Clause 4 - Power to exclude scheme services from registration requirements

School Transport Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 11th November 2004.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I take this opportunity to ask the Under-Secretary of State for Transport a few questions about clause 4, because the explanatory notes are succinct about the Government's intentions. They say nothing about how the Government plan to use the powers that they are seeking in the clause.

We know that section 6 of the Transport Act 1985 is an important section. I remember serving on the Standing Committee that considered that piece of legislation. The Government say that they wish to take the power to disapply that provision. There should be some explanation about why they want to do that and the circumstances in which they intend to do it. Most importantly, we should ensure that there is proper consultation before they do it. None of that is currently provided for in the Bill.

What is the purpose of the power to exclude? Section 6 includes important safeguards. Important issues of competition could arise if a school bus service could stop at registered bus stops and collect fare-paying passengers. Important issues are protected by section 6. That is to ensure that there is stability of service, so that it cannot be put on one month and taken off the next week, and that vehicles that are used in the service should be of a particular quality. We know also that, if public service vehicles operate an ordinary bus service and are registered under section 6, they are entitled to the fuel duty rebate. That is a big issue and arguably one of the reasons why much of school transport is not economic. One way in which it could be made more economic would be to give it access to the fuel duty rebate that is available to public services.

Will the Minister explain the Government's intentions, as well as the interaction between the access to the fuel duty rebate and any derogation from the powers under section 6 that they have in mind? Why is the provision limited only to school travel scheme pilots, not all school transport? If the Under-Secretary of State for Transport is to respond to this debate, I hope that she will do so in the radical way that I would expect of someone who served on Wandsworth council, albeit as an opposition Labour councillor. Three members of the Committee have had the privilege of serving on Wandsworth council: the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and me.

It is part of that council's tradition that its members should be forward-looking and radical in their approach. In that spirit, will the hon. Lady think about something that was mentioned at a conference last week or the week before at which we both had the privilege of speaking. It was asked whether something could be done to enable drivers to make a small charge for passengers in car-sharing arrangements. That

could have a radical impact on the school run. At present, anyone who is entitled to free transport, especially taxi transport, exercises that right and the cost falls four square on the council.

Let us suppose that the person next door takes his child to school in the car. For a modest sum, he might be willing to take the pupil from next door in the car, too, thereby reducing the congestion on the roads and ensuring that better use is made of the fuel that is used in the school run. If the Government are in the business of taking powers to modify the Transport Act 1985, which is what clause 4 will do, why are they not thinking radically about facilitating or promoting car sharing and enabling drivers to make a modest charge when they consider that appropriate?

The school run sharing in which we, as a family, have been involved depends on reciprocity, on the basis that one family does the school run for one week while another family will do the next week, and so on. It is a little like baby-sitting circles. In today's modern society, however, many families do not have the ability to take their children to school using their cars. It is all give on one side, and all take on the other. If there were the ability to make a modest charge, fairness and an incentive could be introduced to make people share the journey to school more than they do at present. When one stands at the school gate, it is amazing how many children arrive on their own in a car that is driven by a single adult. Surely we can do better than that. If we are in the business of school transport pilots, cannot we think radically in the great Wandsworth tradition and extend them in the way in which I have suggested?

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 3:15 pm, 11th November 2004

There is no problem about car sharing. The existing law allows it, as long as it is not about profit or being run as a business. There is no reason why neighbours cannot share a car. In the radical tradition of Wandsworth, that could have been done many years ago.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

At the conference the hon. Lady and I had a chance to respond to the point, but neither of us was able to explain to the questioner why there are many constraints on people being able to charge someone to have a child or somebody else in their car as a passenger. There are insurance and other legal constraints on doing that. People can share, but are not able under the law to give the space in their car in return for a fee.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Normal car sharing is allowed for a fee that helps compensate its owner for depreciation and wear and tear. There may be other issues, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman about children in cars, in terms of protection and so on, and I am sure that we can clear up the matter. I understand that car sharing is allowed under current legislation, and many local authorities are introducing innovative schemes involving car sharing and lanes for cars with more than one occupant. That is already on the cards and is part of our bids to ensure that we reduce congestion as much as possible.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

