§ (First Day)
§ Monday, 7 March 2005.
§ The Committee met at half past three of the clock.
§ [The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Thomas of Walliswood) in the Chair.]
§ The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Thomas of Walliswood)
Before I put the Question that the Title be postponed, perhaps I may remind your Lordships of two points of procedure. Noble Lords will speak standing and the House has agreed that there shall be no Divisions in the Grand Committee. Unless, therefore, an amendment is likely to be agreed to, it should be withdrawn. If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, this Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and will resume after 10 minutes.
Clause 1 [School travel schemes]:
§ Lord Hanningfield
moved Amendment No. 1:Page 1, line 15, leave out "or any partThe noble Lord said: Before I begin I should say that it is a pleasure again to be facing Ministers, particularly my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, on the scrutiny of another piece of legislation, which is small but important. It seems strange that in a few weeks time we shall be changing sides and that it might be the last time that we are on these sides—who knows?
This is a probing amendment which goes to the heart of one of the important issues in the Bill, regarding the pilots, the size of the area that they cover and the criteria used to determine what falls within and without them. If a scheme is based on the location of parents, I am concerned that a situation might arise in which some pupils at a school received free transport and others did not. Will that constitute discrimination against the parents who did not receive free school transport?
If a scheme is based on the location of schools, who will decide which schools are in or out of the pilot area and what will be the impact on the schools which are without and within the pilot areas? Which areas will a pilot cover if it applies to only a part of a county, for example? In urban-dominated LEAs, where most children live within three miles of a secondary school, a school transport scheme would be of interest in terms of its effects on urban traffic congestion, but it might not give any indication as to the impact of such a scheme on a more rural area of a county.
184GC Furthermore, in LEAs where there is little movement between schools, little evidence would be gained from a pilot on the impact of charging on school choice. It is easy to monitor the effects of a partial scheme in a small area and the benefits that will be gained from it. Alternatively, one might examine areas in which there is more variety of school choice—for example, when there are both rural and urban parts in the same scheme.
Local authorities will need guidance from the department and the Welsh Assembly as to what should comprise a partial pilot scheme area. In some LEAs, a pilot scheme that covered only part of an area would be highly inappropriate.
I hope that the Minister can shed some light on this matter. As I said, this is a probing amendment and I would be interested to hear his comments. I beg to move.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Filkin)
I thank the noble Lord for his kind words about us meeting here yet again. It seems like only last week that we were meeting here to discuss a Bill. I am also impressed by his optimism.
I recognise that this is a probing amendment which addresses whether schemes should cover a whole area or could apply to part of an area. Although we will be keen to receive applications from authorities proposing authority-wide schemes, we want authorities to have the flexibility to develop the best pilot schemes that they can for their particular area.
The Bill is deregulatory and is intended to provide flexibility for LEAs to design pilot schemes that best suit the particular local needs. During consultation, a number of local authorities suggested that some larger authorities might wish to develop schemes which addressed issues in a limited geographical area with particular problems. They would wish to maintain the existing arrangements in other parts of their authority, where issues were different or where current arrangements were working reasonably well.
When I was looking into this Bill, it struck me, for example, that an authority such as Kent, which is probably one of the largest geographic areas and has one of the largest populations, might well wish to develop a scheme to cover the whole area. However, the burden is very different in terms of the thoroughness and consultation required for a population of a million, or for almost 250,000 pupils, from that required for a much smaller authority. Therefore, we were persuaded that there was good reason why the provision should be in the Bill.
The Bill would allow local authorities to take the action if they wished. We are not saying that they should or should not take advantage of it; they should be allowed the opportunity. Amendment No. 1—granted, it is probing—would restrict large authorities particularly, and might be seen as slightly discriminatory against them. As to the basis for the part-pilot—whether it should be parental address or school address—it is likely to be both parental address and school attended. It could 185GC not cater for cross-boundary flows. I agree that we will need to put into guidance how such partial schemes would be dealt with, so that authorities understood it clearly.
I hope that that is helpful. If a little more information would help, I would be delighted to write to the noble Lord.
