a Christian and I support denominational schools. I welcome people who choose to send their children to a school of their faith, and they should not be discriminated against for doing so. I look to the Government to provide clarity and to tell us how they will ensure that pupils at denominational schools are not adversely affected.
In a sense, there has always been a problem with the idea of choice. More often than not, people of lower means have had to go to the local school. That is because they have not been able to pay for transport. If the local primary school is 2 miles away or if the secondary school is slightly less than 3 miles away, there will be charges. That has always seemed to me to be very unfair.
There are even more bizarre situations. For example, two families may live on the same street. The children of one family get free school transport and the children of the other family, because they happen to be slightly closer to the school—we measure distances as the crow flies—are subjected to charges. It is difficult to provide an explanation. We use a blunt instrument to measure who is entitled to free transport and who is not. The Government are right to examine the issue. We know that there are increased costs.
We must be careful about special needs, and I want some assurances. I have seen the benefits of inclusion. We saw the closure of a moderate learning disability school in my constituency. The closure was generally well received because the heads of all the other schools worked together to ensure that there was general inclusion. It was not popular in all sectors of the community but, largely, the programme has worked. I do not want to see the proposals before us tied in with inclusion policies. That should be a separate argument, to ensure that there is appropriate choice. If children are entitled to receive special needs education at an appropriate special needs school, transport should not become discriminatory. I hope that assurances will be provided. I hope also that the detail will be provided in Committee, and that we shall see strengthened the provisions set out in the Bill.
Other matters are worthy of debate and, as I have said, I hope that there will be clarification when we consider them in Committee. In a sense, this is a local-versus-central debate. The parties are somewhat split, not necessarily in this place but outside it. Some local authorities will be looking for more discretion in the way in which they operate. There are great unfairnesses in the way in which the system works. I have referred to the measurement of how far a child is from a particular school. There is also the issue of entitlement to free school meals.
There are examples of how things have gone ludicrously wrong. Although it is easy for me to make a cheap party political point, I will do so. I dread Septembers. They have become better in the past couple of years, but it is September when the children go back to school. In the Strouds of this world, bus companies can often hold education authorities to ransom. As a result of deregulation, there is a state of anarchy. There have been children in my constituency at bus stops, in the morning and at night—this has been during the first few days of September—who were completely unclear about whether a bus would pick them up. That is because of the last-minute haggling that takes place, with the bus company saying that the subsidy is not enough. I know that this issue is outwith the Bill per se, but I am asking for greater flexibility.
There is the issue of children travelling longer distances by bus to their schools, but we must ensure that children who travel shorter distances are able to use effective transport. We know that they are the ones who will get into their parents' cars to be dropped off at school. We must make the bus system work better. It does not work at the moment because of the mass of bus companies and the lack of co-ordination. There must be co-ordination in the wider arena so that the general public, who also will be using some of the buses, are made to feel welcome on them. The behaviour of children must be appropriate and good enough. We must try to get the best of all worlds.
If we are to deal with global warming, the greatest challenge is transport. Unless we get more people to walk, to ride or to use public transport, we are, to use that immortal word, doomed. We must do what we can. That is why I welcome the Bill. It has been easy for the Opposition to score points. It has been easy for them to pick out parts of letters. I have read letters where scepticism has been expressed by churches, charities and teacher unions. However, the totality of their contributions is that there are many worries and we do not want to see the proposal as a precursor to charging. At least the Government are brave enough to be considering that option and they are right to consider a series of pilots. It is to be hoped that a sufficient number of authorities will examine what they are willing to do.
I am prepared to extend the benefit of the doubt. I want assurances in the areas that I have outlined. Even more so, I want additional resources so that the system can work. If we find that the system is working because of those resources, we would be sensible to make a wider move. We should take a hold of the underlying social policies of school transport. There are genuine economic issues and we should see these proposals as a way of introducing a more rational use of public transport, including voluntary transport.
When children in my constituency do not go to the nearest school—I am sure this is true in other constituencies as well—their parents may club together and hire minibuses, taxis and so on. Such arrangements should be properly scrutinised and evaluated to see whether we can introduce alternatives to something which, I am sure all hon. Members agree, is not working terribly well. I hope that the Bill receives its Second Reading and that we look at its details carefully. We should add red lines so that denominational schools and special needs education do not suffer, but the Government are right to introduce the measure.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Drew, who always makes constructive and thoughtful speeches, and has brought a rural and an urban perspective to bear on the matter.
I welcome the opportunity to clamber aboard our Second Reading debate and make a fairly short journey. Having served as Secretary of State for Transport, I am sympathetic to some of the strategic objectives mentioned by the present Secretary of State in his introduction to the Bill. A far-sighted transport strategy aims to iron out peaks and troughs to achieve better use of our road network. The school run has a dramatic impact on transport and is a conspicuous peak—particularly in the morning, although less so in the afternoon—so it makes sense to iron it out. There are good transport reasons as well as good educational reasons for looking at the problem.
The Secretary of State seemed to imply that nothing at all had been done in this field before 1997, but I recall working closely with my right hon. Friend Mrs. Shephard on an initiative called "Safer routes to school". We worked with local educational authorities, transport companies and Sustrans to achieve some of the objectives behind the present Bill. We tried to work with the grain and understand why parents were cautious about allowing their children to walk, cycle or, in some cases, go to school by bus. We tried to persuade people to change, rather than hector them, and we used grants to underpin parts of the initiative. I remember visiting a school in Birmingham where bicycle sheds had been funded by a grant from central Government to promote cycling to school.
I also looked at the planning system. A popular school in Hampshire wanted to expand because parents wanted to send their children there, but the planning authorities were concerned about the traffic implications. Before consent was granted, there was a dialogue with the school, parents and teachers to see whether a transport plan would reduce the percentage of journeys made by car and thus prevent expansion from aggravating congestion in the neighbourhood. Lateral thinking is useful in minimising the problems caused by journeys to school.
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the good thinking that took place before 1997 has continued. Locally, for example, Weston road high school partnership for safe routes to school regularly sends me minutes of its meetings and achievements, and residents are very enthusiastic about that initiative. Nationally, the Government last week announced £10 million for safe routes for schools and the joining up of cycleways. All that good work still continues.
I am delighted by the hon. Gentleman's consensual approach, and I am glad that some of the pioneering initiatives introduced by the Conservative Government have been built on. One's memory is never perfect, but I do not recall anyone in my Department saying, "Minister, you can't do this, because the law does not allow you to do so". That, however, is the implication behind the Bill.
I am very much in favour of the flexible and voluntary approach that underpins the Bill. I only wish that the same approach would infect other Government Departments in their relationships with local government. Local authorities, for example, have been told that they must have Cabinet government, and the planning system has been told how many houses it must provide. That dirigiste approach by some Departments sits uneasily with the more consensual and voluntary approach adopted by the team who have introduced the Bill. I am in favour of the pump-priming underpinning the Bill, which provides an incentive for people to participate in the pilots.
I am a keen cyclist and, indeed, I bicycled to the House this morning. I hope that the pilot authorities that promote cycling will make sure that cycle training is undertaken at schools and that children who bicycle to school are encouraged to wear a helmet.
There is one particular aspect that I thought the Secretary of State glossed over in his speech; the tension between parental choice of school and the transport imperative to make better use of the bus. The Select Committee on Education and Skills highlighted the evidence that he gave to the Select Committee on Transport, which was that the main aim of the Bill was to encourage people to attend their local neighbourhood school. The Committee felt that that interpretation sat somewhat uneasily with the Government's other policies on diversity of schools and parental preference, which would lengthen journeys. I am not quite sure how the Bill takes the trick of getting more people to take the school bus while promoting a much more complex network of journeys from home to school if parental choice is achieved. Perhaps the Minister can address that point.
Much of the debate has been about the principle of charging. If I were asked to die in the last ditch to defend the principle that children of all families, however well- off, should continue to go to school free, I am not sure that I would voluntarily so expire. None the less, a number of points have been raised in the debate that the Government need to answer. There are inevitably some bureaucratic problems associated with charging that simply do not exist if journeys are free. My hon. Friend Mr. Collins raised a legitimate concern about the not-so-well-off who might get caught. There is also the perverse incentive mentioned from the Liberal Democrat Benches, whereby introducing charging for a journey that is currently free might get somebody off the bus and into the car. Other points were made about how the introduction of charging may penalise those who live in rural areas.
There is another potential tension that I am not sure has been addressed. During the Labour party conference, a new vision was launched for our schools whereby they would operate not just from 9 o'clock to 3 o'clock, but from 8 o'clock to 6 o'clock, in order to accommodate those whose parents both work. I am not quite sure how that vision of the school sits with the imperative to get more children to go to school by bus. If school starts at 8 o'clock rather than 9 o'clock, will two buses make two journeys, or will the bus assist only the child who starts at 9 o'clock, rather than the one who starts at 8 o'clock? There are some tensions to which the Government have not responded about how the objectives of the Bill can be reconciled with some of their other objectives.
