Clause 1 — School travel schemes

Orders of the Day — School Transport Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:35 pm on 16th December 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 2:35 pm, 16th December 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 1, line 15, at end insert

'either by itself or in conjunction with another local authority.'.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 7, in page 1, line 15, at end insert

', provided that consultations have taken place with relevant admissions bodies including representatives of denominational schools where such schools are affected by the proposed scheme.'.

No. 12, in page 2, line 12, at end insert—

'2A (1) Scheme authorities shall, prior to the submission of a proposed school travel scheme to the appropriate national authority, undertake a consultation process in accordance with regulations made by—

(a) in England, the Secretary of State, and

(b) in Wales, the Assembly for Wales.

(2) Regulations under subparagraphs (1)(a) or (b) may, in particular, include a list of statutory consultees to be asked for comments on the proposed scheme and provide for the nature of the consultation process.

(3) Power to make regulations under subparagraph (1) is exercisable by statutory instrument.

(4) Regulations under subparagraph (1)(a) shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

It is a pleasure, and something of a relief, to see the Minister for School Standards in the Chamber. We have lost three education Ministers this year and we still have two weeks to go. I hope that he will last until the end of Third Reading. He has become the Mr. Chips of the Department for Education and Skills.

Although I shall probably not press amendments Nos. 6 and 7 to a Division, I shall explain a little about them. Amendment No. 6 suggests that local travel schemes could involve a partnership of more than one local authority and thus function over a sensible geographical area regardless of local authority boundaries. There are good arguments for such an arrangement. There is already much cross-border movement among local authorities and with increasing numbers of special schools, academies and the like, there will definitely be more. That is especially true in London, where people flit between one local authority school and another, and sometimes send their children to school in different local authorities. Local authorities increasingly pool special school provision as a cost-saving measure rather than using private school provision in far away places, and that tendency will increase. Additionally, local authority boundaries often do not follow natural transport routes. We recognise that parent-teacher associations are also local authorities and are deeply implicated in most school transport schemes.

The Minister cited one argument against the suggestion in Committee when he said that he was worried that because the schemes will be pilots, they might be vulnerable if a local authority were to withdraw unilaterally from a scheme involving two or three authorities. If we take seriously the belief that the Bill is only about piloting, the argument might have some force, and I accept that the Government must take that line at the moment, putting out a fixed view and keeping up appearances by pretending that we are talking about only pilots. However, I think that they will belatedly accept my suggestion another day as the pilots effectively become the norm.

Amendment No. 7 reinforces the common chorus supporting consultation that unites all parties at the moment. It especially puts a stress on bodies that might be adversely affected—it specifically refers to "denominational schools". The amendment is designed to give such bodies a voice and an opportunity to protect their interests. Given our consideration of the Bill so far, they are not fully satisfied that their interests will be protected.

I anticipate that the Minister's general response to the amendment will be, "It is all in the prospectus anyway. Have no fear; their worries are groundless." In fact, more or less everything is in the prospectus—almost all worldly woes are solved in it—but there is little in the Bill. The prospectus refers to human rights legislation, which will have an anti-discriminatory effect, and to the needs and requirements of denominational schools. However, it is full of the words "may" and "might" and items for consideration—it is full largely of motherhood and apple pie. Everyone would accept that it is the Minister's creation and mutable, and thus that it could be varied—it has already been through several metamorphoses. It is not the same as a legal guarantee.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

Will the hon. Gentleman admit that he is being far too curmudgeonly about the movement that the Government have made since the Committee stage? For example, the new prospectus on consultation uses the word "must", not "may", and a Government amendment that we will consider later will tie the prospectus into the Bill. Should not the hon. Gentleman say that such amendments are pleasing?

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I certainly will say that such amendments are pleasing, but I also say that there is a good case for the Minister's putting such provisions in the Bill. We must wonder why they are marginalised in a prospectus.

In any case, having a prospectus is a model for getting difficult legislation through the House. Although I am not making an accusation about Mr. Kidney, it is a way of getting legislation past more gullible Back Benchers. Although I believe that the Minister has been genuine in insisting that there should be consultation, I would be happier if such a provision were included in the Bill.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I wish to underline two important points. First, I have served as an MP for a long time, and I am always concerned when Ministers say that there is no need to include something in the Bill because it is in a prospectus and they will do their best to make sure that it is observed. I respect the Minister for School Standards, and accept that he does his best, but he is not infallible and does not have an unlimited ministerial lifespan. We want a simple change to the Bill, and if what Dr. Pugh, whom I also respect, says is true, there is no reason whatever not to include the change in the Bill itself.

Secondly, the Minister ought to accept that denominational schools and authorities, particularly Catholic ones, have long-standing grievances about the way in which they were consulted in certain areas. I am sure that that is not the Minister's fault. Some local authorities have done their best, but others have been less effective, so the Government should accept that the House wants the matter to be dealt with properly, which is why I support the amendments.

Finally, there is no area of our lives in which consultation is more important than education. I hesitate to criticise Ministers without just cause, so I hope that comments about who has responsibility for our children were misplaced. I believe that children are their parents' responsibility, and parents may opt for certain kinds of education. Those of us who want state education to provide the widest choice do not want people to be forced to make private provision because choice is not available, so we are particularly keen that the consultation should take place. In my constituency, which is not unusual among rural constituencies, it is difficult to provide parents with any choice whatever. The Bill is therefore important for us, and the consultation is the only point at which parents can tell local authorities about the difficulties that they face. I therefore very much hope that the Minister will accept the amendments.

Photo of Mr Roger Casale Mr Roger Casale PPS (Team PPS), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

We must bear in mind the considerable movement that the Government have already made on consultation and linking it to the Bill. I am sorry that some Liberal Democrat Members do not feel that that is much of a concession, as I believe that it is a major step forward. My constituents, led by Mary Powell of the special educational needs network in Merton, also welcome it. Indeed, I do not think that we accept the comments by Dr. Pugh at all. Before our debate, I was contacted by the Special Educational Consortium, which is convened under the auspices of the Council for Disabled Children to protect and promote the interests of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. Like my constituents and myself, it very much welcomed the revised prospectus, which requires local education authorities to consult before making formal applications.

We welcome the fact that parents of disabled children and children with special educational needs are mentioned specifically in the list of people who must be consulted. It is clear that disabled children and children with special educational needs are significantly more reliant than others on LEA school transport, and it is important that parents have the opportunity to express their particular needs and interests before any change to school transport arrangements is made. The consortium accepts that it may be appropriate to develop the parameters of the consultation in the prospectus, but it believes that the basic duty to consult should be included in the Bill itself. I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on that. While the consortium recognises that the scheme authorities may wish to retain flexibility over the way in which they carry out the consultation, the duty to consult should not be flexible; it should be a requirement. I should be grateful if the Minister would deal with that when he responds.

The consortium believes that the scheme authorities should report on the provision of school travel schemes for disabled children and children with SEN. A monitoring exercise will be particularly valuable during the pilots, and will be easier to conduct when we have a limited number of schemes. It may be appropriate to include details on the reporting of such monitoring in the prospectus. However, the consortium's main wish is that the basic principle of consultation should be enshrined as strongly as possible in the Bill. I am grateful for the steps that the Minister has already taken to achieve that aim, which is extremely important and whose realisation will be welcomed by my constituents.

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Defence 2:45 pm, 16th December 2004

The amendments deal with consultation. Is the Minister aware that Conservative-controlled Herefordshire local education authority has decided at short notice to stop making places on school buses available to children travelling 18 or 20 miles to a Church school from Ross-on-Wye? It announced that just two weeks ago with little consultation among the parents or schools concerned. As a result, parents have only a couple of weeks either to find a new school, which would be disruptive for their children in the run-up to GCSEs, or to find alternative means of transport, which could result in round-trip journeys of up to 30 miles, which is bad for the environment and the already congested streets of my constituency. Does the Minister agree that if there are changes to school transport, there should be adequate consultation with the parents and, indeed, the schools concerned?

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Education)

May I begin by congratulating the new Minister for School Standards on his promotion? I am sure that there will be an opportunity in future education debates to comment on root-and-branch reform, given the prevalence of Twiggs in the Department.

Amendment No. 12 deals with consultation, which is important in the preparation of school travel schemes. We had a long debate about the issue in Committee, and I am grateful that much of the debate was reflected in the revised prospectus, which the Department circulated among Committee members. There was an increase in the number of groups to be consulted, and a timetable for consultation was provided, with a minimum period of 28 days during the school term, for which I am particularly grateful. There was also a requirement that LEAs should consult where there are material modifications to a scheme. Those changes reflect the consensual nature of our debate in Committee.

Despite that tidying-up exercise, we need to go a stage further. I support the remarks of Dr. Pugh, because Ministers can change, as we have discovered today. Guidance is likely to evolve over time and the prospectus is not set in stone. It does not have the same status as, for example, a statutory instrument. Amendment No. 12 therefore provides the Secretary of State in England or the Assembly in Wales with an opportunity to draw up regulations to give statutory force to guidance on consultation. I worded the amendment to give it a wide application, but I expect such regulations to cover the issues that the Minister addresses in paragraphs 14, 15 and 16 of the prospectus. It gives groups that are most concerned about changes to school transport arrangements, including the denominational groups mentioned by my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer and special educational needs groups, a statutory right to be consulted. Roger Casale has saved me a job, as he reprised very well the advice of the Special Educational Consortium, which welcomes the changes in the prospectus. It would prefer such changes to be included in the Bill for the sake of consistency and stability. It does not want the prospectus to be changed over time, as that would alter its essential nature.