§ Lord Hanningfield
The Minister did not mention parental choice at all. At the moment, transport is provided to the nearest appropriate school. I think that everyone—certainly those of us in opposition—wants to give more parental choice. The Government say that they want to as well. At the moment, that obviously involves charging people for parental choice, which I mentioned when I moved the amendment. Does the Minister have any comment on how parental choice will affect such a pilot scheme?
§ Lord Filkin
We will deal with parental choice throughout the amendments. The position on it would be no different in respect of a partial scheme than in respect of a total authority scheme. That is not a defining characteristic in terms of this aspect of partial or total schemes. Transport will continue to be provided to the nearest school, and the option is to cater for parental choice in pilots.
§ Lord Hanningfield
If local authorities are to pursue the pilots, they might want to begin to consider that parental choice be part of the scheme. I know that we shall deal with it in various parts of the Bill. The point that I made when I moved the amendment was that you could have a school with all the variations—some free transport, some use of a pilot scheme and some parental choice. Therefore, there would be a lot of different regimes in the same school. Does the Minister think that appropriate? It obviously could be part of such schemes.
§ Lord Filkin
The noble Lord is right that that could take place. It is one of the consequences of allowing authorities to run part-authority schemes. We do not expect that that will necessarily be the preference for most local authorities. For the reasons I gave, it would be wrong not to allow that option, particularly as it would be beneficial to some large authorities. I shall reflect on what he said, and if I can add some further clarification before Report, I shall be delighted to do so.
§ Lord Hanningfield
I thank the Minister for that reply. For today, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Lord Hanningfield
moved Amendment No. 2:Page 1, line 15, at end insert—( ) Prior to making a scheme, the scheme authority will consult with interested parties including, but not limited to—
- (a) the Schools Forum,
- (b) representatives of denominational schools whose pupils might be affected by the scheme,
- (c) teachers' organisations,
- (d) representatives of special schools whose pupils might be affected by the scheme,
- (e) parent governors of schools whose children will be affected,
- (f) further education colleges,
- (g) parents whose children are already in receipt of transport provided by the scheme authority,
- (h) bus operators, and
- (i) other organisations with an interest in the education of children in the scheme area.( ) The scheme authority will publish the details of the proposed scheme and seek comments from interested parties, who will have 28 days from the date of publication of the scheme to comment.( ) The scheme authority will submit to the appropriate national body a summary of the responses to the consultation together with the scheme authority's own response to the consultation.The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 2 would require local authorities to consult admission bodies, representatives of denominational schools and a number of other bodies. It would prevent a scheme being made until those consultations had taken place. Amendment No. 6 would give the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales power to make regulations specifying the consultation process that local authorities should undertake before making a scheme application. The regulations would also provide a list of statutory consultees.
A full consultation process is vital to underpin any applications as part of the legislation. It is crucial that we achieve it, to ensure that the voice of the most vulnerable in society is heard. That is especially important as we are discussing changes to sensitive travel arrangements that could lead to additional costs being imposed on parents where children are classified as having special educational needs or attend denominational schools. for example. We must get the consultation right and, where possible, that should be reflected in the Bill.
Consultation is important because the measure will lead to significant change for many children who currently enjoy free school transport and it will impact on many children with special educational needs. There would be a huge impact on the institutions in local authority areas, such as denominational schools, special schools and schools in rural areas, with a number of people being affected.
If people feel that they could lose out as a consequence of the Bill, perhaps being charged for transport that has hitherto been free, it is important that they are consulted when the scheme is drawn up. The guidance currently available to local authorities is too brief, and that is why Amendment No. 6 fleshes out the consultation process. In its pre-legislative scrutiny report, the Select Committee on Education and Skills said:Well-run schemes should be based on wide consultation with schools as well as other stakeholders and should have secured agreement about their proposals".Amendment No. 2 sets out the range of organisations that we wish to see consulted. The local admissions forum is the perfect body for a local authority to consult 187GC because it is already set up to talk about issues such as school funding, budgets and service contracts between schools and local authorities. It is the automatic and logical focus for consultation with schools in discussing and drafting the proposed schemes.