I should like to make a final point about road safety and seat belts in particular. The Government's view is that it is ultimately for schools and local education authorities to ensure that vehicles are appropriate for the type of journey planned, including seeing whether they are fitted with seat belts. Some of my constituents in Shipton Bellinger are deeply concerned that the bus that takes their children to school has no seat belts. If those parents drive their children to school, they can ensure that they wear seat belts. If they send them on the bus, they cannot do so, because the bus has none.
I wonder whether the Government will have a dialogue with the authorities that take part in the pilots, and whether they will be encouraged to use newer and safer buses. I note that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Twigg, is nodding vigorously. Some of the buses are straight from Cliff Richard's "Summer Holiday" in the 1960s, and I hope that the pilot schemes will promote new buses that pollute less and are safer.
I understand the objectives behind the Bill and I hope that they will be achieved. I think that there are some unanswered questions. I am not volunteering to serve on the Standing Committee, but I hope that the questions that I have posed will be raised by colleagues when that Committee sits.
I was just thinking about the reference to Cliff Richard, and I thought that Sir George Young has, like Cliff Richard, been around for a long time, still looks very young and is still listened to with great seriousness by lots of people. This is consensual politics.
The difference between the volume of weekday traffic in Stafford when the schools are in session and the volume when the schools are on holiday is noticeable. Huge congestion occurs on school days, especially in the mornings, yet hardly any occurs in the school holidays. The difference during school holidays is so noticeable that it has become a common topic of conversation among my constituents, who comment on the benefits such as shorter journey times to work and more punctual buses. People are also more relaxed at those times because the traffic is less difficult. Although some hon. Members have not mentioned it, I guess that that is the typical experience all around the country.
Last year's Department for Transport national travel survey said that at 8.50 am on school days, about one in five vehicles on the road is taking children to school, which shows the school run's huge contribution to congestion. Constituents often say that the answer is to reduce the reliance on the school run. Anybody can see the benefits to the country of reducing the reliance on the school run: journeys would finish on time more frequently; congestion and standing traffic would decrease, which would also reduce emissions of greenhouse gases; and children would be safer when travelling by road. If some children were to change from the school run to walking or cycling, it would also benefit children's health. There should be a consensus on helping 100 per cent. of youngsters to get to school safely and affordably—Opposition Members have concentrated on the one tenth of pupils who currently benefit from free school buses.
I shall describe the change over six decades since the Education Act 1944 and explain why the law is out of date. I shall rely on my several years' experience as a Member of Parliament working with the community in a part of Stafford called Doxey, which happens to be 2.9 miles away from the nearest school—I found that out from many years of correspondence with Staffordshire LEA. That distance means that youngsters are denied access to a school bus to take them to school for free, although youngsters who live in the villages just down the road, which are 3.1 miles away from the nearest school, are delivered to school by a free bus.
It would be inappropriate to discuss the difficulties that those youngsters face in getting to school, which include the routes that they take when they walk, the dangers that they face when they cycle and the irregular and not necessarily straightforward public buses. I have corresponded with the LEA for several years about those difficulties, and it is a matter of justice and equity that such people should have access to a scheme for transport to school.
I have a happy story to tell: a long time ago, an enterprising LEA—Staffordshire LEA—decided to take a stake in the school bus market. In 1998, it bought its first seven US-style yellow buses and started to run them for itself. Incidentally, it was mightily annoyed when, several years later in 2001, a Government news release boasted that the first yellow bus scheme in the country had been set up in Calderdale. By 2001, the buses had been running, apparently unnoticed, for three years in Staffordshire. I do not know whether Staffordshire LEA set up the first scheme in the country, but it is proud of its enterprising decision.
Another eight buses were added in 2000, and a further 15 were added in January this year. Because Staffordshire LEA has a stake in the market, it has a certain control over the delivery of the service for its pupils, whereas in the past it would have been at the mercy of the private sector on prices and conditions. In an emergency or when problems arise, the ability of the local authority's directly controlled buses to step in provides more flexibility.
The modern buses—the last 15—have not only the highest safety standards but are increasingly friendly for disabled pupils. The modern buses have wheelchair lifts and dedicated places for wheelchairs with proper attachments so that pupils can travel safely in their wheelchairs. We should boast about those good safety features on yellow buses.
When I read the Library research paper—which, again, is of a high standard—for the Bill, I was reminded of a point that the local authority made. There is a specific law in the United States, where the buses are widely used and more than 50 per cent. of pupils go to school by yellow bus. It provides that, when the school buses are stopped for pupils to alight, all the traffic must stop. The Bill affords a good opportunity to introduce a similar law in this country, ready for the yellow buses that will perhaps be more prevalent if the measure becomes law, and local authorities take up pilots and buy them.
I shall briefly explain the benefit to local authorities of yellow buses. I have mentioned the stake in the market in the context of competition and security of supply. That is helpful in benchmarking not only prices but quality. There are benefits to students and parents in the form of safety and security. The buses have a modern safety specification and dedicated and trained bus drivers, whom the pupils get to know. The good relationship between them means that bad behaviour on buses is much reduced.
All the pupils have their own seats in which they are safe. They and the driver have a sense of ownership of the vehicle that solves some of the conflict and antisocial behaviour problems about which we hear from time to time. Yellow buses provide the reassurance of fewer casualties than on journeys by car. Why not extend those benefits to more of the nine tenths of the school population who do not benefit from the current Act, which was passed in 1944?
Local education authorities have considered acting under their discretionary powers. I have a cautionary tale from Staffordshire, which explains why, although Opposition parties carp, no one can do anything about it unless the Bill is passed. In 2002, the local authority decided to extend the benefits of free school transport to more pupils. It wanted to undertake pilots in one rural and one urban area of the county, notionally reducing travel distances for walking to 1 mile for primary schools and 2 miles for secondary schools. It asked the Government for some cash to help run the two pilots. The Government refused on the ground that it was too costly; the local education authority said that it would not proceed without Government money and nothing happened. For all the Opposition's fine words about the schemes, no one will devise a different scheme that will benefit pupils such as those at Doxey.
There will be no change to the 1944 settlement, even though most people criticise it, unless we allow the Bill to proceed; unless, when the Bill is law, local authorities devise a variety of new ways of providing safe and healthy transport instead of the car, which takes so many pupils to school; and unless we learn from the pilot schemes which one works best.
It is important to stress that no local education authority will be made to take part. In the prospectus, if not the Bill—perhaps we need to examine that in Committee—residents must be consulted before a scheme can go ahead. The key result of the scheme must be a modal shift from car use. That might involve a shift to bus use, but it could also involve walking, cycling or even, in some cases, the use of fewer cars as a result of a car-sharing scheme.
I would love to be able to go back to the community in Doxey next year and say that there is now a prospect of extending a school bus service to the schoolchildren who live there, but first I need to vote for the Bill. Then, if it becomes law, I shall need to persuade the local education authority in my area to consider bidding to take part in one of the pilots. I shall enthusiastically support the Bill. It is a permissive Bill that will provide evidence over the next few years on whether there is a better settlement for the 21st century than the one provided for by an Act passed in 1944.
My party welcomes the aim of reducing car use and promoting walking and cycling, for obvious environmental and health reasons. We want to see a better organised and integrated system of school transport, and we welcome the role that the National Assembly for Wales will play in implementing the Bill, if it passes. We hope that the Assembly will take full advantage of any opportunities that might be presented to it in that regard. The Conservative Front-Bench spokesman noted earlier that the Assembly has already remarked on the peculiarity of the Government's position, in that they appear to want to promote the use of public transport by charging for it. In the Assembly's view, and in mine, that is a strange contention.
Despite my first words of welcome, we are worried about the Bill on several counts. First, we are worried about the impact that charging will have on low-income families, of which there are many in my constituency and the rest of Wales. I find it strange that the Government are introducing a system of charging that will inevitably impact on some low-income families because, to be positive, the Government have taken some welcome steps to help such families over the past seven years. For example, they have introduced the minimum wage, working families tax credit and a number of other measures that have had a useful effect, especially in rural Wales. Now, however, they are taking a step in the other direction. I am worried about the difficulties that low-income families will face in scraping together a lump sum, if that is what is required when the charging is implemented, especially when their weekly income is very low.
A lot has been said about bus transport today, but I do not think that anyone has mentioned the use of rail by school students. I want to make a special plea for the Cambrian coast line, which terminates in my constituency. It is a wonderful line, with wonderful views and friendly staff. It carries about 700 school students a day, and the continuation of the line depends on its continued use by such students. Any disincentive to use the line for school transport would have an effect on the community in general.
I am also concerned about a measure that could be seen as an extension of means-testing, whichever way it is implemented. It has already been noted that school meals entitlement is hardly the sharpest of instruments to use in deciding who should be exempt from any charges. I hope that the National Assembly for Wales will have the opportunity to use other, more effective, criteria, and I look forward to that happening.
The potential effects of the Bill on families with children who are disabled have already been mentioned. In Wales, many disabled children use mainstream educational provision. They do not travel long distances to special schools but go instead to mainstream schools. In rural areas, however, that mainstream provision can still involve journeys of much more than 4 or 5 miles. I worry about possible disincentive effects of the Bill in that regard.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I represent a rural area in Wales, as well as some urban areas. My local authority spends more per head on school transport than any other in Wales and perhaps even in England and Wales. Surely, with the financial pressure on education authorities, they are being tempted to charge more and more for school transport so that they can provide the level of education that people living in those areas require.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I am not sure whether there will be a direct relationship between charging and the provision of education; we shall see. However, it is significant that the lowest incomes in Wales are to be found in Powys, where his constituency is, which is also where there is the highest car use and a high level of bus transport for schools.
