HC Deb 01 July 2004 vol 423 cc417-9
1. Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD)

If he will make a statement on progress on the draft School Transport Bill. [181592]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) on his promotion. In politics, I never like to say, "I told you so", but when the Opposition tried to join the portfolios, one or two of us argued that the wheels would come unstuck. I am delighted that the Leader of the Opposition in his wisdom has acknowledged that and appointed the hon. Gentleman.

In answer to the question, we shall announce a decision on the Bill once we have examined the report of the Select Committee on Transport. which we have, and that of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, which we hope to receive shortly, and after consultation with colleagues.

Nick Harvey

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Although there is widespread support for the Bill's overall objectives, does he realise that there is widespread opposition to the specific proposal to end the automatic right to free school transport? In the south-west alone, 86,000 pupils have free transport and there is alarm about the implications of such provision becoming a discretionary rather than a mandatory duty for local authorities. Given the widespread opposition to that, will the right hon. Gentleman withdraw the Bill and find another way of achieving its general objectives?

Mr. Clarke

No, I will not. It is a draft Bill, which has yet to be introduced and cannot I her More be withdrawn. I know about the massive Liberal Democrat mudslinging campaign on the Bill—it is based on no substance. It is extraordinary that the Liberal Democrats oppose a measure that liberates local education authorities to decide what do only if they wish to do so—I thought that the Liberal Democrats would support that. I am surprised that a party that purports to be green opposes a measure that is designed to reduce the school run and traffic. The attitude of Liberal Democrats is extraordinary. Perhaps it is worth noting that Liberal Democrats in local government—like Conservatives in local government—strongly support the Bill.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab)

The House should welcome measures that introduce a range of different ways to get children safely to school. I want to focus on safety. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the methods of transport chosen in each local area fulfil the highest safety standards to avoid the sort of accident that sadly occurred in my constituency, where a child was seriously injured? Will he ensure that mechanisms monitor and secure the highest safety standards for all our children?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is correct. We are introducing the Bill precisely to find better ways to transport children to school. My hon. Friend is right that safety must be the paramount consideration for young children who travel, and it will be a central element of any scheme that we operate. I know about her work on the subject and I pay tribute to her.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP)

I have every confidence in the good sense of those at local level to make the right decisions when the time comes. However, given the hazards to children, especially those who have to walk to school in rural areas, will the Secretary of State try to facilitate parents whose children do not qualify for free transport? Will he afford them an opportunity to pay for their children's transport on the school bus that passes their homes?

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman makes his point clearly. We are introducing the Bill precisely to give local authorities the flexibility, after consultation, to make the sort of judgment that he suggests. We want to give local authorities the right to weigh up safety issues, examine travel patterns and form a view. That is why the Local Government Association—Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour members—said, "Thank goodness; here is a proposal to try to make some progress." The rubbish-mongering of Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front-Bench Members is extraordinary. They are essentially telling untruths about the proposals.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)

The Government are a great advocate for extending parental choice but under existing rules and regulations, the only genuine choice is for parents who have the use of a car to transport their children to school. Is it one of the draft Bill's objectives to extend choice by building up a better public service network for parents who do not have cars to send their children to the school that they choose?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At the moment, far too many parents do not have a realistic choice as to whether to transport their child to school by public transport, by car or whatever. We want to encourage, through our work with local government, projects and approaches that will achieve precisely what he suggests, so that people can have a real choice between travelling by public transport or walking or cycling to school rather than going by car in the numbers that they do now. I am amazed that this approach is not being supported by the Opposition parties; it should be supported right across the House.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con)

The Secretary of State will be aware how vital and valued school transport is in rural areas. Will he take on board the concerns of the parents and teachers at Brereton school in my constituency about the category of vehicles being used at present? The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) is quite right to say that safety is vital when transporting young children, and proper seat belts, not just lap belts, are essential. Will the right hon. Gentleman take on board those views when he considers these matters?

Mr. Clarke

I certainly will. Perhaps the hon. Lady could let me have details of the particular points raised by the school that she mentioned, with which I am not familiar. I would be happy to take them on board. She began by saying, quite rightly, that people value the chance to have a bus to take their child to school. The truth is, however, that only some parents have that chance at the moment. I should have thought that we should extend that choice more widely.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)

When my right hon. Friend makes any announcements next week, will he take into account how important it is to enable children to go to a local school of high quality, so that they can walk there?

Mr. Clarke

I completely agree with that, without any qualification. That is what I did throughout my life, and it is the right way to proceed. As my hon. Friend knows, the way to achieve that is to raise the standards of schools so that people can have confidence in the quality of their local school. That is precisely what our policies are about, and that is what we have been achieving.

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