We must also ensure that representatives of denominational schools are consulted properly. It is important to recognise that there is concern within faith groups about this legislation. In later debates on other amendments, we shall talk about some of the aspects affecting denominational schools. Many such schools are concerned that charging for school transport will reduce the choice available to parents. We must ensure that they are happy and that they understand the schemes. They have concerns not only about the impact on their schools but about the impact of charging on some of the less affluent families in our communities.
Another group will also be affected. Around two-thirds of the existing school transport budget is spent on children with special educational needs. That is a very visible part of the budget, and some local education authorities might feel that costs could he squeezed out of it through introducing these schemes. We must ensure that schools with pupils who receive free transport because of their special educational needs are part of the consultation process. The people who draw up the scheme should fully understand the impact on children who attend such schools and think carefully about the distance that they travel.
Bus operators, too, will be affected by the Bill, particularly in areas where they currently operate schemes that a local authority might seek to take over—through yellow buses, similar schemes or their own plans to provide transport for children. As many bus operators already provide transport to our schools, we must ensure that they play a part in any consultation processes.
The two new paragraphs proposed in Amendment No. 2 arise from my concern to ensure that scheme authorities carry out a proper consultation process and that time is taken over it. We suggest a period of 28 days in which people may comment. It is also important that, when a scheme comes forward to the Secretary of State for his approval, scheme authorities should have identified to him the local concerns. Before he approves the scheme, he should know what those concerns are and, more particularly, how the scheme authority has responded to them. Clearly a scheme that attracts from the local community widespread opposition which has not been fully responded to by the scheme authority is unlikely to be effective in achieving the Government's objectives.
I believe that the amendments are simple and sensible and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to them. They are about trying to ensure that the consultation process underpinning the scheme is thorough and full and that it will deliver the agreement of all the stakeholders interested in school transport. I beg to move.
§ Lord Rix
By some oversight, it seems that my Amendments Nos. 29 and 33 cover the same ground 188GC concerning appropriate consultation, although to a shorter extent. Do the Deputy Chairman of Committees and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, consider it appropriate that I group my amendments with those that we are currently discussing"
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Rix
In that case, I shall speak to Amendment No. 29. Members of the Committee will be aware that children with special educational needs and disabilities are among the main users of home to school transport services provided by local authorities, with 65 per cent of spending on school transport budgets. Therefore, this Bill is of particular concern to families of disabled children.
It is vital that proper consultation takes place before school travel schemes are introduced so that new arrangements can meet local needs effectively. I am grateful that the prospectus now makes it clear that scheme authorities need to ensure that they consult parents of disabled children. I recognise that it may be appropriate for the detail of the consultation process to be spelt out in the prospectus. However, putting the principle of consultation in the Bill would provide reassurance to families. It would also put beyond doubt that consultation is integral to the development of new school travel arrangements.
Although there is good practice, I am well aware that not all local authorities communicate with parents as well as they might. Setting up consultation mechanisms at the outset is more likely to ensure that a new culture of consultation continues subsequently. Parents are extremely worried that they will not be consulted before changes are made to the current provision of school transport for their children. Changing a disabled child's travel arrangements may have consequences for their safety, academic performance, behaviour at school and indeed their very access to education. It is vital that in piloting new arrangements, scheme authorities involve families. A duty to consult would provide much-needed reassurance.
On Amendment No. 33, I am seeking to safeguard the progress that has been made to safeguard and clarify the prospectus. I am concerned that provision for disabled children may be eroded in future, as there will doubtless be ongoing pressure on the Government to make revisions from a range of stakeholders. I welcome the fact that many of the concerns raised about the Bill in relation to disabled children have been addressed through the prospectus. In tabling the amendment, I am looking for assurance that when the Bill has been passed, any proposals to change the prospectus will be subject to full consultation in line with Cabinet Office regulations.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My name and that of my noble friend Lady Walmsley are attached to Amendment No. 36, which covers largely the same ground as the other amendments, except that we tabled it to apply after Clause 1 and, because the schedule intervenes between 189GC Clauses 1 and 2, it comes up somewhat later in the Bill. However, it is appropriate to speak to it with the other amendments, and it has been grouped with them, because it is all about consultation.