I intervened earlier on the Secretary of State in respect of the Welsh language, and I want to make a couple of points about Welsh language education in Wales. There is a certain provision of Welsh language education, much of which is in urban areas in Wales, in the south-east valleys and the north-east. Many school students travel long distances to access Welsh-medium schools, typically by bus rather than by car. Those who access Welsh-medium secondary education have been shown to be working-class children from valley communities who aspire to being bi-lingual in a way that their parents are not.
I understand that the National Assembly might be able to protect that transport provision, and I asked the Secretary of State about that. He referred me to the provision for denominational schools. I had a quick look at the explanatory notes, paragraph 27 of which states that
"this does not mean that there is any positive obligation to subsidise a particular form of education in order to respect a parent's religious or philosophical convictions. Consequently, this Article does not of itself create any obligation to make arrangements for school transport or for free school transport to assist or enable parents to send their children to schools of their choice."
Perhaps the Minister will address that point in his wind-up, and reassure parents in Wales that they will be able to access Welsh-medium secondary education as they choose.
My last point is in respect of the urban issue, which a number of hon. Members have addressed. As I said, the National Assembly has said that it is peculiar to charge in order to promote the use of public transport. The Secretary of State gave the game away in his opening remarks, as I think the record will show, when he said that the Government's aim was to reduce congestion in our towns and cities—full stop. There was not a word about rural areas. However laudable the intention to reduce congestion in towns and cities, that should not be at the cost of provision in rural areas. Perhaps you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for misusing a quip made by Senator Kerry during the current election campaign: it is a little as though, after the attack on Pearl Harbour, the USA had invaded Mexico. I can see the impulse of that joke—why should rural transport suffer because of urban congestion?
As I said, there are rural areas in Wales where poverty is clearly implicated in low standards of living for children. On its establishment, the National Assembly for Wales devised an index of multiple deprivation, which is one of the best things that it has ever done. Because that index has a measure for rurality embedded in it, rural communities, for the first time, start appearing high on the list of deprived communities. For example, in terms of housing, the community of Aberdaron in my constituency, which previously did not appear in measurements of housing poverty, suddenly came first out of 750 wards in Wales because the measuring system is much more sensitive. As I said earlier, Powys is high on the list of deprived areas. Wages are lower, services are further away and, unsurprisingly, the level of car ownership is the highest in Wales. The most cars are owned where incomes are lowest. The earlier index took car ownership as a measure of prosperity, but in this context it could almost be described as a tax. That is the nature of rural poverty in Powys, Gwynedd and various other parts of Wales.
My constituency contains six secondary schools, in Bryn Refail, Caernarfon, Penygroes, Pwllheli, Porthmadog and Botwnnog. All those schools require students to travel not just 3 miles, 2 miles or 2.85 miles, but up to 15 miles. I worry about children whose families are not above the threshold for the purposes of school meals, but are not well off by any means, although they may be running two cars.
I look to the Government to reassure us that they will take account of such issues, and I look to our colleagues in the Welsh Assembly to do the same.
It is a pleasure to follow Hywel Williams, who made some interesting and thoughtful points about what I consider to be a straightforward and admirable Bill. It is also admirably short, which would please me were I to end up on the Standing Committee. I am glad to note that it aims to improve health, the environment and safety, and that—as has been pointed out—it is in an enabling Bill: it devolves decision-making powers to local authorities, rather than our imposing a one-size-fits-all solution from Westminster. It also builds on action that the Government have already taken. In April they committed £7 million to local education authorities to pay for school travel advisers, and, as we heard from my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney, only this week they provided £10 million for the extension of the national cycle network to schools.
At the heart of the Bill is a problem that all Members should acknowledge, and to which we should all offer constructive solutions. I am sad that the two main Opposition parties have failed to offer any such solutions. At present, free school transport is for the few—10 per cent.—and not for the many. Considerable expense is involved: in Dorset the cost of providing school transport is £8.3 million, from a total LEA budget of £24 million. That is not just poor value for money; it does nothing to address the problem of school run congestion.
An excellent research paper supplied by the Library states:
"Over the past 20 years the number of children being driven to school has almost doubled. Now almost 40 per cent. of primary school children and more than 20 per cent. of secondary school children are being driven to school each day, and most of the journeys are less than 2 miles. At 8.50 in the morning during term time, about one in five cars on urban roads is taking children to school."
We must do something about that.
Many speakers have referred to an urban solution creating a rural problem. Let me tell them about a constituent of mine who lives in Worth Matravers, in circumstances similar to those described by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. It is a beautiful rural village, which I recommend to all Members. There is a marvellous pub called the Square and Compass. The village is about 2.9 miles from Swanage. The constituent who came to see me was on the minimum wage, working in Swanage and receiving work-related benefit, but did not qualify for free school meals. His two children had to face a walk, with him or his partner, down a very narrow unlit country road in order to get to school. As any Member naturally would, I pursued his case with the local education authority to see whether flexibility could be shown, and whether the criteria might be extended to allow his children to get free school transport. However, it simply was not possible. I certainly welcome the possibility of helping the many people who live within the 3-mile limit but at such a distance from school that it is not possible safely to walk there. We should all support the extension of affordable, decent school transport to such individuals. We certainly need a solution to the problem, and this Bill offers LEAs the flexibility to devise their own.
I want to refer mainly to the Purbeck area of my constituency, of which Worth Matravers is a part. It is largely rural and currently has a three-tier schooling system, consisting of a first school, a middle school and the main Purbeck school, at Wareham, for post-14 education, although there are some who choose to use the grammar schools in Poole. As a result, a mix of children end up being bussed hither and yonder, especially from Swanage, which is larger than Wareham. All children over the age of 13 or 14 spend about an hour a day on buses to and from Wareham.
Unfortunately, both Dorset and Purbeck are run by Conservative administrations, whose attitude towards buses and public transport in general is such that they cut services after 6.30 pm, creating many problems for those who want to get home after taking part in after-school activities in Wareham. The new X53 service, which serves the world heritage site coastline that we are all so proud of, does not go to Old Harry Rocks, at the start of that site, or to Swanage. The only imaginative scheme to have emerged is a community transport scheme in Swanage. I instigated it, and a Labour councillor—a fairly rare commodity in Swanage—called Cherry Bartlett developed it. I hope that the imagination that Cherry and those working with her have shown will spread to the Tories in county hall, and that they will want to take up one of these pilots.
The lack of transport is a profound problem for the whole population in that area, but for schoolchildren in particular, and the falling rolls that our schools have to deal with will only exacerbate it. I have discussed before in this Chamber the problems associated with the provision of affordable housing, and with second home ownership in particular. Many families can no longer afford to live in the Purbeck area; as a result, school rolls are falling. The LEA is therefore consulting on moving from a three-tier to a two-tier system. Whatever happens as a result of that consultation, we will have fewer schools in the Purbeck area. If the LEA goes to a two-tier system, more of the smaller rural schools will probably close. There is a desperate need for an imaginative solution to the school transport problem in my area—a problem that underscores my enthusiasm for Dorset using its corporate imagination in applying for a pilot.
I am confused by the hon. Gentleman's comments. He says that his is a rural area and that the distances between schools are likely to increase in future as some are closed. How, therefore, will charging people for the first time for bus services covering greater areas decrease the number using cars and increase the number using buses? It is surely clear that the opposite will happen.
What I am saying is that the LEA will have to find some imaginative solutions. Currently, there is no real choice for those living in rural areas. They have to use the school for which they can get free school transport, pay a lot of money for an alternative, or take their children by car. I am interested in finding imaginative solutions that take into account a range of possibilities, including an affordable flat rate that enables people to exercise choice and access the school that they want for their children. For example, I am interested in the use of staggered start times for schools in that cluster, so that we can integrate transport more carefully. I am also interested in the use of walking buses in Swanage. Such a development has begun at the middle school and I was pleased when the Prime Minister's wife paid a visit to help us launch it last year. I would like to see more cycling in the area and greater use of safe routes to school, particularly in Swanage.
It was interesting to hear the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford about his constituents' experience of yellow buses. As he described it, it sounded like a dedicated fleet that offers all sorts of solutions for a local authority to think creatively about, such as integrating transport across schools and improving supervision. When I talked to some of the operators of yellow buses, they mentioned their ability to alter the routes in order to pick everyone up along the way and to find out what might have happened if someone does not turn up at the bus stop. That offers potentially good advances in respect of supervision of children and child safety.
The dedicated fleet could, perhaps, also be used in turn during the summer holiday when there are many visitors to the Purbeck area, a popular tourist destination. It could be used for park-and-ride schemes to take people to the beach or even to deal with antisocial behaviour. There are already interesting examples of some of our more difficult youngsters being taken by the police on outward bound-type courses to burn off some of their excess energy in a more constructive way. Dedicated fleets of vehicles used for school transport could be used imaginatively in the public interest to help with some of those problems.