Photo of Mr Roger Casale Mr Roger Casale PPS (Team PPS), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, although many of us would welcome guidance notes that are as strong and as solid as possible—it is good to see the development of guidance notes as a result of our debates—the problem that we face in my constituency, to which I drew attention on Second Reading and in Committee and which has been picked up by special educational consortiums across the country, concerns not only the contents of the guidance notes, but what to do when the guidance notes are not followed in a particular area? Effort needs to be expended on toughening up the relationship between the Bill and the guidance notes. Although the duty in relation to consultation must be set in stone, that is not necessary for every aspect of the guidance notes because, as he has said, they will develop over time. I wonder whether he recognises the distinction between what is in the guidance notes and what happens when the guidance notes are not adhered to.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Gentleman must recognise the distinction between a speech and an intervention—his intervention was almost longer than his speech.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Education)

The hon. Member for Wimbledon has raised a valid issue. It is important to draw a distinction between the prospectus's detailed contents and what should be in regulations. The prospectus contains some matters that perhaps do not need to be in regulation.

On consultation, a lengthy but non-exhaustive list of statutory consultees such as groups involved with special educational needs, denominational schools and admissions forum schools is important. In the prospectus, the Minister has gone some way to improving that list, for which I am grateful, but we must set minimum standards on the consultation process. When we reach a later group of amendments, I shall refer back to the role that statutory consultees could play in changing school transport schemes, but I shall leave that to a later time, because I have taken on board the comment made by the hon. Member for Wimbledon.

It is important that we ensure that protection is in place for the most vulnerable groups in our society. Ensuring that adequate consultation is enshrined in statute rather than in a prospectus is a way to achieve that and to ensure that the voice of the most vulnerable in society is heard, whether we are discussing changes to sensitive travel arrangements that could lead to additional costs being imposed on parents, whether children have special educational needs or whether they attend denominational schools. We must get the consultation process right and, where possible, that should be reflected in the Bill.

On amendment No. 7, I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Southport. We must ensure that denominational schools are consulted properly and that diocesan educational organisations are also part of the consultation process. Again, that should be subsumed into the overall tenor of regulations.

On amendment No. 6, in Committee we raised the issue of how LEAs—particularly small LEAs—that are adjacent to each other work together where considerable movement occurs over their borders. I do not know whether the Minister is still responsible for education in London, but he knows about the cross-border movements that take place in London. For example, some 40 per cent. of children in Lambeth are educated outside the borough, and a mechanism is needed to make those schemes cover them.

We must cover the important issues on consultation. With your leave, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I seek to put amendment No. 12 to the vote at the appropriate point.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

First, I thank Mr. Hoban for his kind remarks about my appointment—I will not be drawn into discussions about the number of twigs on the ministerial tree. I am delighted to welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr. Kemp.

On amendment No. 6, the issue was raised in Committee, where I explained that I do not think it desirable or practical for LEAs to propose joint schemes. We considered allowing LEAs to make joint applications to the Secretary State and the National Assembly for Wales when we first drafted the Bill. We reconsidered our initial decision following public consultation, when a number of LEAs suggested that they would like to make joint applications, although they foresaw that groups of more than two authorities might run joint schemes, particularly in some of our larger urban areas, for the reasons referred to by the hon. Member for Fareham.

We felt that there are a number of problems with that approach, some of which were mentioned by Dr. Pugh when he moved the amendment. In practice, good schemes could fail or suffer delays if one authority failed to carry out an adequate local consultation. Secondly, if one LEA wanted to make small changes to a joint scheme, every participating LEA would have to carry out a consultation, which could turn out to be costly and unnecessary. Thirdly, one LEA might decide to revoke a scheme, but another might want to continue with that scheme because it felt that the scheme was working well, which would pose practical difficulties.

The Bill is already sufficiently flexible to allow two or more LEAs to come to us with schemes that they have developed in consultation with each other, and London may well provide a good opportunity to do that, for the reasons set out by the hon. Member for Fareham. Such schemes might dovetail, although each LEA would need to submit its own separate scheme for approval. Indeed, we understand that some LEAs are already considering that approach, which we encourage.

I agree with hon. Members that collaboration makes a good deal of sense where cross-boundary issues must be addressed. However, I hope that they agree that the drawbacks of joint schemes outweigh their advantages. We will continue to encourage authorities to make their own applications in which they can explain how their scheme relates to others and ask for joint consideration, where appropriate. We are convinced that that approach offers the joined-up dimension sought by amendment No. 6.

Before I address amendments Nos. 7 and 12, I shall respond to Mr. Keetch. It is disappointing to hear about a failure to consult. When school transport changes are proposed, whether they are part of the Bill or whether they are broader changes, it is vital that consultation occurs. The particular example from Herefordshire demonstrates the importance of innovative approaches. At the moment, an innovative approach enables students who might not qualify for free transport to use buses that take children to denominational schools. With the hon. Gentleman's leadership at a local level, I encourage Herefordshire LEA to reconsider the matter and, perhaps more important, fully to consult parents and others in Herefordshire on the proposals.

Amendment No. 7 would require LEAs to consult admissions bodies and representatives of denominational schools and would prevent a scheme from being made until those consultations have taken place. Amendment No. 12 would give the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales powers to make regulations specifying the consultation process that LEAs must undertake before making a scheme application. The regulations could also provide a list of statutory consultees.

I agree with Mr. Gummer that a full consultation process is vital to underpin any applications as part of the legislation. I also agree with the comments made on both sides of the House that a number of key consultees must be included in the consultation process in every authority. A number of consultees, including the Education and Skills Committee, have suggested a number of additional stakeholders who should be included in the section in the prospectus on local consultation. During recent scrutiny in the House, we made further additions in response to the most helpful suggestions made by members of the Committee. I hope that the list of consultees now in the prospectus is fully comprehensive, but I remain receptive to any further suggestions.

The list includes school governors, including governors of special schools where pupils in the authority are placed; teacher association representatives at the local level; parents and prospective parents; the schools forum; the admissions forum; bodies representing any denominations with schools in the area; transport operators; further education; as my hon. Friend Roger Casale rightly stressed, groups representing parents with children with special educational needs and/or disabilities; organisations with an interest in pupil safety, such as BUSKBelt Up School Kids—and Stuart's Campaign; and any other partners with a material interest in school travel schemes, such as passenger transport executives and Transport for London. Admissions bodies and representatives of denominational schools—the subject of amendment No. 7—are included in the list, and rightly so.

The National Assembly for Wales will be responsible for issuing the prospectus in Wales and will conduct a wide-ranging consultation with all interested parties, including admissions bodies and representatives of denominational schools. In Committee, I explained that the prospectus is binding on scheme authorities and that we will not approve pilots that have not had adequate consultation. We are responding to those and separate concerns of Committee members through amendment No. 26, which will place the prospectus on a statutory footing. I hope that that will be sufficient to allay the concern that Members have expressed today that pilots could be put in place without adequate consultation.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 3:00 pm, 16th December 2004

I perfectly understand the Minister, but as he is so comprehensive in what he is able to do, I wonder whether he has been the victim of his civil servants: I remember them well. I suspect that he probably wanted to put in the proposed change, but his civil servants said to him: "Better not, Minister—better leave it like this." I had not thought that he was susceptible to that, and I hope that he will not be so today, but will think again. It is better to do it; then all worries are allayed.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

In Committee, my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney suggested that we place the prospectus on a statutory footing. I think that the initial advice from my officials was, "Better not", but my view was that we should do precisely that. I believe that through the amendment that we will discuss later we will achieve what the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members want to achieve—to ensure that adequate consultation is at the heart of what we are seeking to achieve through the Bill.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Education)

The Minister said that the prospectus is "binding" and mentioned the amendment that we will discuss later. Will he explain what he means by that in the context of consultation? The letter that he sent to members of the Committee on 14 December said that

"the amendment will not make any practical difference to the way that schemes are approved and operate".

It sounds as though the amendment is not giving us the reassurance that we seek, particularly on consultation.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

The reassurance that I sought to provide in Committee—Dr. Pugh mentioned this—is that many of the concerns that are being raised on consultation are addressed in the prospectus. It was said in Committee, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, that that reassurance would be strengthened were the prospectus itself placed on a statutory footing. We are doing so in order to ensure that the reassurance that we can provide through the prospectus is absolutely and without doubt there in the Bill.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Education)

I am grateful to the Minister for that confirmation of the status of the prospectus. Will he confirm whether it will be a final document once the Bill is passed? Otherwise, how will we know that the reassurance that we have been given about it today will not be overridden by a prospectus that is published in a year or so, or in 10 years' time?

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

We may return to this in more detail later. Once the Bill has completed its passage through both Houses, I want to have the best possible prospectus. That is why I certainly do not close the book on further changes to it as a consequence of today's debate or proceedings in the other place. There is then, under the terms of the amendments that we will discuss later, the possibility of its being revised in future to meet concerns as the pilots are developed. That is the sensible approach, because there may be aspects that we would not anticipate in the debates that we are having now but arise in future years. I am sure that we can return to some of those issues when we discuss those amendments.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills

I understand what the Minister is saying, but will he tell the House that any changes to the prospectus will be done by the normal statutory instrument process or will be done by the Minister and sent out to others for consultation?

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

The intention is that this will be a consultative process by the Department. We need to consider whether it is possible to ensure some form of parliamentary engagement, possibly through the relevant Select Committee. I will take that suggestion away for further consideration and we will address it in the other place.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills

This is a very important issue, because the status of the prospectus has that status only with this Minister at this particular time. Any Minister, including one of a Government of a different complexion, could write a prospectus that was completely contrary to the spirit of this one, and Parliament would have absolutely no say in that. There is enough power for the Secretary of State to make those agreements on his or her own say. That is a dangerous precedent, because if it is introduced for this Bill it could be used for any other piece of social legislation that Ministers wish to introduce in future. Will the Minister consider whether the prospectus should be backed up by a clear set of statutory instruments, which obviously cannot be brought in today, but could be committed to in another place?