The list for consultation is contained already in the draft prospectus, where many of those listed in Amendments Nos. 2 and 36 are already listed. However, there are two significant additions. In Amendment No. 36, we ask that local councillors—district councillors, minor authority councillors and principal authority councillors—be included within the consultation. That is extremely important. I know that my husband, who is a county councillor, has been involved with the development of a transport scheme in Surrey and that he has played a seminal part in it, because he knows precisely where the schools are and what the transport problems are. Often, local councillors know that much better than do council officials—who in the case of Surrey are located in Kingston rather than in Guildford, where there has been some discussion of it operating.
The other addition that we make in our amendment comes in the form of the children themselves. Once again, it important to remember the voice of the child. Too frequently, we consult parents and assume that they are proxy for children. But, particularly when considering secondary school children but also with primary school children, the children themselves are very sensible when they are consulted. We believe it to be extremely important that children should be consulted.
We also have our names down to the two amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rix. My noble friend Lady Walmsley will be speaking later in the debate. We feel that it is extremely important that parents with children of special educational needs who currently receive transport help should be consulted in any proposed changes. Clearly, they are one of the categories that perhaps make most use of transport facilities. They need to know what is being proposed and their voices should be heard. We totally endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said.
Amendment No. 8, in my name, is on a similar subject, which I shall speak to later. As the noble Lord, Lord Rix, mentioned the prospectus and, in particular, the section on children with special educational needs, can my noble friend help me with paragraph 32 of School Travel Schemes—Prospectus, which is very unclear. I am probably being thick, but I would be grateful if my noble friend could help. Paragraph 32 states:We will only approve schemes that protect pupils with SEN and/or disabilities from any charges additional to those that apply to children of the same age living in the same area who attend their neighbourhood school, if special arrangements have to be made to accommodate a child's disability or SEN".If an SEN child needs to go to a school that is further away than the nearest one—perhaps in another borough or somewhere else—for which he gets free transport at the moment, does this change it?
§ Lord Filkin
I strongly agree in principle with the arguments made by all noble Lords that getting the 190GC consultation process right is the heart to making a good scheme. It does not mean that you get to a position where everyone agrees, but it is crucial that, before making decisions, there has been a very full engagement of all potential stakeholders, interest groups and those with views, whether they are directly affected or have interest in the issues. Of course, we will be using our powers—if I can put it that way—to ensure that only schemes that have had proper consultation will be approved by the department.
Amendments Nos. 2 and 36 list a range of individuals, bodies or groups of people that the local authority would need to consult formally before submitting its application to the relevant national body. Such a list would also result from the regulations envisaged by Amendment No. 6, which would give the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales powers to make regulations specifying the consultation process that local authorities must undertake before making an application.
The lists of consultees are essentially the same as that provided for in paragraph 14 of the prospectus accompanying the Bill. We also agree that there are a number of key consultees who must be included in the consultation process in every authority. School travel schemes must engage all local stakeholders, not least pupils and their parents, particularly parents of pupils who currently have transport provided by the local authority, for obvious reasons.
The stakeholders, which the noble Baroness lists in the amendment, are all significant and must have the opportunity to be involved in putting in place school travel scheme arrangements. We had envisaged dealing with consultation in a different way. Rather than placing a requirement for consultation in the Bill, we had envisaged using the prospectus.
The prospectus that accompanies the Bill includes paragraphs 14 to 16 on local consultation and provides an almost identical list of organisations to be consulted before scheme proposals are submitted. The list has been developed following public consultation and scrutiny in another place. I hope that the list of consultees is now fully comprehensive, but we remain receptive to further suggestions.
The list includes school governors, including governors of special schools where pupils in the authority are placed; teacher association representatives at local level; parents and prospective parents; the schools forum, which is intended to capture the voice of pupils; the admissions forum; bodies representing any denominations with schools in the area; transport operators; FE institutions; groups representing parents with children with SEN and/or disability; organisations with an interest in pupils safety; and any other partners with a material interest in school travel schemes, such as Transport for London and the passenger transport executives.