Obviously, there are concerns about charging, but it is up to the LEA to make the calculation. The Conservatives recently consulted on the bizarre idea of imposing a congestion charge on tourists wanting to visit Purbeck as a means of tackling the summer congestion. I thought that that was a potty idea by the Conservatives at the local county hall and I made some representations accordingly. I am not saying that I support every form of congestion charge or road pricing, but it is interesting that one Opposition party supports the London congestion charge but opposes the charges in the Bill and the other supports road pricing but opposes the Bill. I see no consistency beyond a bit of political opportunism.
I would be interested in seeing an appropriate improvement in the service, which people would value enough to want to pay a little extra for. The yellow bus service, for example, might be so valued by some parents that they would gladly pay more for it. I have spoken so far mainly about the Purbeck area, but in Weymouth, where I live, a probable solution for a more urban area would be a concessionary bus fare scheme that would be available to everyone in particular groups. Currently, there is a concessionary bus fare scheme for pensioners—the Government have ensured that all pensioners have half-price bus travel—and for disabled people, so it would be interesting to explore the idea of having a concessionary bus fare scheme in semi-urban areas perhaps for young people across the board to enable them to access clubs, sporting activities and so forth.
I have sought to illustrate the merits of the flexible approach that the Bill offers. As I said, I would love to see more imaginative ideas coming from Opposition Front Benchers, who have offered only criticism and nothing constructive about how to deal with the real problems of congestion and school transport in this country. I support the Bill vigorously and I hope that Dorset will, in turn, manage to find imaginative solutions to clear up the school transport problems in my constituency.
I follow Jim Knight, but he leaves me somewhat confused. He spoke about the Conservatives failing to produce any solutions; for his part, he talked about other people finding imaginative solutions, but I did not hear any such solutions from him that would solve the problems. The only imaginative idea that I heard was the excellent one proposed by Dorset's Conservative county councillors to charge visitors for going into a special part of his constituency in order to contribute to subsidising the bus service used by local people. I would have thought that that was an excellent idea.
The hon. Gentleman represents a very beautiful part of the country that attracts a lot of tourists. Would he favour a congestion charge for people visiting Hadrian's wall, for example?
I would certainly see some value, if it was practical, in asking visitors to make a contribution, when that is for the benefit of the local community. I do not see anything wrong with that. It is an imaginative idea, and I would be happy to discuss it. No doubt, the hon. Gentleman could find a way of charging visitors to enter the city of Carlisle. Ken Livingstone does it in London, after all.
I shall certainly vote against the Bill because, as one sees Labour Ministers introducing legislation over the years, one begins to identify the ways in which they present Bills. This is a classic new Labour Bill, presented by the Secretary of State as surrounded by worthy ideas: it is to reduce congestion in cities, make the atmosphere cleaner by keeping us off the roads, make us healthy by encouraging us and our children to walk to school, even tackle obesity, someone said. In fact, however, the Transport Committee had it spot on when it identified it as a method of charging people for something that they currently get for nothing. Paragraph 45 of the Committee's report clearly states:
"The Bill will allow LEAs to charge parents for school transport for children".
I shall vote against the Bill because it singles out people who live in rural areas such as my constituency and who depend much more on school transport than people in urban areas. I think that my hon. Friend Mr. Collins said that about 22 per cent. of school journeys are by car, but my guesstimate would be that in Northumberland the figure is much lower. Because journeys to and from school are much longer than in urban areas, buses are far more important, especially for couples who both work and cannot take the time to run their children to school.
In my constituency, the journey to school can be more than 30 miles. Some of my constituents' children board weekly at the high school because the distances are so great. If they are charged for the journey, it is sure to amount to a substantial sum. The average cost of transport per ordinary, not special needs, pupil in Northumberland is between £400 and £500 a year, so logically that must be somewhere near the sum that they will be asked to pay, which will be a very heavy burden indeed.
As a lot of us in the House are old and grey, we bang on about pensions but sometimes forget the time when we were starting out in life and having children. At this point, I should apologise to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Twigg, who is neither old nor grey—yet. Children are an expensive accessory to life these days, and getting more expensive all the time. In Northumberland and other rural areas, average incomes are much lower than in cities. Of course, there are people who commute from their lovely country homes, but for many people in the country life is a bit of a struggle.
For the first time, young people from families with lowish incomes are staying on in the sixth form and then going on to further education, putting yet more expense on those families. Any further burdens on them, such as the Bill imposes, will be very damaging.
In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, as in mine, there must be families of shepherds and agricultural workers who have to ferry children a mile or two along a farm track in the Land Rover before they are met by a taxi, paid for by the county, which takes them another 5 miles to a bus, which takes them the next 10 or 15 miles to school. The thought that those parents should have to pay a charge, when they are already making a significant contribution in time and effort to that school transport, seems totally unreasonable.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Our constituencies are in the same county and we encounter the same problems. Members with rural Welsh constituencies also encounter those problems. The Bill will mean a hugely expensive burden for people on very low incomes.
The hon. Member for South Dorset talked about imaginative solutions. I have racked my brains to think what Northumberland county council could do differently. It is Labour-controlled, so I hold no particular brief for it. It also proposes to move from a three-tier education system to a two-tier one. Northumberland is a large rural area and the same sort of buses will have to transport the same children down the same roads. If the council charges for school transport, it will encourage more people to drive their children to school rather than put them on the bus. One of the features of rural life is that car ownership is high. Low-income families who would not in other circumstances have a car, or would have only one car, need one or two cars—the second is often old and expensive to run and maintain—because it is the only way that they can get about. If a charge is applied, the number of children on the buses will fall and costs will go up.The Transport Committee worked out that a charge of more than £1 a day would cause school bus use to fall. That would be a problem for Northumberland county council, which would face increased costs and the law of diminishing returns.
My hon. Friend Mr. Fallon suggested that the Treasury would seize on the Bill as a way to reduce the money spent on education. The Secretary of State pooh-poohed that suggestion, but we know that that is what the Treasury will do. If LEAs have the ability to impose a charge, the Treasury will expect them to do so. If they do not impose a charge, that will ultimately be reflected in the grant they receive. That is as certain as day following night.
Northumberland was a pilot area for the introduction of the education maintenance allowance of some £30 a week. That was very successful to start with, except that the county council then said to anybody over 16 that they now had to pay for their school transport. Another feature of charging that affects lower income families is the discounts for the length of ticket purchased. An annual ticket is cheaper than a monthly, weekly or daily ticket. Therefore, the families with the least money, who cannot afford an annual ticket, have to pay more than those with the most.
As my hon. Friend Mr. Collins pointed out, the bulk of school transport cost benefits those with special educational needs. As Mr. Martlew will know, counties such as Cumbria spend, on average, £6,000 per pupil with SEN a year. Northumberland spends just over £5,000. That is a huge amount but the Bill will do nothing to change that. The Bill will place a heavy charge on rural families who can least afford it. It will ultimately reduce such choice as rural families have in education terms. It is ill thought out and offers none of the imaginative solutions that the hon. Member for South Dorset kept mentioning. Therefore, we are right to oppose it.
It is always a pleasure to speak on Bills of this kind. I listened with some trepidation as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State used the word "deregulation". If there is one word that I do not like to hear in connection with buses of any kind, it is deregulation. To those of us who purport to represent rural areas—my rural areas, although they include some 42 villages, are nothing compared with some of those we have heard about today—the deregulation of buses was not the greatest thing to happen. In north and central Essex, it meant, first, that the supply of bus services diminished and, secondly, the cost to the taxpayer increased immeasurably. The word "deregulation" is not greatly encouraging and if I may offer my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State some humble advice, perhaps a better word might be used in future.
The Bill is certainly not the nightmare that has been depicted by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Any scheme that is proposed will have to be approved by the Secretary of State and if it were as black and scary as those portrayed by some Opposition Members, I am certain that my right hon. Friend, or any successor, would not approve it.
The Education Act 1944 was a great opportunity for working people, especially those living in rural areas. I am not of such an age that I know what happened before 1944 and how children of secondary age actually got to school. There must have been some transport provision, and I would guess that it was made at the discretion of county councils operating in the best interests of those who lived in their area.
Although 1944 was only a year before I was born, it seems a different age. At that time it was much easier to walk along a country lane. I say nothing of rapscallions or ruffians; I am talking about the flow of vehicles on the roads.
There were two other important differences before 1944. The first is that, certainly in my constituency, there was a school in every hamlet and every small village, in walking distance for most people. Secondly, most children left school at the age of 13 or 14.
Indeed. Towards the end of the period, the school leaving age had reached 14 and secondary schools had been established.
If our forebears thought it sufficiently important to provide free school transport in 1944, how much more so now, when the dangers on the roads are so much greater and many roads and lanes are so inaccessible? I am sure that my right hon. Friend introduced the Bill because there has been a chipping away at the spirit of the 1944 Act over the past 10 to 20 years. Essex county council, which was referred to earlier—unfairly favourably, I think—has been chipping away at the Act's provisions in implementation.