May I press the Minister a little bit further? One suggestion made in rural Northumberland, where people travel

considerable distances to school, was that the education authority should give some money to a parent to provide a daily service using a car, but it prompted an enormous amount of complications because a profit motive was being introduced into the deal and apparently it was not possible to proceed. However, that would be a good solution, too.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Clearly, profit is the issue. There are relevant situations. For example, volunteers drive patients to hospital, and such arrangements exist perfectly adequately. However, we will consider the matter raised by the hon. Member for Christchurch and ensure that the Committee is fully informed well before consideration on Report.

The hon. Member for Christchurch referred to the fuel duty rebate, but I am informed that the Bill will have no impact on that. The clause proposes that school transport schemes should not have to be registered. Hon. Members will understand that the registration of local bus services outside London is a form of consumer protection and that operators have to run advertised services. A service contracted by the LEA is an arrangement between the LEA and pupils and although some paying passengers might use the service, the advice we were given was that where pupils pay to use the bus—as in the vacant seat scheme—it would bring school transport under the need to register.

We do not believe that it is appropriate for a school bus service that is not generally available to the public to be registered. Registration requires 56 days' notice of any change in the service, route or timetable. That is clearly desirable for services that are open to the public and timetabled, but it can be overly restrictive for dedicated school transport. For example, one pupil who is usually picked up from a farm may no longer need to be collected because they have left the school. It would be crazy to make a detour not to collect that pupil and have to give 56 days notice of that change of route.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Education)

We should bear in mind the Minister's remarks on a previous group of amendments about the need for stability in schemes, because people base their school choices on existing modes of transport and available routes. Is there not a risk that if we do what she has outlined children who have decided to go to school X on the basis that it is on a bus route provided by the local authority could be disadvantaged because no notice had been given of a change in route?

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

We do not believe that this sort of service should require 56 days' notice, although parents will clearly have to be given notice.

It was asked why the Department for Transport has not considered the generality of the situation, rather than just the school travel schemes. The Department is preparing proposals by means of a regulatory reform order that will make this a change for school bus services in general rather than travel schemes alone. In the meantime, this clause is related only to school travel schemes, not to all school travel.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

We have had an interesting exchange. My reading of section 6 of the Transport Act 1985 is that if the Government were to want to legislate to change notice times to fewer than 56 days in relation to school transport schemes, which otherwise have to be registered under that section, they could do that under proposed new paragraph (9), so this power would not be needed to achieve that.

I made a point about the fuel duty rebate. Many people, particularly in rural areas, feel that it is unfair—and bad and unnecessary in terms of the environment—that the dedicated school bus goes by with subsidised passengers on board and that ordinary people who pay their council tax cannot gain access to it even if they are prepared to pay a fare.

If more school bus services were registered services under the Transport Act, my understanding is that they would then be able to qualify for the fuel duty rebate, because that is payable in respect of all bus services that are registered. One way of being more radical about this would be to encourage more school transport services to qualify for the rebate. Perhaps, however, that is not the Government's intention. It would be a sensible strategy to make the rebate subsidy available for further forms of public transport, but at the moment it is not. I do not understand why the Government wish to exclude from the provisions of section 6 of the Transport Act services that would otherwise have to be registered because they would be able to collect fare-paying passengers and thereby qualify for the fuel duty rebate. The argument about the need for flexibility and the rigidity of the 56 days' notice is not an answer to that point, because that point is already covered by the regulation-making power in the 1985 Act.

The Government need to think a bit more about what their agenda is and about the need for people in rural areas to get access to good bus services. Why should not someone who wishes to go to work—at the school itself, perhaps, or nearby—be able to board a bus with vacant seats as a fare-paying passenger, as part of a radical reappraisal of journeys to work and school?

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

As I understand it, the eligibility for fuel duty rebate is not related to the need to register. It is related to carrying the general public. The only services that we are proposing to exclude are the ones not used by the general public, and they have never been eligible. The premise on which that radical solution is proposed does not hold.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 5 and 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.