Furthermore, the prospectus spells out the minimum length of consultations, which should take place during term time—echoing our Education Bill debates—to ensure the maximum potential input from interested parties. 191GC The National Assembly will be responsible for issuing a prospectus in Wales. We will also emphasise the importance of LEAs conducting wide consultation. The prospectus has been placed on a statutory footing and is binding on scheme authorities. We will not approve pilots that have not had adequate consultation.
The second element of the new clause in Amendment No. 36 would make travel schemes part of local education development plan reviews. I remind the Committee that Sections 6 and 7 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, requiring authorities to prepare education development plans, were repealed by the Children Act 2004. In their place, we have the children and young people's plans, which will be a higher level and more strategic plan.
The prospectus also requires local authorities to produce annual reports for the appropriate national authority, which will be published, analysing the effect that schemes have had and an account of what has gone well and badly, the views of key partners and financial annexes detailing the economies of the schemes. I had hoped that the prospectus, which is on a statutory footing, would have allayed the concerns. Pilots will not occur without adequate consultation.
In response to questions from the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, we have made changes following our consultation, pre-legislative scrutiny and the passage of the Bill through another place and have arrived at a list that mirrors the amendment. We have had very productive discussion with the Special Educational Consortium to ensure that the voice of children with SEN and others is included. I have provided for 28 days in term-time, more than is requested in the amendment. Schools forums consist of children and therefore provide the opportunity for children's voices to be heard. I cannot believe that if any child wrote to the authority, the authority would not take them into consideration.
It is councillors who will decide what schemes go forward, at least in respect of the submitting authorities. The noble Baroness may have had in mind two-tier areas with district councils. Let me put it cautiously but clearly. I am highly persuaded by that argument but let me give it a little more thought. It seems to be an injustice not also to consult district councils, because they have interests in that respect.
Turning to the amendments of my noble friend Lord Rix, I again agree with the importance of the full consultation process, which must underpin applications. Also, key consultees must be included in the consultation process in every authority. School travel schemes must engage all local transport stakeholders.
I have already mentioned the list. I shall mention just part of it: the importance of consulting parents of children with special educational needs and of that being done during term-time. Strictly speaking, we do not think that my noble friend's amendment is necessary. The Cabinet Office is responsible for guidance on public consultation. Cabinet Office guidance is that public consultation would be expected wherever material changes to statutory guidance were proposed by the Secretary of State for England. Similar requirements apply to the Assembly Government for Wales.
192GC Having said all that, although I am absolutely clear that including the details of consultation obligations in statute would not be sensible because, undoubtedly, as the process develops, guidance will need to change, we will think about the need for further guidance and may even think of extra people who should be part of the process. I have listened seriously to the Committee's argument that it wants written in the Bill the principle of consultation, which goes to the heart of making good schemes.
Although I cannot now give a categoric commitment, the Committee will be able to read between my words and know that I will seriously consider whether I can say something more positive about that on Report. I hope that that wink and nudge is helpful to all who have spoken to the amendments.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Lord Filkin
I very much hope that I can. It was about clarification on what Clause 32 specifically meant, was it not?
If it would be helpful, I could speak on the matter again when I move Amendment No. 8.
§ Lord Hanningfield
We had this sort of debate last week on special schools, where young people are often from many different authorities. Some authorities may be piloting the schemes and some may not, and so there could be confusion. Does the Minister envisage that all authorities that support the special school will be consulted in respect of the scheme? It could also happen with denominational schools on the border between local authorities. You can get pupils from three or four local authorities going to one denominational school. Do the Government accept that there could be a variety of different charges and schemes for children attending one special school? I hope that the Minister will agree that all authorities sending children to a school should be consulted about it, as some might have violent objections to it.
§ Lord Filkin
I agree, for reasons that we touched on in part last week. Local authorities clearly have a direct interest in the school and so they should be consulted as part of that process.