In practice, not many years ago, even children in the county aged over 16 who met the distance qualification would have received assistance for transport to school. It was not until last year, when I was fortunate enough to secure an Adjournment debate on the subject, that those who attended denominational schools in the county received free school transport, yet the present administration has chipped away at that and begun a charging regime. It was not long ago that children up to the age of 11 gained the same advantages under the legislation as those aged eight. Over time, that provision has been chipped away.
It is said that the provision of transport is expensive. The figure for the whole country is about £600 million a year, but, as has rightly been pointed out, two thirds of that is spent on transport for children who attend special schools and for those who have special educational needs. Members on both sides of the House have said that there will be no interference with that provision and that it will remain sacrosanct, so the amount of the budget spent on those who do not attend special schools or who do not have a statement is about £200 million a year. When I read that last year, or the year before, the Government spent £13 billion on computers, £200 million seems a small amount for something as important as home-to-school transport.
Another problem is that county council officers, some of whom in an earlier age would have been explorers in darkest Africa, love studying maps to show how children in village A no longer qualify as there is a shorter route, or because it had been wrongly measured on an earlier occasion. In my area, there was a campaign, led partly by me and partly by the late and much-missed Liberal councillor for the village of Rayne, Tony Meadows. In 1971, a new high school was built and to persuade the villagers of Rayne to send their children to it, the council said it would provide transport. School transport was provided between 1971 and the mid-1990s, then someone in the county council measured the route and found that it came to 2.8 miles. As a result the transport was withdrawn. However many times Tony Meadows and I walked those lanes, we were not able to make the distance greater than 2.8 miles: indeed, a new piece of road reduced the distance to 2.7 miles, which made our case even weaker. However, the route was not safe to walk. No sensible person would walk along it on a darkening December evening. The county council said that it was all right as long as children were accompanied, but drivers of oncoming vehicles would not see pedestrians in the road if they were dazzled by the headlights of traffic coming the other way in the gathering gloom. The lanes are becoming more dangerous every year.
The great people at county hall have a wonderful enthusiasm for geography, and the same must be true in other county councils. Sometimes they discover that it is possible to find routes that are shorter than those used hitherto. The most astounding example that I came across when I served on the county council concerned the route between the village of Silver End and the town of Witham. Generations of children had enjoyed free school transport along those roads, but someone at county hall discovered from a map that some old tracks and lanes led across fields. Measurement showed that those tracks' total distance was less than the road route—
My hon. Friend says as the crow flies, but it is more like as the weasel runs. The road route was clearly more than 3 miles, so the field route became the designated route.
People have to have a clear track to follow, so those of us who thought that the route was not suitable for children, whether or not they were accompanied, decided to walk along it.The route began in a dark and overgrown avenue of trees that gave out on to open land. Heavy ploughing meant that inches of mud accumulated on children's boots by the time they reached school, and the route also crossed various ditches and a stream.
On that walk, we had the great advantage of being accompanied by a lady who is now a leading spokesperson on education in the county of Essex. I know that at least one other hon. Member in the Chamber today knows the lady to whom I am referring, and we were able to show her how unsatisfactory the route was. Until then, she and her colleagues had maintained that it was perfectly suitable. However, we came to a great gaping ditch about halfway along, and that caused this lady county councillor to say that she had made up her mind and that the route was not suitable.
County hall officers are always looking for ways to exclude routes that hitherto had been considered suitable for free school transport. That is the problem, and I think that county councillors need to be more astute when it comes to using their judgment about what is suitable for this purpose.
In some ways, this Bill is a lost opportunity. It is not terrible, and it does open up other options, but local authorities that do not wish to take advantage of what it offers can stay with the present statutory scheme. While that scheme persists, free school transport will still be available, although authorities that wish to explore other possibilities can make application to that end to the Secretary of State.
What we need to do is clear enough. We should retain the present statutory scheme and the option of providing free school transport over the sort of distances that have become hallowed by time should remain enshrined in law. Given the great big budgets required to run western Governments these days, it does not seem unreasonable to devote as much as an extra £100 million to this purpose. That would mean that the amount of money spent on non-special schools and non-special needs children would be increased by 50 per cent. That would make a colossal difference to the numbers of children who can use free school transport. It would help the problem of road congestion enormously and greatly reduce air pollution—and all for £100 million. I know that it is not my money, although I am a taxpayer so part of it is mine. What is a relatively small sum in the overall scheme of things would make an enormous difference to the transport and education structure of our country.
I feel that I should contribute to the debate because the Secretary of State did not understand the problem as it confronts people in rural areas such as Northumberland. He regarded those who were anxious about it as "dishonest", a word that is scarcely in order. He does not grasp the problem.
The Secretary of State and Ministers will explain that the Bill introduces pilot schemes, but lying behind it is the worry, rightly expressed by Mr. Atkinson, that before long it becomes an assumption that local authorities should be carrying out a pilot scheme and, if they are not, their funding in the local government grant system should be affected accordingly. That decision will not in practice be taken by the Ministers on the Front Bench, but by Ministers in the Treasury or Ministers who succeed them. At some point, the pressure is likely to mount.
For the Bill to be acceptable to people living in areas such as Northumberland, there has to be a powerful statutory guarantee that under no circumstances can the statutory right to free school transport for children living a long way from school be removed. We do not have that guarantee. Instead, the Secretary of State believes that he is offering people in Northumberland something wonderfully new—flexibility—that will enable school transport in Northumberland to be organised differently.
I understand the motive behind that. In some urban areas, it may be possible to balance the interests of those who live a mile and a half from school with those who live 3 miles from school, and to get a system of local school transport that, at a relatively small charge, might be attractive enough to get some people who use cars to take their children to school to use the school bus instead. But that is a world away from the situation in somewhere such as Northumberland, where a large proportion of children are entitled to free school transport. That is very expensive for the county council because the distances involved are long and in some cases the journeys are complex. I explained in an intervention that it sometimes involves a combination of buses and taxis in addition to the help given by the parents to get the child to the public road, which may be 2 or 3 miles away from where they live. The school transport process is expensive.
It is impossible to imagine how the supposed flexibility could enable Northumberland to do something that it has not been able to do so far, which is to find a way of transporting children to school from remote locations at minimal cost. Frankly, there is no way of doing that. The numbers involved in each journey tend to be relatively small and the cost of providing for them is large. Nothing that the Bill enables the county council to do will remove the difficulty of that task or make it cheaper to carry out.
The only thing that the Bill could do is encourage Northumberland to set up a scheme in which this expensive process also has to have added to it the provision of free school transport for children in urban areas who live close to school. The total cost would be met out of a combination of a charge and the existing expenditure. If that is attempted, there is no way in which it could be done over a county such as Northumberland at a charge that would encourage anyone to take their children to school by public transport if they had any choice in the matter. The costs simply do not add up. They are too large in a rural area.
It has been pointed out that the local authority in Northumberland is planning changes that will increase the number of journeys that are eligible for free school transport because it will increase the number of children between nine and 11 who, instead of walking to the middle school, will have to be transported to a high school 10 or 15 miles away. There are arguments on both sides, which the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Twigg knows about because I have exchanged many letters with him on the subject, but one of the disadvantages of the change is that it increases the school transport bill by more than any gain made at the first school. So another group of parents and another two years of the age range become the subject of free school transport and, under the proposed system, they become the subject of charging if Northumberland introduces such a scheme.
People in Northumberland view the scheme not in the abstract, but on the basis of experience because over the past few years charges have been introduced for the education of young people between 16 and 19. We are seeing some pernicious consequences, including some young people who are reluctant to continue with courses because they are imposing on their parents the burden of the transport costs of getting to school or further education college, both of which are often a long way from home. Many of those families have not only 16 to 19-year-olds but younger children, and when one of these schemes comes into force, they will face a transport charge for each child.
People are not impressed to be told, as Ministers have said in letters to me, "Oh, it's all right because someone in the 16 to 19 age group can meet the cost from the education maintenance allowance." Of course, they are not all entitled to that, and those who are say, "How is that fair? The allowance is supposed to enable young people to go on courses, to buy books and to meet ancillary costs. All the others can use it for that, but I have to use it to get to school." There is a sense of injustice and unfairness surrounding the allowance because it is now a school transport allowance for some, but for others it is money available for other, helpful educational purposes. It is no answer to the problem.
People in Northumberland see the danger that the county may be under increasing pressure to take part in a scheme, and if it does children who now get free transport for the long distances to school will not get it in future, so the same people who suffer all the other disadvantages of life in rural areas, such as the difficulty of taking part in after-school activities, will face extra costs. The supposed flexibility to which the Secretary of State refers offers no means whatever of reducing the cost of transporting children in rural areas the long distances to school. At no point in his speech or in any other that I have heard has an answer been produced that would enable Northumberland to provide the school transport that people need at less cost than at present.
Every September, I find myself involved in many correspondences and disputes between parents and the local education authority about the proposed school transport arrangements for their children. Usually, the dispute takes the form that what the LEA is suggesting involves an hour and a quarter journey to school and an hour and a quarter back, because of several changes of taxi and bus. I approach the county council, which says that it has to try to restrict the cost of the scheme, and if the child shares a taxi or spends part of the journey on a bus, that reduces the cost. The result is an unacceptably long journey, beyond the statutory times.