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

I am happy to take that suggestion away and look at it. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I emphasise that the schemes will not be imposed on local communities by central Government—the prospectus provides a basis for schemes that are developed at the local level, which can happen only if there is support for them at that local level. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concerns, and I give him the undertaking that we will consider whether legislative processes are required in addition to the traditional form of consultation. I think that it is unlikely that the scenario that he describes would happen in practice, but I am happy to consider his suggestion.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Does the Minister understand that my original concern is now made worse? He has kindly made the prospectus binding. That means that if, for example, the consultation arrangements were significantly changed or watered down, that too would be binding. The consultation element should be in the Bill to ensure that whatever happens to the prospectus, at least that which is crucial for local democracy is in place.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern. It is hard in practice to imagine a future Government of any of the three major parties that would seek to move from a prospectus that has very wide and comprehensive consultation in it to abandon consultation altogether. It would be very difficult politically for a Government of any stripe to attempt that. It is important that we get this prospectus right so that the guidance that is being provided through it becomes the guidance upon which consultation happens for the first pilot schemes. Largely thanks to the contributions of Members in this House and the other place through pre-legislative scrutiny, in Committee and in other ways, we now have a strong prospectus that I will feel confident in taking forward as a basis for the set of proposals in the Bill.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I am grateful and flattered that my hon. Friend should take my advice over and above that of his civil servants on this issue. However, I was concerned in Committee that we should identify the prospectus on which people will base their schemes. My hon. Friend's amendment does not do that. Is not that the issue that remains to be resolved?

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

Let us revert to that matter when we consider the relevant amendment. At this point, I ask Opposition Members to withdraw the amendment and we can then proceed with the debates on other subjects.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment—I did not know about it at the beginning of the debate. I am also delighted that Derek Twigg has been promoted. I do not know how he will link education to his current obsession, which is a second crossing on the Runcorn bridge. I expect White Papers with titles such as "Bridging the Schools Gap" or "Spanning the Years".

It is fair to say that the Minister has made some concessions. There has been some movement and it would be churlish not to acknowledge that. In our view, the concessions as they stand are not enough and the reasons for his position are not sufficiently plausible. I place some faith in the Minister's comments—he speaks with more than a degree of sincerity. If denominational schools have further concerns, I invite them to express them to Opposition parties so that they can be raised in another place.

However, as the Minister expanded on his argument, many Liberal Democrat Members became unhappy about a system whereby a prospectus could be issued that was in no way subject to review by Parliament. Although we will withdraw amendment No. 6, we shall support amendment No. 12.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 2, line 3, at end insert—

'or, at independent schools or academies where such provision can be made at no net cost to the authority,'.

No discussion took place on the subject in Committee and I therefore raise it now. The amendment would be a sensible addendum and it was inspired by a sight that often confronts people not far from my constituency in the constituency of Mrs. Curtis-Thomas, where there is a road with no fewer than three large independent schools, a prep school and two state schools, including an infant school and a large comprehensive school. There is massive congestion. Many cars are parked there when school starts and finishes, but additionally there are many buses as most independent schools have complex bussing arrangements. If that happens in one constituency, it probably happens in many constituencies.

The point of the amendment is to forget the education ideology and acknowledge that there is a transport case and probably a social case for co-operation. It can do pupils from different schools no harm to be involved in a common transport scheme. The case will grow stronger as the Government increasingly fragment the secondary sector, giving local authorities less control over their secondary schools and creating academies. To be fair to the Government, the prospectus specifies that arrangements with independent schools are to be encouraged. However, that was not debated in Committee. I would therefore like to make the point, without pressing it to a vote, that, if there is no net cost to a local authority, the presumption for such cooperation must be strong.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

The hon. Gentleman wants to probe the intention for independent schools and academies. The intention of the amendment appears to be to achieve two things: first, to bring independent schools and academies into the scope of school travel schemes and, secondly, to ensure that transport can be provided to those establishments at no net cost to the scheme authority—the LEA. I shall deal with the points in turn.

First, I want to assure hon. Members that independent schools and academies must already be included in school travel schemes. Paragraph 2(l)(a) of proposed new schedule 35B requires an authority to set out travel arrangements to and from schools. "Schools" is the term used. Section 4 of the Education Act 1996 defines schools as any institutions outside the further education and higher education sectors that provide primary and/or secondary education. The term therefore encompasses maintained and independent schools. Academies are classified for legal purposes as independent schools. Although they are independent, LEAs remain responsible for making travel arrangements for their pupils to ensure that they can get to school.

Many areas in England have a substantial proportion of pupils attending independent schools. The national average is 7 per cent, not including academies. If LEAs with a high level of independent education in their geographical area are to make a difference to the amount of traffic on the school run, constructive engagement with the independent sector is crucial, as the hon. Gentleman said.

Paragraph 13 of the prospectus states that we expect LEAs to consider travel patterns of pupils in independent schools in their area and examine whether there is scope for making joint arrangements that benefit pupils in both sectors.

The amendment refers to cost and we believe that that would make a material change to the Bill. The amendment envisages that arrangements for pupils who attend independent schools, including academies, could be made only at no net cost to the scheme authority. I fear that such a provision could have some unfortunate—and, I am sure, unintended—consequences for academies and their pupils. As I have explained, LEAs remain responsible for providing transport for pupils who travel to and from academies and they must ensure that transport is provided when pupils live more than three miles away and the academy is their nearest school.

When an academy provides education for pupils who are drawn from a wide area, the cost per pupil can be high—£600 or more annually per pupil without special educational needs and considerably more for those who have special educational needs. Providing transport at no net cost to the scheme authority would probably require charges to be set at an unaffordable level. It would mean parents of pupils without SEN paying a substantial subsidy to cover the cost of transport for pupils with SEN. I am sure that parents and others would be unhappy with such an arrangement. I would anticipate that parents of pupils who attended academies would be so unhappy that the local consultation that scheme authorities undertake before the scheme started would show overwhelming opposition to such proposals. That, together with potential charges set at exceptionally high levels for pupils at academies, would mean that the scheme proposals that the amendment contains are unlikely to be acceptable to the Secretary of State or to many parents.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 3:15 pm, 16th December 2004

I accept many of the Minister's points. Is he saying that the involvement in travel schemes of independent schools—Eton, Harrow and so on—is mandatory? He used the word "crucial", but is it mandatory? Could independent schools seriously object if they were not involved, or does the Minister suggest that it is simply a good option?

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

It is mandatory. Independent schools are to be part of the school travel schemes for the reasons that I outlined. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman stated them when he moved the amendment.

The amendment also proposes that there should be no subsidy for independent schools. Although that is our general policy, I can envisage circumstances in which it might be sensible to offer surplus capacity to pupils in independent schools at a cost that the market would bear. That could be below full cost recovery, depending on the accounting conventions adopted. Of course, local transport authorities already offer a large subsidy to pupils who attend independent schools through the concessionary fares, such as the new concessions that will soon be introduced in London, that are available to all young travellers.

The Bill is deregulatory and our general approach is to allow LEAs as much freedom as possible to implement schemes in a way that suits local circumstances. The amendment would reduce that freedom and introduce some unhelpful constraints. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I thank the Minister for that clarification. We need to think through the implications of his comments. They are news to some hon. Members. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: No. 12, in page 2, line 12, at end insert—

2A (l) Scheme authorities shall, prior to the submission of a proposed school travelscheme to the appropriate national authority, undertake a consultation process in accordance with regulations made by—

(a) in England, the Secretary of State, and

(b) in Wales, the Assembly for Wales.

(2) Regulations under subparagraphs (l)(a) or (b) may, in particular, include a list of statutory consultees to be asked for comments on the proposed scheme and provide for the nature of the consultation process.

(3) Power to make regulations under subparagraph (1) is exercisable by statutory instrument.

(4) Regulations under subparagraph (l)(a) shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.—[Mr. Hoban.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 131, Noes 229.

Division number 19

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills

I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 2, line 28, at end insert—

'(2A) A school travel scheme may not—

(a) reduce the current entitlement of the parent of any child who attends primary school and who lives more than two miles from that school,

(b) reduce the current entitlement of the parent of any child who attends secondary school and who lives more than three miles from that school, or

(c) remove an existing entitlement to free transport of the parent of any child in special education.'.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 1, in page 2, leave out lines 32 to 39.

No. 10, in page 2, line 36, at end insert—

'(3) The policy to be set out under sub-paragraph (1) shall not discriminate financially against parents and children in rural areas.'.

No. 11, in page 2, line 36, at end insert—

'(4) The policy to be set out under sub-paragraph (1) shall not discriminate financially against the parents of any child who attends his nearest denominational or other school as defined under the admission policy in force within the local education authority.'.

No. 13, in page 2, line 36, at end insert—

'(3) The policy to be set out under subparagraph (1) shall include details of concessionary fares including, but not limited to, the following categories—

(a) a child who is part of a family with two or more siblings,

(b) a child who is not treated as a protected child under 7(1) below but whose family income is less than the average family income for the scheme authority's area, and

(c) a child whose current transport costs are covered by a discretionary fare scheme.

(4) Where a concessionary fare scheme is not in place to cover a child in any of the categories in subparagraph (3) above, a statement shall be included in the policy explaining why such arrangements have not been made.'.

No. 14, in page 3, line 3, after 'home', insert—

'or,

(ii) as a consequence of his special educational need or disability he is unable to use transport ordinarily available to children without that special educational need or disability who attend the same school and he attends either—

(a) the nearest suitable school; or

(b) another school, where it has been agreed with the scheme authority that he should be registered at that school as a consequence of his special educational needs,'.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills

Amendments Nos. 9 to 11 have been tabled by me, my hon. Friend Dr. Pugh and my hon. Friend Mr. Rendel. Before I proceed, may I formally congratulate the Minister for School Standards on his new position? I do not know whether, on 2 May 1997, I was more pleased to see his defeat of a former Secretary of State than my defeat of a former Secretary of State, but the world will always remember the smile of bemused excitement on his face that evening. It is nice to see him move up to his current position with the same smile. The way in which he has engaged in this debate is typical of the way in which he works.