I thank my noble friend Lord Berkeley for holding his killer question until later in our proceedings.
§ Lord Rix
I thank the Minister. I have both hearing aids in this afternoon and, listening between the lines, I think that I got the answer for which I had hoped. I shall obviously consult the Special Educational Consortium and others concerned. If there are any further points that I should raise, I shall probably take the opportunity of writing to the Minister.
§ Lord Filkin
I thank the noble Lord. Sometimes Ministers are slightly inhibited by processes of timing in 193GC terms of the degree to which they can give commitments. If I am in a position to give a stronger commitment in a day or two, I shall write to the noble Lord.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
The Minister said that the pupils themselves would undoubtedly be consulted about some of the changes. However, at the moment paragraph 14 of the current prospectus—the one that is on the web—containing the appropriate list, does not include consultation with pupils. It is appropriate that pupils be consulted, so it would be good to see them there.
Similarly, the Minister mentioned councillors from minor authorities. I put in a plea that, although the authority itself is bringing in the measures, it is important that, in these days of executive Cabinets and so on, it makes a bit of an effort to ensure that the councillors who cover the local area are included in the consultation. There is a tendency for Cabinets to work with the offices and railroad things through rather than always to carry out appropriate consultation.
We are grateful to the Minister for indicating that the principle of consultation may well be included in the Bill. We recognise how all Ministers dislike long lists in Bills. In so far as the prospectus and the regulations are the statutory guidance, it would be good if they mentioned the broad consultation with councillors covering the area.
§ Lord Filkin
I am shocked to hear what Cabinets are up to; I find that very surprising. I take the noble Baroness's point. We must ensure that Back-Benchers have an opportunity to comment as well, and we shall look at that. With regard to pupils, I hoped that I signalled clearly and positively that the schools forum would be the prime focus for consultation. I went slightly further by signalling that I would expect a responsible authority to listen to any pupil who wished, in addition and of his own volition, to write and give his views on whether he thought something was a good or a bad idea.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
I do not believe that pupils have any formal role in schools forums. Basically teachers and governors have a role in them.
§ Lord Filkin
We seem to have conflicting views within the Room at this point. I shall draw a veil over the matter and we shall return to it speedily with a letter.
§ Lord Hanningfield
We have had an interesting exchange of views. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that basically he accepts that there should be something in the Bill about consultation. We shall wait to hear what comes of that.
I am still concerned about situations where a special educational school or denominational school supplies education for an area wider than one local authority or where it covers the whole authority because it is a school with particular special needs. I was interested to hear the recent exchange on this matter but the schools forums have a long way to go. Obviously the Government have 194GC bigger ambitions for schools forums than is currently the case. Speaking from my own experience, I would still want professional associations to be consulted in order to obtain a representative view of teachers. The schools forum is fairly amateurish. It is well intended but, as yet, it is not fully representative of everyone in the education community. It might develop, but obviously the Government have big aspirations for it.
I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said about involving local members. In these days of executive decisions and financial restraint, it is important to obtain the views of locally elected members on these issues, and I support that. However, the Minister said that he has taken all these points on board and we shall wait for him to come back to us. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
moved Amendment No. 3:Page 2, line 12, at end insert", and (d) arrangements to make a charge on those who use a motor vehicle within a specified distance from the school where paragraph (a) appliesThe noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 3, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 14, which also stands in my name. Perhaps I should start by suggesting that the Bill may almost become the law of unintended consequences with regard to people driving their kids to school. There are some good things in the prospectus, even if I did not understand it all—but I am not an educationalist; I have spent my life in transport. However, some of the objectives are good—for example, to increase the modal share of walking and cycling, which has health and social benefits, and arrangements to provide cost-effective alternatives to the family car. I also support the fact that the prospectus states that schemes must aim to cut car use on the home-to-school journey.
That is all very well, but when people discover that they will be charged for sending their children to school by bus whereas previously it was free, I think that there will be a terrible tendency for them to say, "Oh well, I'll drive the children to school". I hope that that does not happen, but at present there are certainly plenty of parents driving children to schools in cars, causing fairly severe congestion outside schools and with some people displaying the most appallingly bad driving behaviour.