Year after year, the county tries to restrain the cost of school transport, but in practice there is no cheap way of providing it. Schemes of the kind envisaged in the Bill cannot work in a rural county such as Northumberland, and if there is increasing pressure to introduce such schemes, rural families will suffer greatly instead of receiving their current entitlement to have their children transported to school without charge.
I oppose the Bill. It is presented as being optional, but in reality local education authorities will be forced by budgetary pressures to implement it.
Choosing the right school for their children is a major decision for parents: I remember it and the anxiety that accompanied it very well. One of my daughters has just completed the application form for one of her sons to transfer to secondary school, so I am experiencing for the second time round the anxiety of waiting to see whether the school that has been allocated is the one of choice.
All parents want their children to have the best possible start in life, and their choice of school is made with that in mind. All sorts of reasons contribute to their choice. Some parents choose the school nearest to their home because that is the most important factor to them, whereas others reject the closest school because they think that its academic reputation is poor or they get a bad impression from the students as they move about in public. They might prefer a different specialism from the one offered by their local school, or they may want a denominational school of the faith to which they adhere. Their children might want to go to the school that their friends will attend, or they might want a school near their after-school child minder. There are countless reasons for parents' choice of school. The important thing is that it should be their choice and not one determined by the affordability of travel. The Bill will force many parents to send their children to their nearest school, whether they choose it or not.
The Education and Skills Committee's report on the draft School Transport Bill states:
"The Secretary of State for Education and Skills has said that the main aim of the draft School Transport Bill 'is the encouragement of people to go to their local neighbourhood school . . .' The Secretary of State's interpretation of the Bill's objectives seems directly to conflict with Government policies on diversity of schools and parental preference, which increase mobility . . . The draft Bill makes no legal requirement for children from low-income families to receive free transport to any school which is not their nearest school. It is therefore hard to see how the Bill will extend parental choice to low-income families."
The Bill retains the statutory walking distances of 2 miles for primary school children and 3 miles for secondary pupils. Those distances date back to the 19th century and are no longer applicable to 2004 living. The Library explains the term "statutory walking distance" as
"the shortest route along which a child, accompanied as necessary, may walk with reasonable safety."
That is a familiar term to me because in a previous incarnation I was the chairman of the infamous committee to which Mr. Hurst, who is no longer in his place, referred. The names and places that he mentioned were familiar to me.
The committee used to get into a minibus, go round the county and walk the routes from school to home where parents had appealed against refusal of discretionary transport. There were many reasons why on paper it looked as though the child was not entitled to free transport. However, having walked the routes, as the hon. Member for Braintree recounted, we crossed ditches and railway lines. I even recall walking through the yard of a pig farm. There are many reasons for appeals. Having travelled the routes and seen the practical problems in getting children to school, even where the statutory home-to-school distance is not breached, it is clear that there has to be a huge amount of discretion in granting free transport.
I am rather concerned about using free school meals as a measure. I shall refer to the Select Committee report again. It says that it had
"serious reservations about the adequacy of 'free school meals' as a definition for the category of protected children. Many families eligible for free school meals do not claim their entitlement. In these cases, local authorities may have difficulty in ascertaining who is eligible for free transport. Free school meal entitlement is available to those whose family income is below £13,200 per year. Families whose income is just above this level, particularly large families, may be significantly disadvantaged by the new regime and the 'cut-off' income level may cause just as much inequity as the arbitrary limits of walking distances."
I believe that the arrangements for school transport in London authorities are slightly different from those elsewhere in that they have to provide local implementation plans that comply with the transport strategy of the Mayor of London. Do the Government intend to abandon those plans and establish an entirely new regime, or are the Bill's provisions compatible with Transport for London's arrangements?
I spoke to Havering education authority this morning, which I imagine is like many London education authorities in that there is not a great deal of discretionary transport, because there are many schools close to one another and, in general, the distance from home to school is quite short. The only exception might arise where a family with school-age children move into the borough and find that the schools within walking distance of their home have no spare capacity, requiring them to send their children to the next town, although it must be said that that is unusual. In the main, London education authorities provide free school transport for children with special educational needs, and their budget includes only a small discretionary component. They are unlikely to be significantly affected by the Bill, and will certainly be affected far less than rural and semi-rural areas.
Hon. Members will have received lobbying material from the National Autistic Society, the Royal National Institute of the Blind and Mencap, which are concerned about the provision of transport for children with special needs. The Secretary of State assured the House that statemented children and special educational needs children who have not been statemented will still receive free transport, but he did not specify what sort. The Bill, partly by encouraging people to send their children to the nearest school, implies that children should use mainstream public transport. However, such transport is unsuitable for certain categories of special needs children, even if they are not statemented. The organisations that I mentioned would therefore like the Bill to enshrine a promise that transport will be suitable for the individual child's needs. Some children, for example, cannot travel without an escort and cannot cope with large numbers of children on mainstream transport.
In conclusion, the Government's plan to charge children for school transport is another third-term tax rise. Parents who send their children to rural, semi-rural or denominational schools will be particularly disadvantaged by charging schemes, as those journeys are likely to be the longest. All parents, however, especially those with several children of school age, will be concerned about the proposals. The discretionary element of many LEA school transport budgets was squeezed last year following the funding crisis, and it is likely to disappear altogether when the new charging arrangements are introduced. The choice of school will be dominated by the cost of the journey from home to school and, in practice, will mean no choice at all for many parents, who will be forced to send their child to the school for which they can afford the travel, even if they would not otherwise have chosen it. Charging for school transport deprives parents of choice, and the Government should think again.
I apologise for not being present at the beginning of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I had an unavoidable engagement. I wish to participate, however, as the Bill is of particular importance to my constituency, which is the largest in England and Wales. Indeed, the population in Powys is three times as sparse as it is in Cumbria, which many people believe to be one of the most sparsely populated counties.
Members who represent rural areas are obviously the most concerned about the Bill, even though it allows authorities to set up pilots. Many education authorities do not wish to engage in the programme, but the financial pressures on them will be such that they will be strongly encouraged to do so. My own county of Powys, which spends more per head on school transport than any other county in Wales and, I suspect, England, believes that the money that it receives from the Assembly through the standard spending assessment and the calculation of local government grant is not enough to support the school transport system, and it has to use money that it would otherwise spend directly on education.
The Bill is urbancentric, and does not address rural reality, as a number of hon. Members have argued. Mr. Kidney spoke about a village just inside the 3-mile limit. I can speak from my experience as a county councillor before I became a Member of Parliament. In Talgarth, the line went straight through the town, so half the families had to pay for their school transport while the other half got it free. Strangely, as happens in these things, those in the less well-off part of town had to pay, while the better-off got it free.
Yes, but I do not understand how allowing Powys county council to enter into some innovative arrangement will improve the situation. Jim Knight, with whom I have lately had some communication, spoke about innovation, but my authority would like to look for resources rather than innovation. Very often, it is the quality and safety of school transport that is the concern of parents, and the fact that everything goes out for tender. Although certain basic safety standards must be met, many parents are concerned about the way in which children are looked after on the buses and some of the environments in which they travel.
The problem is not decreasing, but increasing. Just last week in my constituency, Trecastle school received final notice of closure. It has about 25 pupils who will have to make a bus journey from Trecastle to Sennybridge, which has the nearest school. As the almost inexorable closure of small rural schools goes ahead, the need for school transport will increase rather than decrease.
I do not think that the subject of further education has been addressed; if it has, it was only in passing. When further education was taken out of local authority control, authorities were left with the most difficult part to organise—transport. In my area, Coleg Powys has four bases in Ystradgynlais, Brecon, Llandrindod and Newtown. Those different parts of the college specialise in different things. Students based in Brecon who want to study engineering, for example, sometimes have to travel to Newtown 50 miles away. Yes, they sometimes get boarding in Brecon, but the 50-mile journey is made there and back every week. What will be the cost to those students? Yes, they get an allowance, and we are very pleased about that, because it encourages pupils to stay on in further education. If the money must all be spent on transport, however, it will not be a huge incentive.
One of the most encouraging aspects of the Bill is that it gives local authorities power to set up their own scheme, but that must be agreed by the Secretary of State in England or the Assembly in Wales. That provision gives power to local authorities on one hand, but takes it back on another. I know that the Minister will say that it is a safeguard.
Surely it is right to have the safeguard to ensure that what happens is in the public interest and is not a cost-cutting measure. There may be some areas in which such an arrangement is inappropriate, because they are so rural and sparsely populated that it will create an unfair burden on those who live outside the 3-mile area, and that burden will not be countered by the huge benefit for people who live between 2 and 3 miles away from the school, who will get a much better and more safe and satisfactory scheme as a result of the pilots.
I agree that the measure will help, and I am sure that people will be able to put in place schemes in urban areas that are better than the current arrangements. It seems, however, that the Government cannot trust local authorities and want to take power to themselves. While the provision may be a safeguard, it certainly does not do much for devolution.
We have had a good-humoured debate on an important subject, which is of significance for millions of hard-working families. Loyal, if somewhat gullible, Labour Back Benchers support the Bill, which is opposed by everyone else—all Opposition Members and millions of people outside this House are now wised up to the siren voices of new Labour.