I was not involved in the Committee stage of the Bill, and I will therefore speak briefly on the three amendments. First, all of them, in simple terms, seek to deal with the issue of charging. There was a good debate in Committee. If one reads the Standing Committee Hansard, one will see that the whole Committee engaged with the issues and tried to get a sensible outcome. The prospectus that is in the Bill today is an example of the Minister being incredibly helpful to the House rather than trying to undermine any of the agreements and commitments that were made in Committee.

Secondly, all our amendments seek to retain existing entitlements. When we are considering changing and influencing school transport throughout England and Wales, it may not be a bad idea to start with the existing system and ensure that existing entitlements remain. The third aim of amendment No. 9 is to include those entitlements in the Bill.

My hon. Friends and I support the Bill's objectives, but it is nonsensical for so many young people to be ferried to school on journeys of only one or two miles or even less, and nothing in the Bill seems to deal with that. The Bill is mostly concerned with plans to be implemented in future. I think that this is a much bigger issue, and one that is not just about education but about changing the patterns of our town and city transport systems.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

According to figures published recently, 20 years ago, when obesity was not one of our main problems, some 80 per cent. of children walked to school. Now only about 5 per cent. do, but the Government are concentrating on good food versus bad food rather than on this fundamental issue, which goes way beyond education.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills

That is my point. What we needed was not a School Transport Bill, but a much wider examination of the way in which our communities work and their impact on young people in particular.

In Committee, the Minister produced a staggering statistic: £2 billion is spent on school, health and social services transport. There must be a better way of using all that money, for the benefit not just of the school population but of the whole community. We are with the Minister on that, but we are less sure about passing some £200 million of expenditure from local authorities to parents, which will be the net effect of the Bill. Indeed, the sum may be greater: that is a conservative estimate—with a small "c", of course.

The prospectus claims that youngsters receiving free school meals will be protected. There is an argument to be had about special educational needs, and Mr. Hoban will want to say something about that. In general, however, if local authorities are given the powers proposed in the Bill, they will almost certainly be able to transfer some or all of the existing costs to parents. I do not think the Minister would deny that that will be one consequence of the Bill, although I accept that it may prove to be a good thing.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports the Government's objectives, but is he perhaps in danger of willing the ends without willing the means? Or would the Liberal Democrats introduce a higher tax to pay for improved school transport?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills

So far we have tried to identify the parameters of imaginative solutions. I do not think that making relatively cheap party-political points is the right approach, and I will not become involved in it.

The prospectus is an interesting document. I do not want to rehearse the argument that we produced during our debate on the last group of amendments, but I think that the usefulness of a prospectus without a statutory instrument will be difficult to sustain. I expect that the other place will return to that issue.

Is the Minister serious about the commitments made in the prospectus's clauses on charging? Clause 29 states:

"Any charges must be affordable and pitched at a level that does not produce an increase in car journeys to school."

What does that mean? How on earth are we supposed to interpret that in a meaningful way that could not be challenged? Clause 30 states:

"There is a particularly strong case for providing protection from charges to the fourth or subsequent child of compulsory school age in a household, as these comprise less than 1 per cent. of the pupil population."

Our amendment No. 13 does exactly that. If the Minister has accepted the reality of that case, why can he not accept our amendment and thereby include such a provision in the Bill?

I turn to children with special educational needs and disabilities. I listened carefully to what Roger Casale—he is no longer in his place—had to say about the SEN consortium, but the reality is that it does not glowingly endorse what the Minister is seeking to do through the prospectus. The consortium rightly says that the prospectus is a huge step forward compared with the situation when the Bill was first considered. I compliment the Minister in that regard, but there remains a real issue. What do we do about children with special educational needs who, technically, fall outside the scope of the regulations because they can walk, but who need an escort in order to walk and are not entitled to an escort in a taxi?

Although I support the policy of reducing the number of statements, such a reduction gives rise to a problem. I would love to reach the point where SEN becomes a normal part of school life, without having to single out kids through special statements. But without such statements, those children will not get the SEN and disability rights protection that this legislation provides. I hope that the Minister can deal with that issue.

Parents of children with special educational needs have real fears about bullying on the school bus run. Indeed, two parents came to see me in my constituency surgery last week to discuss this issue, with which the prospectus does not deal. There are no escorts on school buses, and unless we are going to provide them to protect such children, the problem will remain. Children with dyspraxia, autism, or sensory or physical impairments will find it difficult to deal with such situations.

Amendment No. 9 would retain the current arrangements as a benchmark for any new legislation. Amendment No. 10 deals with children who live in rural areas, an issue on which I hope the Minister can satisfy us. On reading the Hansard account of our proceedings in Committee and the Bill's accompanying guidance, there is no doubt that this is urban legislation. The needs of children in rural communities have got be considered carefully, and I hope that the Minister will accept amendment No. 10, which would ensure that parents and children in rural areas are not discriminated against.

I appreciate that amendment No. 11 deals with a difficult issue, which was considered in some detail in Committee. The Government claim that human rights legislation does not allow discrimination in respect of children who attend denominational schools, but it also says that parents should have the right to choose a school according to their religious beliefs. Indeed, through the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, the Government extended the right of other faith groups to have their own schools. It is therefore clear that this is an issue that must be deal with.

Two other aspects should be mentioned. In responding to my hon. Friend Dr. Pugh, the Minister mentioned travel arrangements for independent schools and academies. If it is Government policy to be able to choose an academy and the nearest academy is beyond the nearest school, does it not contravene and work against the arrangements made for school transport in the Bill? Secondly, if a parent chooses a specialist school situated well beyond the local school, will there be an entitlement to free travel arrangements to it?

Amendment No. 11 invites the Minister to address that problem. It deals with the circumstances where a choice of faith school is beyond the local school in the light of the fact that Government policy sometimes encourages parents to choose schools for their children that are beyond the local school. There is a real conflict in Government policy here. On the one hand, the Government offer greater choice, but on the other hand, they propose legislation that encourages children to go to the local school. I hope that the House will support my amendments.

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree 3:45 pm, 16th December 2004

I find a certain attraction in the amendments proposed by Mr. Willis, but I am a little concerned about whether they would achieve what he intends, particularly with respect to amendment No. 9. Does it relate to parents who have children in those schools at the time that the travel scheme is being put forward, or does it relate to the parents of children in those circumstances for all time? In other words, is it an attempt to preserve the status quo or something akin to it? If so, I would have greater sympathy with it.

A real question for people who represent rural or partly rural areas is how precisely to define a rural area. I envisage considerable discussion and debate taking place about whether a particular child lives in an area defined as rural. Some rural areas, of course, have substantial towns within them, where the provisions may not necessarily apply.

I believe that amendment No. 11 should secure widespread support in respect of the aspiration. I mention my own county of Essex where, dare I say it, a Conservative-controlled county council is in the process of removing free school transport to denominational schools. That has caused a considerable uproar, as one might expect. There is no obligation under present law to maintain such free school transport. Indeed, at the height of the debate, the most recent Secretary of State for Education and Skills, if I may call him that, wrote me an effusive letter, saying that all would be revealed and resolved when the new Bill was introduced, but I am not entirely certain that it does.

I have enormous sympathy with the three Liberal Democrat amendments, but if they were incorporated in the Bill, I fear that the Bill would then be as nothing. The essence of the Bill is taking money from one area and moving it over to another. Unless I am completely misunderstanding it, there is not much new money in the scheme of things, yet that would be necessary if we were to expand the concept of school transport on a free or subsidised basis.

I was a little concerned, Madam Deputy Speaker, about the remarks of Mr. Gummer. I may be too simple a soul if I read him to mean that the best way to have the fittest children would be entirely to remove school transport and let them walk to school. I am sure that that cannot possibly be Conservative party policy on these matters.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Not only could that not possibly be Conservative party policy, but the hon. Gentleman's comments could not possibly be an accurate interpretation of what I said. What I said was—I am afraid I said 20 years ago, but it should be 40 years ago—that 40 years ago, 80 per cent. of children walked to school, by comparison with 5 per cent. today. Given the known problem of obesity, I simply asked whether there could be some connection. That is a perfectly reasonable thing to say and provides no basis for the preposterous interpretation that the hon. Gentleman put on it.

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree

I am glad that the statement has been repeated, but whether the meaning has changed is another matter. One could interpret it as meaning, "Let them walk." I do not say that: I allow the right hon. Gentleman's words to bear their own interpretation.

There is considerable merit in the main theme underlying these three amendments. I do not want us to retreat from the position that we have occupied since the post-war settlement in these matters. I understand the need to be more imaginative in extending access to school transport. My worry is that we might lose what we have had for a long time, that the gains to be made will be insufficient compensation, and that there will be losers as well as winners. In their innocent way, these amendments seek to address that problem.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I rise to support that aspect of these amendments that deals with parents' ability to choose their children's education, and to address the important inconsistencies identified by Mr. Willis. The extension of specialist schools, and the Government's admirable aim of offering more choice and of reinstating in the education service some of the options that used to be available but which have been removed in recent years, open up some real problems for school transport.

It is right to say that that is part of a bigger problem. We have tended to believe that it is necessary to provide transport even in circumstances where alternatives might prove to be a better option. It is a good thing to walk short distances, and in general that should be encouraged. I am not keen on discouraging that, and people who disagree are not facing up to the reality of life today. Many schools could be more imaginative in promoting walking, such as by the use of walking bus schemes, for example. They could also try to help people to walk in circumstances that might be less safe. We should encourage that, and not make misleading comments about any suggestion that exercise might be a good thing.