Before I turn to the detail of the amendment, it may be worth reminding the Committee how many children are killed or seriously injured each year. PACTS, the Parliamentary Advisory Committee for Transport Safety, has provided me with figures which show that in 2002 more than 4,500 children aged 15 or under were killed or seriously injured in road accidents. Of course, we have the highest proportion of such accidents in the whole of Europe. Therefore, I suggest that we should be a little careful that these good intentions—or mostly good intentions—in the Bill do not bring about the wrong consequences.
My Amendment No. 3 would allow education authorities to include arrangements to charge those who use a motor vehicle within a specified distance. 195GC That might be difficult to envisage, and some people may have no alternative but to drive to school. It would not hurt if they dropped the children off half a mile away from school in some suitable place and made them walk. First, it would be safer and, secondly, it would give them some exercise. A specified distance needs to be included therefore. I believe that a way could be found—if they charge people for going on the bus they could find a way of charging people for travelling by car.
The other issue, which is the substance of Amendment No. 14, is that there are cars and there are cars. As regards the safety of cars, one sees that when people are driving their Chelsea tractors with little Johnny inside protected like a cocoon—wonderful. But if one goes on to the European New Car Assessment programme website, you discover that, with the exception of a Volvo, all the large off-roaders have the lowest pedestrian rating test of all cars. There are about a dozen in that category. It is one star and the Suzuki has no stars at all. However, they score highly for the interiors.
There is no reason why there should not be a variable charge dependent on the type of car used for taking children to school. That would send a message that is good for road safety and the message that if you have to drive your children to school, you either drop them off a certain distance from the school or you pay a charge that is commensurate with the equivalent bus charge which might be introduced by the Bill or a variable one depending on the safety of people outside the car. It does not matter about the inside because any collisions will be low-speed and the injury will be to pedestrians and accompanying people outside. The charge should also cover the emissions, which could be the case if the Government introduced the variable vehicle excise duty. They have the information and could make that charge already.
I hope that this will never have to happen but—should many more people drive their children to school as a result of the Bill, for all the disincentives contained in it it—would be a useful provision for the LEAs to discourage people driving children so close to the school. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Walmsley
I hope that Members of the Committee will excuse the croak in place of my normal dulcet tones. I give general support to the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. However, in principle, we agree with congestion charging where there is a good reason for that. In practice, what the noble Lord is suggesting might turn out to be difficult.
However, I hope that the local authorities which want to put these pilot schemes in place were listening to some of the points that the noble Lord made. He is right about the danger to pedestrians from certain models of motorcar. During the weekend, when I could not talk, I was reading the Which? report on the safety inside cars and the safety of pedestrians hit by cars. I am therefore aware of the truth of what he says.
The noble Lord has some good ideas about parents driving the children to a location half a mile, say, from the school where the local authority or school could 196GC organise walking trains. I would have thought that pub car parks, which are certainly not used at 8.30 in the morning or 3.30 in the afternoon, could be suitable starting and finishing points for such walking trains. Therefore, although I do not believe that we can support the noble Lord's amendments, I have a great deal of sympathy and I hope that people are listening to him.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Triesman
I recall that my noble friend Lord Berkeley raised this point on Second Reading. His intention is to impose a charge on parents who drive their children to school. I acknowledge, as he does, that there are many beneficial reasons for ensuring that fewer children are driven to school and that is one of the central aims of the Bill; we are one on that. But it is hard to accept that we will end up with no children needing to be driven to school by car. even with an enhanced bus service and the cycling and walking opportunities that school travel schemes will bring for some children.
There are a number of measures that schools and local authorities can take. They can encourage car sharing, or actively encourage parents to park away from the school gate, with the children walking the last part of the journey. Authorities such as Cambridgeshire are promoting "kiss and ride" schemes; I believe that that involves the parents kissing the children before they ride, rather than the pupils kissing each other when they are on the bus. In any event, that is its name. By that scheme, pupils can be dropped off and board a shuttle bus to their school. Many schools who have engaged with the Government's action plan on travelling to school are doing all those things through their active travel plans.