The biggest problem with the school run is the large number of pupils who live between 1 and 3 miles from the school gate and who travel to school by car, which is a point that the Secretary of State conceded in his press release on
"Twice as many children are driven to school now in comparison with 20 years ago—around 40 per cent. of primary pupils and 20 per cent. of secondary pupils. Most of these journeys are less than 2 miles, meaning decreasing numbers of children walking or cycling with serious health implications in terms of lack of daily exercise and the growing proportion of children who are overweight."
The Secretary of State did not tell us whether he used to cycle to school and what impact, if any, it had on his longer-term health. I used to cycle to school along Bath road. That journey was regarded as safe, but it is now totally unsafe and few people would cycle it today. We must address that problem, which has encouraged so many hon. Members to participate in this debate.
The issue of affordability is to the fore. The Government want families who live more than 3 miles from the school gate to cross-subsidise those who live closer. In an earlier exchange, the Minister said sotto voce that the problem is: who will pay for all the worthy things that could be done to improve the school run for those who live closer to schools? The Government's answer is that people who happen to live more than 3 miles away from a school must pay, because that is the only way in which to get extra resources into the system. A host of speakers have referred to affordability, which was also raised during the consultation process. The summary of consultation responses states:
"A majority of respondents accepted the principle that affordable fares could be charged, if this secured more comprehensive and higher quality school transport, though there was some debate as to what might be considered affordable".
What is the average cost likely to be? The only information that I can bring to the House is that for pupils in Dorset whose transport is currently provided by the county council, and it excludes those who get special school transport. The average cost to the county council is £570 per pupil per annum. If a family had to pay that cost out of its taxed income for perhaps two or three pupils, it would be unaffordable and unreasonable, yet that idea lies behind the Bill.
The Government will put pressure on those local authorities that opt in to the scheme to force people who live further than 3 miles from the school gate to pay substantial sums towards the cost of school transport, which is neither affordable nor fair. It is interesting that the Minister and the Secretary of State have not denied that £570 per pupil per year is the likely outcome if the Bill gets on to the statute book.
My right hon. Friend Sir George Young made an excellent speech in which he raised a number of unanswered questions and anomalies, and drew attention to the initiatives that he introduced when he was Secretary of State. Those initiatives did not need to be pushed through the legislative process. The then Department of Transport undertook them, using common sense and discretion.
My right hon. Friend is a great enthusiast, if not a fanatic, about cycling. I share his enthusiasm for encouraging cycle training and wearing cycle helmets. However, under the Government, the amount of money that is spent on road safety training in schools has been cut. That also applies to the amount of cycle training, yet the Government have given themselves a fund that could be used to finance more cycle training and more ordinary road safety training for pupils in our schools. The so-called safety camera partnerships now hold the fund and the Government refuse to allow it to be reinvested in road safety education. That money can be used only for propaganda or putting up more speed cameras. What folly!
My right hon. Friend also identified the conflict between choice and being forced to attend the nearest school. The Government have not tackled that issue properly.
This morning, I attended an important conference about sustainable transport. The chief executive of Sustrans drew our attention to events at Kesgrave school in Ipswich, where 70 per cent. of the children cycle to school. He said that there are only 11 schools in England where more than 20 per cent. of pupils cycle to school and only 19 where more than 10 per cent. cycle to school. It does not need the Bill, with the extra burden and stealth tax that it imposes on people in rural areas, to encourage more cycling to school. If the Government are genuinely interested in sustainable transport and encouraging more cycling, they should get on with it in any event.
My hon. Friend Mr. Atkinson made an excellent speech, which demonstrated the enormous chasm of understanding between Labour Members, who do not understand rural areas, and those on this side of the House, who know what it is like for people who live in large and disparate communities. He made it clear that a system of charging for services that are currently free would have an enormous impact on the people of Northumberland. It would affect the bus services and result in reduced educational choice.
My hon. Friend Angela Watkinson made an important contribution in which she emphasised her concerns about affordability and highlighted some of the key worries of the Select Committee on Education and Skills. They included the Bill's impact on parental choice.
Jim Knight reminded me of an incident that happened in the summer. I went to Swanage to participate in a television programme about transport. Ironically, a Labour Member of Parliament who was due to appear on the half-hour programme was unfortunately unable to get there before it concluded because he was held up in a traffic jam. There is a congestion problem on the roads in Dorset and it was interesting that a Government spokesman was unable to reach the destination because of it.
My figures for the total cost of transport for Dorset are higher than those of the hon. Member for South Dorset. He claims that the cost was £8.3 million, but the county council told me that it spent no less than £9.5 million on school transport. That is a significant part of the local education authority budget. However, the hon. Gentleman implied that it would be reasonable to charge people in Dorset who live further than 3 miles from the school gate for the cost of school transport. That is unacceptable to people in Dorset generally and, I am sure, to his constituents.
The solutions that the hon. Gentleman was putting forward, including walking, buses and cycling, could be arrived at without the need for this legislation. Staggered school times could be achieved, as I understand it, through the use of statutory instruments in certain circumstances to change the times of the school day, but the Government could deal with that by giving extra discretion to all local education authorities without the need for the Bill. The hon. Gentleman inevitably had a go at his Conservative county council, but it was a pity that he did not mention that Dorset county council is the worst-funded county council in the country and is therefore not in a position to be able to afford all the fancy expenditure that he was talking about.
Mr. Beith mentioned Northumberland and thought, as I do, that we must embed a statutory right to free school transport in our legislation. He reminded us of the impact on educational choice of charging those between 16 and 19 the cost of getting to school or college when the distances involved are quite large.
Hywel Williams was worried about affordability, the impact of the provisions on rural railways and the stigma of means-testing. He thought, as we do, that the Bill was highly discriminatory against those who live in rural areas.
Mr. Kidney referred, in his thoughtful contribution, to the success of yellow buses in his constituency. He was enthusiastic about the innovation, but I challenge him to tell me why the scope for innovation should be limited to 20 pilot authorities doing the Government's bidding. Why not allow a certain amount of deregulation, where that would be sensible, and why not encourage more local authorities to be more innovative within the existing framework?
Does the hon. Gentleman take my point that my local authority wanted to be innovative and to offer the yellow bus service to pupils whose journey to school was less than 2 or 3 miles, but it simply could not afford to do so?
This is an issue that the Government could address nationally, without any of the measures in the Bill. The hon. Gentleman wants his local authority to provide that service, but why does he think that it should also have all these other constraints imposed on it, such as applying to take part in a pilot scheme with no certain knowledge that its application would be successful? It would also have various other constraints imposed on it.
The Government's explanation for the Bill is that the 3-mile limit for walking to school should be maintained. I think that they state in the explanatory notes, or perhaps in their response to the Transport Committee, that they are sticking to their guns and doing nothing to discourage people from walking or cycling to school when the distance involved is less than 3 miles. The hon. Gentleman thinks that adopting this Bill will help his local authority but, in the light of the Government's avowed policy on transport to school for those living within 3 miles of the school gates, I doubt that that particular scheme would find favour with the Government.
The Government have been forced to defend themselves against all those who oppose the Bill by using hysterical charges of dishonest opportunism. That is why I was particularly interested in the contribution of Mr. Hurst, who said that it was an overstatement to say that this system would be a nightmare, because it would be tightly controlled by the Government. He also said, however, that the Bill was a missed opportunity. He put the whole issue into context by saying that the £200 million that was being spent on home-to-school transport was at stake. The Government seem to think that that money should be taken away from rural authorities and reinvested elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman said that that amount paled into insignificance when compared with the £13 billion that the Government were spending on computers, a large amount of which is perhaps being wasted. To make another comparison, taxpayers in this country are already subsidising to the amount of £88 million tobacco growing in the rest of Europe. The Government have their priorities absolutely wrong.
We are against the Bill because it removes the right to use free school buses if the journey is too long, which has been enjoyed by English and Welsh people for more than 60 years. It means more means-testing, higher costs for hard-pressed parents and, worst of all, it is a new stealth tax on families living in rural areas.
This has been a wide-ranging and interesting debate. We will reflect on the intimation of Mr. Chope in his latter comments that schools were wasting money on computers. I am sure that many in the educational world will have taken that to heart and noted it down.
I am delighted to have this opportunity to wind up the debate for the Government, and in doing so demonstrate the joint commitment of the Departments for Transport and for Education and Skills to this important Bill. I also welcome the opportunity to respond to many of the good comments made on both sides of the House about the Bill. I want to put the Bill firmly in the context of our wider work on the safety and sustainability of school transport.
Just over a year ago, the travelling to school project was launched by my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and Skills and for Transport. It reflected a wide consensus that school transport is a problem in need of urgent solution. As we have heard in the debate, twice as many children are now driven to school compared with 20 years ago. Most of those journeys are less than 2 miles, meaning a falling number of children walking and cycling. As many Members will know, some children, particularly in some urban areas, travel just a few hundred yards to school by car, which has unacceptable effects.