When the Government talk about exercise, they find themselves in real difficulties. As a result, they do not talk about it any more. They talk only about food, but I am keen to ensure that both food and exercise are considered at the same time. I am pretty tough about such matters myself, and I declare an interest in the sense that I am very aware of the effects of food and drink in that respect. However, I also try to be energetic and to walk whenever possible, simply because it is a contribution that one can make. I do not believe that everybody should be transported everywhere, in any circumstances and over even short distances.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The right hon. Gentleman talks a lot of common sense. Is he aware of research that shows that children who walk to school, even over a relatively short distance, arrive less stressed and more ready to work, and that they are better behaved throughout the day?

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind hon. Members that they should not extend the debate into what might be deemed Second Reading territory. They should speak only to the amendments.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Thank you for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, it is difficult to restrain oneself after the very peculiar intervention made by Mr. Hurst—who, of course, does come from Essex.

We are concerned about longer distances, and the problems involved are serious. In Britain, we have arrived at a very satisfactory solution to a problem that has caused huge trouble in many other parts of the world. We have found a way to deal with parental choice in education, especially in connection with denominational schools. Many countries have not been able to achieve that solution, and it is not something to be thrown away lightly.

One looks at the secularist arguments in France and the problems there, from Jules Ferry right up to the present day. Those arguments have gone on and on, but we have managed to find a way through. That satisfactory solution, which has been further and carefully extended by the Government—I give them all honour for that—is one that I am keen we should build on.

I do not approve of the decision by local authorities to take away transport help for denominational schools. Doing that will make things extremely difficult for some parents for whom denominational schools are a vital part of how they want their children educated, which fits with the idea of choice. For many people, it is the most important choice when it comes to picking a school for their children. Those of us lucky enough to have been able to afford to make the choice for ourselves without having to look for people outside to support us are particularly obliged to make sure that choice is extended to others. It is quite wrong that this choice will be restricted to those rich enough to afford to make it and that others should be excluded. For me, this matter is crucial to a society in which there is equality of opportunity. I very much hope that the Government will think again about the possibility of taking this and one or two other amendments into the Bill.

This is not a peripheral matter. One of the things that I found difficult in dealing with Suffolk county council—a Labour-controlled council that sought to do precisely the same thing as its neighbours, so we need not think there is some party political issue here—was the peculiar argument that this is something that costs the general ratepayer money in order to give a particular choice to individuals. Yet that is the nature of freedom. We pay for it generally because we think it is important to do so. I thought that that was a hugely unhistorical way of defending the decision, and it was also extremely inelegant. A society that cares about its members does not treat people as having to stand on their own feet in all circumstances but understands that there are those who cannot do so and treats those people with the dignity that choice gives. The amendment is intended to provide that dignity and to ensure that it is not removed, which I think is vital.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that choice should also be extended to children of other families who are able, under Government-sponsored schemes, to choose schools that are not faith-based but of another category, which is now part and parcel of mainstream policy?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I do not disagree. I took the denominational example because, to a large extent, what the hon. Gentleman is proposing is an extension of the circumstances we have at the moment. I was suggesting that the first step is not to take away what we have now. I do not disagree that if we want choice, we have to recognise that for many people travel and choice are inextricably linked in education. In a constituency such as mine, we clearly could not provide choice and nearness for a large number of people. It cannot be done. People have to travel significant distances. We want variety and to give opportunity, as the Government have said they want to do, and as previous Governments have sought to do. In particular, in the denominational area, we have done that since the historic agreements of 1906 and beyond. If we want that, we cannot ignore the transport element. There is no other way through.

Behind all the amendments is a thought from outside the educational world. I was castigated by the hon. Member for Braintree on the subject of walking, but there is the whole environmental issue. Not even the Minister would defend the record of his Government and, I would agree, of other Governments, on trying to grapple with the huge problem of the impact of transport on climate. Properly organised, school transport can make a real contribution to that. Any of us who drive in a big city know perfectly well when the school holidays begin. It is noticeable from the traffic. A lot needs to be done down that route, but we are not doing it. A lot needs to be done also in terms of collecting a number of children to go to a particular point. The alternative is often, not shared cars, but a whole series of motor cars travelling long distances. That is not a sensible answer for a Government or a nation with environmental targets to meet, which will be difficult to meet. Only last week the Government admitted that they were not reaching them. Therefore, this is one area where they should be encouraging sensible solutions.

I hope very much that the Minister will look again at the amendments and see whether he cannot come at least some way towards us in these important matters, not just because of denominational and educational freedom, choice and variety, but also because of the change in life style that we need to encourage in everything that we do.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford 4:00 pm, 16th December 2004

I am pleased to follow Mr. Gummer because I agree on two points. First, it is right to help pupils get to school. I should like to help more than we do. Secondly, I agree that we should do more to end the school run for the benefit of the environment. Although I am uncomfortable about charging as in the Bill, I recognise that that is the way to pay for the work that needs to be done to achieve those advantages. During all the stages of the Bill, no one has suggested a different way of finding the money necessary to do this work. Mr. Willis, who moved the amendment, specifically dodged my question, and said that it was a cheap point as to whether there would be more money from a different source to do this work. Charging is a necessary element of the Bill.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills

It was discourteous of me not to respond directly to the hon. Gentleman's point. Amendment No. 9 would retain what we have now. It would not cost any more to retain what we have now.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman confirms that he is saying that we want to hold what we have now, with no improvement. But I want improvements, as I have just explained, in two specific areas; to help more pupils get to school and to improve the environment.

Under the charging scheme, there will be a prospectus, schemes suggested and consultation, and entering a scheme will be voluntary. Those are the safeguards against this being an imposition on people who do not want to pay charges. Those who say what we have now we want to hold must accept that the present situation is unstable. In the past one-and-a-half hours of debate Mr. Keetch complained about his local authority's threat to take away transport to denominational schools. My hon. Friend Mr. Hurst told us that his local authority was threatening to withdraw transport to denominational schools. Anyone who has read the Library research paper on the subject knows that it refers to the full regulatory impact assessment for this Bill, noting that a growing number of LEAs have introduced school transport charges for pupils attending denominational schools, from £94 a year in Rutland to £565 a year in Windsor and Maidenhead. They also know that some LEAs have withdrawn or are consulting on complete withdrawal of home-school transport to denominational schools. It is a fantasy to think that if we stay as we are, everything will be fine. It certainly will not.

Amendments Nos. 10 and 13 deal with rurality, which pupils will be exempt from having to pay a charge and what measure will be used to decide which pupils they are. My hon. Friend the Minister will recall that I tabled an amendment in Committee that dealt with the two issues of morality and means testing. When he responds to this short debate, I should like him to confirm that the assurances that he gave me in Committee still hold and that the Government are working on amendments that will deal with those issues. I am disappointed that by the end of proceedings in the House of Commons we do not have those amendments so that I and every other hon. Member can consider whether they meet our concerns. I await my hon. Friend's response to see whether those issues will be dealt with by the time the Bill has finished its passage through Parliament.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

Mr. Kidney is wrong about this aspect of the Bill. He talks about the scheme being voluntary. However, as he said—indeed, he made my case for me—when local authorities have the chance to collect money for a service, as with denominational schools, they will quickly change their minds. If they can charge for it, they will. One cannot say that the scheme is voluntary; once it is in place, any local authority offered the scheme will start to charge. That will happen, as night follows day, and the lessons of history show that that is the case.

Mr. Hurst asked where the new money would come from, but the £200 million will, in time, come from the parents. That is my concern.

The problem with representing a large, sparsely populated and rural constituency—as I do—is that choice is very limited. The only way in which choice can be exercised by parents is by using their own transport to convey their children to a school of their choice. We have Catholic schools in the market towns, but in those areas with no Catholic high schools, provision for Catholic education is made in other schools. That provision is fairly limited, but parents who wanted to send their children to Catholic high schools would have to travel right across the county of Northumberland to the only one.

All four high schools in my constituency have specialist school status; one for sport, one for languages, one for art and one for technology. However, children living in west Northumberland could be more than 30 miles away from the nearest high school. If parents want their child to go a specialist school other than their local school, that involves using their own transport or paying for public transport; if it exists, because it is scarce and hard to find in my constituency. Even those parents who use the free school transport system will often have to drive some distance—often in 4x4 vehicles in the more isolated areas—to meet up with the school bus.

I do not want to repeat what was said on Second Reading, but I stress that I support amendment No. 1 in particular, because it would retain the status quo, which I am anxious to do. The problem is that whatever happens, the changes will be a substantial burden on lower income working families. They do not claim free school meals, because it is not in the nature of many people in rural areas to do so, so they will not get counted for help that way. Some of them have several children and the prospectus talks only about help for a fourth child, but the burden of having two or three children at school will be considerable.

I urge the Minister to remember that in many areas, families are sending children to university for the first time. That is to be welcomed, but it puts a heavy financial burden on families despite the grants that are available. If a family has one child at university and two others at school who have to pay transport costs to get to school, it will place an intolerable burden on them. That will discourage parents from sending their children into further and higher education, which would be a pity.

I urge the Minister to accept amendment No. 1—although I do not expect that he will—and to return to the status quo, so that free school transport is available, as it is essential if we are to spread further and higher education in our population.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

I have no intention of delaying a possible vote on these amendments, so I shall make only a couple of points, starting with my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Minister. Now that he has been promoted, I hope that he will be able to do even more about some of the things that we brought up in Committee.

Rurality, denominational schooling and special educational needs are covered by this group of amendments. I make no apology for talking about rurality first. As various parliamentary questions have been asked since the Committee proceedings, it would be helpful if my hon. Friend responded to the speech of my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney by telling us that he is still looking into those issues and that there will be an opportunity in the Lords to tie down exactly what we mean by rurality, especially the ongoing question of who in rural areas is eligible for help. There is now a unanimous belief that eligibility for free school meals is a wholly inappropriate way to ascertain eligibility for free school transport in rural areas, if not in urban areas. There must be a more sophisticated and comprehensive way to assess entitlement.

On denominational schooling, I thought we had received an assurance that there would be no change in the Government's intention that there should be no discrimination against those who choose to attend religious schools, subject to the fact that local education authorities have some discretion in the matter. Although in these days of new localism we have to allow some discretion, I hope that we can reinforce from the centre the view that people should not be discriminated against if they want to send their children to denominational schools, provided that it is within the admission arrangements. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassert the Government's policy.

My main point is that we should look again at special educational needs. We were pleased to follow the lead of my hon. Friend Roger Casale in Committee. He made several speeches that clarified the issue and my hon. Friend the Minister was able to respond. I have studied the letter that accompanied the prospectus, which I am sure that other members of the Committee received. It is generally welcome, especially as it seeks consensus that children with special educational needs should not be worse off under the new proposals.

Point 9 of the letter suggests that there should be no additional imposition on such children. We need to be a bit more positive than that. We must make it abundantly clear that children with special educational needs have to be protected. The letter refers to that, but we need to do more than merely ensure that they are not worse off than their able-bodied counterparts. Will my hon. Friend the Minister say something about point 9, to make it clear that children with special educational needs may, and often do, have additional requirements? They may need additional protection on journeys; we need assurances about who goes with them, as we all know what can happen if things go wrong.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will have more to say. I welcome the prospectus but we need clarification of the letter. Given the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, I hope that we can look forward to further Government amendments in the Lords so that when the Bill returns to this place the safeguards will be stronger.

Photo of Mr Huw Edwards Mr Huw Edwards Labour, Monmouth 4:15 pm, 16th December 2004

I rise to speak briefly to amendment No. 10. Mr. Willis said that this was essentially an urban Bill. Although I cannot quite agree with him, I can say, as someone who represents a very rural constituency, that school transport is vital. The fact that it is free for a high proportion of children is very significant, and I would not want measures to be introduced that would penalise those people in my constituency.

I note from the guidelines that have been issued that the Government claim that only 10 per cent. of children in England have such school transport arrangements. Although they acknowledge that the figure is 20 per cent. in Wales, the proportion is much higher than that in my constituency. For example, 40 to 50 per cent. of children at Monmouth comprehensive school use some form of school transport arrangement; either school contract buses or arrangements made with local service bus providers.

My hon. Friend the Minister will know that, in Committee, I expressed the concerns of many parents about overcrowding on those school buses. I note from the letter that he gave to members of the Committee that, following its proceedings, he has ensured that the prospectus will include an assurance that local authorities should not enter into contracts that incorporate the so-called three-for-two rule, a concession that allows local authorities to make arrangements with bus companies whereby three children under the age of 14 can sit on a double seat. The consequence is that a bus that we would regard as having 52 seats could technically take 78 or 80 people if all those sitting were under the age of 14. If we add those who stand as well, there can be gross overcrowding.

I have told the House in an Adjournment debate and during the Committee's deliberations that the buses that travel six miles up the Wye valley from Llandogo to Monmouth were grossly overcrowded when I travelled on them. To the credit of the local education authority—Monmouthshire county council—that situation has now been resolved locally. I welcome the fact that the prospectus will include the assurance that local authorities will not be able to use the three-for-two rule in any pilot area. I hope that that will lead to a national withdrawal of that rule generally, because we should not allow legalised overcrowding.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Education)

This important group of amendments tackles some of the issues at the heart of the Bill, particularly charging. On Second Reading and in Committee, we made it clear that the introduction of charging for those who live more than two or three miles from their primary or secondary school is a move away from the principle set out in the Education Act 1944 and a significant move away from the provision of free education.

Amendment No. 1, which I tabled, is an attempt to reinstate the status quo, to ensure that children who live more than two miles away from their primary school and those who live more than three miles away from their secondary school will still receive free transport. It would not prevent LEAs from trying to tackle congestion relating to children who live less than two miles away from their primary school or less than three miles away from their secondary school; it would allow LEAs the freedom to do so.

We need to recognise the fact that, when we discussed the issue in Committee, we talked about a charge of £1 a day for pupils. For a family with one child, that is about £200 during a school year, but it does not take much for the figures to multiply, depending on the number of children. A family with four children could face a bill of £800 year for sending their children to school. That is an expensive addition to housekeeping costs for many hard-working families. We must also remember that the cut-off for free school transport for protected children is fairly low, and is set at an income of about £13,000—the same as the entitlement for free school meals. In many constituencies, the average income is £24,000. At the same time, however, the Government have introduced means-tested benefits through various tax credit and child care schemes from which families who earn up to £59,000 a year can benefit. It is inconsistent to give money through some child tax credit schemes to families earning £59,000 a year while taking it away from families who may earn only a little more than £13,000 a year. We must therefore be consistent in the way in which we tackle need and people's ability to pay.

Amendment No. 13 would provide clarity about concessionary fares in the documents produced by the scheme authority. It would cover low-income families, who, while they may receive more than £14,000 a year, have below average earnings for the area. It would also cover large families, whom we discussed at an earlier stage. The scheme prospectus has been strengthened, for which I am grateful, but we need to make sure that when authorities introduce a scheme, particularly when the scheme is under consultation, they make their concessionary policies clear to families in the area. If they do not wish to extend a concessionary scheme to certain families, they should be transparent and explain why there are not prepared to do so.

Amendment No. 14 tackles the issue of special educational needs, which dominated a large part of our discussions in Committee. Indeed, it dominated Second Reading, when the previous Secretary of State gave a commitment to my hon. Friend Mr. Collins, who, in connection with children with special educational needs, asked whether he was

"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?"

Mr. Clarke said:

"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."—[Hansard, 28 October 2004; Vol. 425, c. 1609.]

I am sure that, like me, hon. Members will have interpreted that to mean that a provision would be included in the Bill that, at the very least, would protect children with a statement of special educational needs. Disappointingly, that clarification was not made in any of the Government amendments tabled on Tuesday, but the other place will have an opportunity to discuss the issue. If children have special educational needs, their parents should not be penalised through additional transport costs.

Amendment No. 14 seeks to include children with SEN in the definition of protected children, and identifies two separate categories. The first is relatively straightforward and includes children with SEN who attend the nearest suitable school. We dealt with the second category in Committee, and it is covered by paragraph (ii)(b) of the amendment. If parents choose to send a child with SEN to a school that is not the nearest suitable one, is the scheme authority required to pay their transport costs? The amendment says that it will do so if it has agreed that the child should be registered with that school. It would therefore cover statemented children and, given that the Government are trying to encourage local authorities to move away from statements, it would also cover children whose parents have reached an agreement with the LEA that a particular school, albeit not the nearest one, is the right one for them. A school, for example, may have a special unit for children with autism or hearing problems. It may not be the nearest school, but the local authority may have agreed with the parents that it is the right school, so the child should be considered a protected child, and the local authority should pay transport costs. That is important protection for children with SEN. Although the Special Educational Consortium has welcomed the strengthening of the prospectus and the comments about the transport costs of children with SEN, it, too, wants to see some of the protections on which the Minister has given assurances in the Bill, so that they are available as a statutory right, are enshrined in legislation and cannot be taken away without further primary legislation.

The definition of "mobility" in the prospectus is important. It relates not only to children who have problems with walking, but to children who, by the nature of their condition, would find travelling on a school bus a problem. When the Bill was in Committee, the Special Educational Consortium—if was not the Special Educational Consortium, it was the National Autistic Society—pointed out the problems when autistic children travel on school buses. Such children may have problems that prevent them from travelling on school buses, and as a consequence parents may incur additional costs. I am concerned that the definition of mobility is not sufficiently broad and detailed to cover those needs.

Denominational schools are important and were discussed on a number of occasions in Committee. At the moment, a discretionary scheme operates, and hon. Members have outlined those authorities that have sought to restrict or withdraw support for denominational transport and the problems that that causes.

Returning to the guidance that was published 10 years ago, a Department for Education and Skills circular states:

"many LEAs exercise the discretion afforded by Section 55" of the Education Act 1944

"to provide free transport or assistance with fares for pupils or students who attend the nearest school or college of their parent's religious denomination, even though they could have attended a non-denominational institution nearer home".

Paragraph 31 of that circular adds:

"the Secretary of State hops that LEAs will continue to think it right not to disturb well established arrangements of the kind referred to in paragraph 29".

That guidance was meant to reinforce the need to continue discretionary transport schemes, but over the past 10 years, it has been progressively ignored.

The Bill does not turn the clock back. It reiterates the guidance, but it does not provide any greater statutory protection for children who attend denominational schools. That raises the question of the power of guidance to continue to inform decisions taken by LEAs on school transport, which we touched on in the previous group of amendments. If the guidance has been progressively ignored, the prospectus, in which the Minister places great confidence, could equally become progressively ignored over the course of the next 10 years. The guidance on SEN, concessionary fares and the problems of rurality, large families and families on low income can again be progressively ignored. Mr. Kidney rightly pointed out the need for statutory protection on concessionary fares.

It is important that greater protection be included in the Bill for groups who look to concessionary fares. We should recognise that the transport costs of children with SEN should be properly covered by any scheme rules. Although the guidance in the prospectus is welcome, it is not sufficient in itself and should be in the Bill. Above all, amendment No. 1, which would reinstate the status quo, is an important measure to protect free school transport—a principle that has underpinned education for the past 60 years. With your leave, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall seek to divide the House on amendment No. 1 later.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

I agree that this group of amendments covers the set of issues that is at the heart of the Bill. I shall deal with some general points that right hon. and hon. Members raised during the debate, then discuss each of the amendments in turn.

Mr. Gummer and Mr. Willis rightly reminded us of the need to place this issue in a much broader context. I entirely agree with the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal that it isone component among several in promoting health education and healthy living. The obesity issues to which he referred, including the quality of school meals and teaching children about food as part of the curriculum, are important, but equally important are physical activity, including PE and sport in schools, which we discussed earlier this week, and the issues involved in the Bill.