The decline in walking and cycling to school contributes to an overall lack of physical activity by our young people. The health consequences of physical inactivity are well known: moderate activity is known to reduce the risks of heart disease, stroke, obesity, type-2 diabetes, osteoporosis, some cancers and hypertension. While in itself, especially for younger children, the school run may be a small part of their daily activities, it contributes to the culture of car dependency and inactivity, which can be difficult to tackle later in life.
The school run can also be unpopular with local residents, particularly those who live near schools. In some places, it causes localised air quality problems and traffic congestion, and compromises road safety around the school gate. We also know that many parents and pupils would prefer to walk or cycle if they felt that they could do so in safety, and wanted to make sure that it is a realistic option for as many of them as possible. I note that my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) and for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) also made the good point that at this time of year—the school half-term—far fewer cars are on the road and there is much less congestion.
In our action plan, which we published last September, we set out a comprehensive programme of action to tackle car dependency in relation to the school run, by improving the opportunities for pupils to travel to school on foot, by bike or by bus. Across the board, the action plan recognised that to make progress, we would need to meet three key tests. First, we would need to deliver a more effective partnership between national and local government in the provision of school transport services. Secondly, we would need to increase the scope for innovation in planning and service delivery. And thirdly, we would need to ensure that we can learn from the experience and share it with others.
The Bill that we are discussing today is an important element of our school travel initiative, and is intended to meet each of those three tests. First, the Bill will support much closer joint working between central and local government in the development of approval of pilot school travel schemes. Secondly, the Bill will encourage innovation by removing the Education Act 1996 constraints on local flexibility that have been in place for 60 years. Thirdly, the use of pilots will mean that new ideas can be thoroughly tested and evaluated before they are rolled out more widely.
Does my hon. Friend agree that school transport safety is an important issue when it comes to encouraging people to use school transport? He is aware, I know, of the Stewart campaign. Is he satisfied that the Bill deals with parents' concern about their children's safety on school buses? Will there be an opportunity to review the three-for-two rule, under which three children under 14 can occupy a seat designed for two?
The Bill does not specifically address school safety issues, as my hon. Friend will have observed. I know that he has strong views on the three-for-two rule. We have no firm evidence that it creates a danger for children, but because more modern buses are coming into operation it is gradually being phased out. Local education authorities must ensure that seatbelts are fitted for children going on school trips, and their contracts with the transport providers allow them to insist that belts are provided for all children.
I was going to make a third point about the Bill. The use of pilot schemes will enable new ideas to be thoroughly tested and evaluated, as I think my right hon. Friend mentioned in his speech.
The Bill will make the first changes to school transport legislation for over 60 years, enabling a limited number of local education authorities initially to develop innovative solutions to school transport problems. I would expect Mr. Chope to welcome a Bill that is all about deregulation: I thought he liked deregulation, but he clearly does not like it today. The Bill also removes some of the current arbitrary and outdated constraints on local authority freedom and flexibility, and increases the scope for innovation and improved service provision.
In his peroration, Mr. Collins said that the Conservatives were going off to fight the Bill tooth and nail. I noticed that at that point only one Conservative Back Bencher was present; clearly all the others had left the Chamber to join the fight against the Bill. I should add that only one Liberal Democrat Back Bencher was present at the time. After Sir George Young had spoken, the Opposition Whips had to fight tooth and nail themselves to find a Back Bencher who would actually oppose the Bill. They managed it in the end—and I commend the Whip, Mr. Atkinson, for persuading himself to do it.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said that vulnerable children might lose out. My right hon. Friend challenged him on the important issue of children who are just below the mileage limits—2 miles for children aged eight and under, and 3 miles for all other children of compulsory school age. Did he intend to do anything to help those children? The issue is important in some urban areas, and very important in many rural areas. At present, children who are just under the limit are given no help, whether they are from well-off or—in some cases—very poor families.
It has been suggested that our proposals constitute a threat to free education, but children who are under those limits—it is impractical for them to walk, and on some dangerous roads it is impractical for them even to cycle—currently do not receive free education, because their parents must pay the cost of transporting them to school, whether by public transport or by car.
The hon. Gentleman asked about protection for children with special educational needs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that children with statements would have that protection. There is currently no protection in law for SEN children who do not have statements, but the Bill allows the 20 per cent. of authorities who do not help such children to give them extra assistance.
The hon. Gentleman says that the number of children walking to school is increasing, and, yes, there was a small increase last year. Our policies are working, I am glad to say, but not as many are walking as used to do so, say, 20 years ago. Such changes are taking place, but we are having an impact. The Bill is just a further way of helping more children to get out of the car and on to the bus, or to walk or cycle.
The hon. Gentleman also went on about LEAs being compelled to participate. There will be no compulsion—they will be free to decide whether they want to be involved.
I thought that that matter was covered admirably by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who gave a categorical assurance. But if the hon. Gentleman wants to table an amendment and test the Bill in Committee, he can do so. The scheme is voluntary for LEAs, and there will be no cuts to their budgets on the basis of their participating in it.
Not at the moment as I want to complete my remarks on the hon. Gentleman's contribution. He said that there is no cross-party agreement in the House on this Bill. That may be right, but I have to tell him that there is considerable cross-party agreement outside it. He will doubtless have read with great care, as I have, the proceedings of the Select Committees that examined this issue, both of which I appeared before. When Councillor Raymond Wilkinson, from Cambridgeshire—as I understand it, he is a member of the hon. Gentleman's own party—was asked on
"Cambridgeshire went through their cabinet system two weeks ago and they said that we would be bidding for one of the pilots."
So although there might be no cross-party consensus in this House, there certainly is in local government. We expect the Liberal Democrats to say one thing here and another on the doorstep, but now the Tories are doing precisely the same.
My hon. Friend Roger Casale made a considered speech that dealt in particular with children with special educational needs, the safety of their transport and concerns about checks made on drivers. According to the current instructions given out by the Department for Education and Skills, all drivers of such vehicles should be properly checked. If his authority is not doing so, he should raise the matter with that Department, and perhaps with mine as well. Ofsted will inspect education authorities fairly regularly in this regard, as it is an issue that it takes into account in such inspections. Indeed, my hon. Friend might want to look at the last inspection to see whether his authority is complying with the regulations.
There is also a problem with taxis, particularly in London. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire introduced a very good Bill on this issue, but a loophole has been found in respect of certain taxi providers. Those providing limited services for education or social services needs, for example, are slipping through the net. The road safety Bill that we hope to introduce in the next Session will, I trust, address some of these issues.
Dr. Pugh began by saying that this is a dangerous Bill, but his own councillors out in the country do not agree with him. He ought to tell them that in his opinion we are doing something very dangerous, because they certainly do not seem to agree. Of course, the important point that he did not address is that children who live just under the 2-mile or 3-mile limit currently get no help whatever. The Bill offers the opportunity for such assistance to be provided. Local authorities could also help children to whom there is no statutory obligation to provide assistance. I am thinking of children from faith schools for whom there is a nearer, suitable school. What the hon. Gentleman proposed today provides no particular flexibility whatever. The other group, of course, is children who have special educational needs, but do not have a statement. There is currently no statutory obligation to assist those children, but the Bill provides an opportunity for that to happen.
It is better than what obtains now, because a local authority will be able to take action to deal with that problem. Currently, some 20 per cent. of authorities do not deal with it.
My hon. Friend Mr. Drew made a good speech, calling on us to be bolder. He spoke with very good sense, as he always does, and he pointed out to the House what was confirmed by the subsequent contributions of Opposition Members—that there were no ideas emerging from the Opposition Benches. My hon. Friend and others made the point that the Bill will provide opportunities for children to do more out-of-school activities and for schools to have a longer school day. Particularly in rural areas where children have to travel longer distances, it provides extra opportunities to assist those beneficial activities.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, described as the Cliff Richard of the Opposition Benches, made a consensual speech that had much good sense in it. He talked about the flexibility of the voluntary approach in the Bill. We welcome his comments. After he spoke, we noticed a dash round to find one or two Conservative Back Benchers who would speak against the Bill. They succeeded in the end.
Well, we are having it again for the benefit of the several hon. Members who have joined us.
We have taken a number of steps to encourage walking and cycling. In June, my Department published a walking-cycling action plan, which set out 42 practical actions that can be taken to increase levels of cycling and walking, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will note that that should help to improve the position. He spoke about seat-belts, but I am glad to say that there have been very few crashes involving school buses. When LEAs frame their contracts, they have the ability to build that particular safeguard into them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford also made a considered contribution to the debate. He highlighted issues such as pollution in schools, road safety and congestion, and the Bill provides an opportunity for us to deal with them. He also made the very important point that, under current legislation, 90 per cent. of children get no help whatever with their journey to school. The Bill will also address that problem and it should particularly help children on shorter journeys in rural areas.
Hywel Williams made a good contribution to the debate, raising important issues connected with Wales. The Bill will help with problems surrounding Welsh language schools. Currently, there is no obligation with respect to Welsh language purposes if a suitable and nearer school is available.
We have had a good debate. The hon. Member for Christchurch talked about the loyal and gullible Government Back Benchers who spoke in favour of the Bill. Well, I can tell him that there are many loyal and gullible councillors in his party out in the country who support the Bill. It is a good Bill. It will help to get children out of the car and get them walking, cycling or using the bus. I commend this good Bill to the House.