I strongly agree that part of the purpose of the schemes in pilot areas will be to encourage, where suitable, more walking to school. Walking to school involves a set of issues to do with safety and security. One of the reasons why some parents do not want their children to walk to school nowadays, yet might have contemplated it 20 or 40 years ago, is the fear of what might happen in terms of criminal activity, attacks on the children and so forth. Projects such as walking buses that are pursued as part of safer routes to school programmes are to be encouraged, and I hope that they will be developed under the pilots.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough quoted the figure of £2 billion. It is worth taking the opportunity to remind the House that that is a global sum—it is not just for schools and health, but includes all concessionary travel, such as that for the elderly and disabled, and fuel duty rebates. The figure for education is about £600,000. That is still a sizeable amount of money, and I agree that it provides us with an opportunity to achieve a bigger impact. The underlying purpose of the Bill—I acknowledge and welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for that, even though he may disagree with the way in which we are proceeding—is not to cut that money. We are saying not "Let's spend less on school transport", but "There is a lot of money in the system and we want to ensure that it is spent as effectively as possible."

The hon. Gentleman, inadvertently I think, set out a good argument for what we are trying to do when he cited the example of parents having a preference for, say, a specialist school or an academy. As he knows, the entitlement does not exist under the present system unless that specialist school or academy is the nearest suitable school. One of the possibilities of the Bill is that a local authority in a pilot area might decide to provide transport on a concessionary basis for pupils going to those schools, who currently may not benefit from it. Mr. Keetch gave a good example of how scheme authorities could respond to the concern that he raised.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that this is an urban Bill. I would dispute that. In Northumberland, an example of a rural area that was cited on Second Reading and in Committee, only 16 per cent. of pupils travel more than 3 miles to school. The Bill has potential benefits even in a very sparsely populated local authority area such as that.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:30 pm, 16th December 2004

My hon. Friend Lembit Öpik and I cannot possibly support the Bill, as together we represent the whole of Powys, the most sparsely populated local authority area in England and Wales. That area has the authority that spends most per pupil on school transport and, according to a GMB survey, the smallest average income. One can imagine the effect that any proposals that undermine the present system would have on people living a long way from schools, but with incomes of just over the £14,000 limit.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

We have deliberately taken the voluntary approach so that pilot authorities volunteer. I do not want to make presumptions, but perhaps it would be inappropriate for Powys to volunteer, or perhaps the Bill will help some parts of the county but not others. I conceded that in Committee when Mr. Atkinson made similar points about Northumberland, although I have provided figures that suggest that the Bill may be relevant even there.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

In a sense, the figures mislead. In Northumberland, two thirds of the population live in one small corner of the county while the other third lives in the vast remainder. That third lives in isolated and sparsely populated communities.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

That is correct. The hon. Gentleman will recall that we had exchanges about that in Committee, where an amendment was tabled to apply every scheme to an entire LEA area. I made the point that we did not want to place that requirement on LEAs because circumstances in a county or LEA area can vary in the way that he described. We wanted to ensure flexibility.

Let me consider the amendments in order. The first is amendment No. 9, which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough tabled.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The Minister mentioned £600 million of state investment to subsidise school transport. Nothing guarantees that such investment will continue once the Bill is enacted.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave a guarantee on Second Reading—I gave the same guarantee in response to probing amendments in Committee—that we would not approve pilot schemes that are simply about cost cutting. We want the pilot schemes to fulfil the purposes that we have set out in the Bill and the prospectus. The aim is, first and foremost, to encourage a shift away from the school run to greater use of buses, and walking and cycling. We will not support schemes that are designed simply to cut costs locally because that would have the opposite effect from the outcome that we support. The Liberal Democrats support that, too. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that a moment ago.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I accept the point that schemes that are simply about cost cutting will not be accepted. However, the effect of the schemes may be that costs are cut.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

I do not believe that it will be possible for a scheme to have even an unintended consequence of cutting costs. The moneys that are raised through any charging scheme have to be spent on the purposes that the Bill and the prospectus set out. If the money is used as the hon. Gentleman suggests, the effect will not be achieved. I fear that we are straying slightly beyond the amendment and I might get into trouble. I also want to do justice to all the amendments and I shall therefore try to make progress and respond to each of the amendments.

Amendment No. 9 would maintain the current entitlement to school transport of any child who lives more than two miles away from a primary school and three miles from a secondary school. It would also prevent scheme authorities from removing the existing entitlement to free transport of a child in special education. In essence, the amendment seeks to introduce a transitional period during which pupils who currently get transport continue to have it free of charge, with pilot LEAs charging only new pupils entering primary, secondary or special schools for the first time. The way in which the amendment is drafted makes it unlikely that it would achieve this, but that is clearly what it seeks to do.

We have given a great deal of consideration to the matter. We recognise that changes introduced in the course of a pupil's education, midway through their time at school, might cause some difficulty. We also recognise the valid point made by my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody, who is present, when the Transport Committee considered the draft Bill, that the urgent problems associated with school transport need addressing sooner rather than later. The Committee criticised us for not moving quickly enough on the measure.

To delay the introduction of affordable fares might undermine the economics of a scheme and make an otherwise excellent proposal unviable. In another authority, it might be possible and desirable to phase in the introduction of affordable fares. In our discussions with LEAs, some have said that, if approved, they would want their scheme to be fully operational from the start. Others have stated that they would prefer the sort of interim arrangements that the amendment suggests. It is important to remember that schemes will be introduced only following wide local consultation. If, thereafter, an LEA wishes to phase in its arrangements, and the finances stack up, the transitional arrangements envisaged in the amendment could indeed be put in place. If there is local support for a less gradualist approach, LEAs will be able to implement full-blown travel schemes from the outset. We believe that given the overall approach of the Bill, and the safeguard of local consultation, this is the right balance—to let the decision be taken locally, according to local circumstances.

Amendment No. 1, tabled by Mr. Hoban on behalf of the official Opposition, would remove from the proposed schedule paragraph 4, which gives scheme authorities the power to charge for transport or travel assistance provided under their schemes, except in the case of protected children, and paragraph 5, which provides a mechanism for recovering those charges as a civil debt.

That would remove from local authorities the capacity to distribute the subsidy for home-to-school transport according to local priorities. The amendment would not affect paragraphs 6 and 7 of the schedule, which provide that if a scheme gives rise to the need to incur expenditure in order for a child to take advantage of anything provided under it, children who fall within the definition of "protected child" in paragraph 7 will have that expenditure met by the scheme authority.

It is worth reminding ourselves that, under the current system, only a small minority of pupils receive free or assisted home-to-school transport. As we have been reminded in the debate, a joint survey undertaken by the Department, ConfEd and the National Audit Office last summer suggested a proportion of 10 per cent.—about 700,000 pupils—although in Wales, as we were reminded by my hon. Friend Mr. Edwards, the proportion is higher, at about 20 per cent.

As such a relatively low proportion of pupils receive free or assisted transport, large numbers of families already have to pay for buses or taxis to get their children to school. The national travel survey records a pretty constant statistic of 20 per cent. of pupils taking the bus to school in England and 30 per cent. in Wales, suggesting that as many families currently pay for school transport as receive free or assisted transport from their LEA.

We have conducted recent research that suggests that parents on lower incomes are more likely to have to pay for their children's travel to school than those on higher incomes. The same research shows that two thirds of children who catch the bus have to pay more than £7 each per week to get to school—£300 per year. The large subsidy provided for home-to-school transport is given according to distance criteria rather than ability to pay. In other words, the current system fails to address issues of equity and fairness adequately.

I want to make it clear that although the Bill would allow local education authorities to choose to make small charges for school travel if they felt that that was required, there will be no compulsion to do so. Furthermore, any plans to charge parents would need to be made strictly according to ability to pay, with an expectation that charges would be at a level that would not lead to a shift from bus to car use. I reiterate the comments made on Second Reading by my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills—who is now the Home Secretary—that bus fares will remain heavily subsidised.

The Bill aims to give local authorities flexibility in targeting the overall subsidy for school transport more equitably and according to local priorities. We recognise that the introduction of charges may lead to some parents shifting from bus to car use. However, in targeting the existing subsidy, and any additional revenue, on a larger proportion of the school population than currently receive free and assisted transport, the net effect is expected to be a decrease in the number of pupils travelling by car, with corresponding increases in walking, cycling and bus usage.

All pupils in England eligible for free school meals who go to their nearest suitable school would continue to get free school transport where provided by the LEA, regardless of how far they live from their school.

To summarise, the small charges that may be introduced in scheme areas, coupled with the existing large subsidy for home-to-school transport, will provide revenue for improved, extended and better focused transport services for pupils.

I shall now move on to the other amendments that address some of the specific concerns that emerged on Second Reading and in Committee, starting with amendment No. 10, on rurality.

The amendment seeks to prevent LEAs from discriminating financially against parents and children in rural areas. It does not define "rural areas", nor does it define "financial discrimination". The meanings are sufficiently vague and uncertain in legal terms to make the provision unenforceable. The amendment would leave scheme authorities uncertain about what their charging policies should be. They would also be uncertain where their scheme covered what might be termed "rural" and "non-rural" areas, which are not defined, as my hon. Friend Mr. Hurst pointed out to the House. Equally, the amendment would leave uncertainty for the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales about whether schemes submitted to them could be approved.

As we have said, current school transport arrangements cater only for a small minority of people. On Second Reading and in Committee, we heard a number of examples of villages that are up to 2.9 miles—just below the criterion of 3 miles—from their nearest school, where pupils must currently make their own way along narrow country lanes because no school bus is provided. We have heard of communities split down the middle by the three-mile limit, with pupils living in low-income estates happening to be just inside the 3-mile limit and therefore receiving no assistance. Recently, my Department published research that suggests that the fares of nearly two thirds of pupils who currently travel to school by bus or taxi are met by their parents, not by the local education authority. We are seeking to address the needs of those pupils through this legislation and the piloting procedures that we are following.

I am aware that I am up against the clock, and I want to move on to the remaining important amendments. Amendment No. 13 sets out a number of changes to the category of protected child for larger families, in terms of family income, and for those whose current transport costs are covered by a discretionary fare scheme. The first point is that concessionary schemes stem from transport rather than education legislation. Outside London, the passenger transport executives and local authorities have discretionary powers under section 93 of the Transport Act 1985 to offer concessionary travel for young people in full-time education. There is a range of provision for school-age children and young people, usually covering journeys in general, not just the home-to-school journey, and in some cases concessions will cover travel by train, tram, metro and ferry, as well as bus.

In the shires, decisions on concessionary fares are made by unitary and district councils, whereas in metropolitan areas, passenger transport executives make the decisions. In London, children's fares are set by Transport for London, and discounts are available for young people up to their 18th birthday. Currently, children under 11 travel free, and the Mayor intends to extend that to under-16s next year.

I hope that that brief explanation has demonstrated the great variety in concessionary fare arrangements around the country. In many cases, they are either set on a commercial basis or decided by transport authorities in a way that caters for transport generally rather than focusing on the school run. As we know, the Bill will allow local education authorities to make charges, but provides that where a child is protected, travel must be free. Where the child is not protected, we anticipate that LEAs will continue to charge pupils for whom they provide transport now, where there is no statutory requirement to do so, and make small affordable charges for transport provided to pupils who at present receive free school transport. The prospectus requires LEAs to set out their charging policies, making it clear how many pupils will be charged, in what circumstances and how much. Charges need to be affordable and pitched at a level that does not produce an increase in car journeys to school.

My hon. Friend Mr. Kidney raised again today the important issue that he raised in Committee. I very much understand his disappointment that there are not Government amendments on the issue. The reason is that we are still undertaking detailed work on the issue, to see whether we can achieve a broader protected child category that can be adopted in a realistic way in the terms of the legislation as set out. I expect that we will be able to return to the matter in the other place. I acknowledge that that is not ideal, and I would have preferred to bring the issue back to the House today, but it is vital that we get it right if we are to provide the kind of protection for poorer families that those who debated this in Committee were keen that we should provide. We have of course sought to use the prospectus to do that.

It is highly unlikely that concessionary fares would differentiate between children in differently sized families, as there is no mechanism for that to be done cost-effectively. As has been said, through the prospectus we encourage local education authorities to consider offering lower or indeed no charges to families containing four or more siblings attending school.

The second category of pupil referred to in the amendment is that of children who are not "protected", but are drawn from families with below-average incomes for the authority's area. There are a number of difficulties. First, there is no mechanism for LEAs to obtain income details for families in their area, so it would be difficult to determine the average family income.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Education) 4:45 pm, 16th December 2004

I am sure the Minister is aware that those data are already collected by the Government, and are available through the Office for National Statistics.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills)

I shall be happy to look into that. I think there are problems over data sharing, but we have had discussions with colleagues in the ONS and the Department for Work and Pensions to establish whether we could provide the information in a way that would help local authorities.

The second difficulty is that a family's needs obviously depend to an extent on family size. Larger families will need more income to sustain the same standard of living as smaller families, and it seems unfair to penalise them by looking only at average family income. Thirdly, average incomes vary considerably from place to place. The greatest concentrations of poverty are in the inner cities, while many rural areas are relatively affluent.

The last category mentioned was that of children whose current transport costs are covered by a discretionary fare scheme. I assume that the hon. Member for Fareham is referring to children travelling to denominational schools, to schools within the statutory walking distances, or to other schools that are not the "nearest suitable" for which the LEA makes discretionary travel arrangements. I can see that there are good arguments for including information about the charges they currently bear and what charges will be in scheme applications in future, and I will amend the prospectus to achieve that.

In the short time that I have left, let me say something about the important issue of children with special educational needs and disabilities. Amendment No. 14 seeks to include a limited proportion of children with a special educational need or a disability in the definition of "protected child". Those included would be pupils who, because of their SEN or disability, were unable to use transport ordinarily available to children without that SEN or disability and were attending their nearest suitable school, or another school where it had been agreed with the scheme authority that they should be registered as a consequence of their need.

In Committee we had some very constructive discussions on the provision of transport for pupils with SEN and/or disabilities. At that stage, I undertook to look carefully at the position of such children. I think there was a helpful consensus among Members that parents of pupils with SEN should not be placed in a worse position than parents of pupils whose children made their own way to their local schools on foot, by bicycle or on the bus. The Committee also agreed that any charges made for transporting pupils with special educational needs or mobility problems must take into account families' ability to pay.

In response to the hon. Gentleman's challenge, I want to explain what we have done following the comments of my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State on Second Reading. Officials in the Department have had, and continue to have, helpful discussions with the Special Educational Consortium and other groups that speak for children with SEN. I am grateful for the consortium's constructive approach, and for the time and trouble it has taken to explore a broad range of options with us.

After careful consideration of the points made by the consortium and others, I have decided to set out our policy for pupils with SEN and mobility problems in the prospectus, which of course will be referred to in the Bill as a result of a late amendment that I tabled.

LEAs will need to include their policy on providing transport for pupils with SEN in their scheme applications. We will not approve schemes unless they protect pupils with SEN or mobility problems from charges that would be additional to those accruing to the parents of pupils of the same age, in the area in which they reside, where special arrangements have to be made by reason of their disability or special educational need.

I want to respond to two specific points. Mr. Hoban made a very reasonable point about the definition of mobility, and I undertake to consider whether we can strengthen and clarify the prospectus in the way he suggested. I will reply to him in due course. My hon. Friend Mr. Drew expressed disappointment, saying that we were simply talking about protecting parents and pupils from the additional costs that might arise in respect of children with special educational needs. I can assure him that our ongoing discussion with the consortium and other groups focuses on that issue, and he is doubtless right in saying that we will return to it when the Bill goes to the other place.

The approach that I have set out meets many of the concerns expressed by the SEC. It does not extend free or subsidised transport to every SEN pupil who does not attend their nearest suitable school because we want the provision of such transport to continue to be at the discretion of local education authorities.

In some respects, the approach that I have outlined goes further than amendment No. 14. It protects pupils who are unable to walk or cycle to school, along with their peers, from charges in cases where they require transport. However, the amendment offers protection to such children only in cases where transport is normally available to their peers. In addition, there are some practical difficulties with the amendment as drafted. For example, it refers to a comparator group of pupils provided with transport. In practice, therefore, pupils who live close to their school, and whose comparator group were walking or cycling, might have to pay a contribution to the transport, while those living further away, and whose comparator group were entitled to transport, would be protected from charges.

I am grateful to the House for allowing me to set out in some detail the Government's response to the amendments. As has been said, these issues are at the very heart of the Bill. Through the existing prospectus, we have been able to respond to the many legitimate concerns that were expressed in all parts of the House and by a number of pressure groups. We are almost there but further work is required, which is why dialogue is ongoing. We will return to the issues of SEN and low-income families in particular when the Bill goes to the other place. However, the progress made merits the support of Members in all parts of the House, so I urge the Liberal Democrats to withdraw their amendment.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills

I thank the Minister for the courteous and detailed way in which he has responded to the debate. This group of amendments goes to the heart of the issue, which is providing guarantees for children with special educational needs, and for children who attend schools that are a product of choice, such as denominational schools, as a result of Government policy. There is also the question of how to guarantee school places for children who live in rural areas, and whose parents are on relatively low incomes, without shifting the burden.

Despite the Minister's assurances, the prospectus has proved to be a moveable feast, even during the course of this afternoon's debate. In a sense, that is to be welcomed, because it shows that he is listening and responding to the debate. But he has also made it clear that we are no longer talking about pilots; rather, school transport will be subject to wholesale change. As amendment No. 9 makes clear, we want to keep the existing arrangements in place until the pilots are seen to work effectively. Imposing such change beforehand is unacceptable and a cause of sadness, so with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we will press the amendment to a vote.

I was disappointed at the Minister's dismissing the issue of rurality. The legality of the prospectus is very dubious in this regard, and it would have to be tested in the courts, or by the Department itself. It is a pity that the Minister has taken this view, because there is growing resentment among people in rural areas, who feel that the Government's social policy is focused on urban areas. This was a good opportunity to deal with that issue.

The issue that we continue to feel strongly about— I hope that there will be other votes on amendments in the group—is denominational schools. It is not feasible for the Government to claim that they have a policy to support denominational schools, as well as academies and specialist schools, and want to expand them, without guaranteeing young people access to those schools relatively free of charge—

It being Five o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker, put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [28 October].

The House divided: Ayes 147, Noes 233.

Division number 20

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 1, in page 2, leave out lines 32 to 39.—[Mr. Hoban]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 139, Noes 230.

Division number 21

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendments made:

No. 19, in page 3, line 21, leave out 'powers' and insert 'power of amendment'.

No. 20, in page 3, line 21, leave out 'are' and insert 'is'.

No. 21, in page 3, line 23, leave out 'a' and insert 'the'.

No. 22, in page 3, line 24, after 'power', insert 'of amendment'.

No. 23, in page 3, line 27, leave out 'a' and insert 'the'.

No. 24, in page 3, line 27, after 'power', insert 'of amendment'.

No. 5, in page 3, line 30, leave out 'or revocation'.

No. 25, in page 3, line 33, leave out paragraph 10.

No. 26, in page 3, line 42, at end insert—

11A—(1) The appropriate national authority shall issue, and may from time to time revise—

(a) guidance as to the matters which the authority will take into account in exercising its power under paragraph 8(1) or 9(2), and

(b) guidance with respect to the discharge by a local education authority of functions under this Schedule.

(2) It shall be the duty of a local education authority when exercising functions under this Schedule to have regard to any relevant guidance under sub-paragraph (1)(b).

(3) The appropriate national authority shall publish the guidance for the time being in force under sub-paragraph (1).'.—[Mr. Jim Murphy]