The amendment itself is so widely drafted that it could suggest the imposition of a charge on anyone driving any motor vehicle within the distance specified. As my noble friend will know, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has just said, in England and Wales, local transport authorities already have powers under the Transport Act 2000 and similar legislation for London to introduce charging schemes to tackle congestion. In practice, in many urban places where schools are located closely together, a charging scheme under the proposed amendment would be indistinguishable from a charging scheme under the Transport Act.
In other areas, a road user could be persistently confused about whether they were in or out of a charged area. There would be the potential for motorists to use rat-runs to avoid the coverage of any scheme. These are the real practical difficulties. There would need to be a great amount of thought given to the practical details of a scheme under the proposed amendment. Those practical details are a serious problem. How would the measure be enforced, and by whom? What would happen to any revenue collected? Would anyone be exempt? The amendment as drafted takes no account of those matters.
Although I recognise the objective of the amendment, I feel that there are alternative and more suitable measures available to achieve it. Even if it 197GC were possible to restrict the provision to parents driving their own children, I have grave doubts about such a provision. For one thing, it would mean that anyone else driving the child to school would probably not be subject to a charge being imposed. One could see the odd position emerging that the only person penalised would be the parent driving their own child to school. I am sure that that is not the intention of the proposal.
If the charging scheme were to apply to all vehicles taking children to school. I assume that there would be a requirement to know the registered keeper of the vehicle, as identified from DVLA records, who would be liable for the charge. If the intention was to charge the parent, to distinguish between those two people would turn out to be an extremely expensive and complex scheme. As with current congestion charging, there would be a need to use cameras or barriers to find out who was making the transport movements. I do not believe that that would work.
Amendment No. 14, taken with Amendment No. 3, would require that a charging scheme in the vicinity of a school would take into account the emissions of a vehicle and its implications for pedestrian and bicycle safety. The Government have introduced policies aimed both at improving the emissions of vehicles and reducing the danger they pose to pedestrians. These include measures for carbon-dioxide-based systems of vehicle excise duty and company car tax. The Secretary of State for Transport recently announced a new scheme for the energy-efficiency labelling of new cars to begin this summer. Similarly the Government have given incentives to the use of alternative fuels such as biofuels.
As regards vehicles, these policies are facilitated by the registration and licensing system operated by the DVLA. Access to that system would be required by any authority which attempted to do what was requested in the amendments. Some authorities possibly now have an online link to the DVLA used in connection with their parking schemes and abandoned vehicle functions, but it does not give them access to emissions data, which would elaborate that process a great deal. I will not go into great detail, but the amendment does not specify the extent to which the emissions should count for any particular purpose.
As regards the risk of injury to vulnerable road users, I agree substantially with a great deal of what has been said. There is a good deal of evidence from PACTS and others, although there is disagreement about some of it. It is argued that there are other types of evidence. When one watches off-road cars moving through the herds of cattle in Kensington one sometimes wonders what the purpose of them is. None the less, I understand the point made about bull bars and so on.
Research shows that the risk of an accident involving a child is reduced by two-thirds in all categories when a 20-miles-an-hour zone has been introduced. That is an obvious and important limit. We believe that it is an 198GC effective way of reducing child accidents in the vicinity of schools, and local authorities have the powers to introduce those measures.
In conclusion, we do not believe that the amendment would work. We do not believe that it is practical, with great respect, and it is therefore not appropriate. In that light, I ask my noble friend to withdraw it.
§ Lord Bradshaw
Perhaps I may put two issues to the noble Lord, Lord Triesman. Better ways to school and the introduction of 20-mile-an-hour limits are expensive to introduce. Many schools in the local authority area that I represent want to introduce better rules on ways to school, but they are in a queue because little money is available to construct cycle-ways and make other necessary changes. That is the first issue that the Minister must address. It is all very well saying that local authorities have the powers but they do not have the means. Having one without the other is nonsense.
The second issue is that most of the congestion referred to arises close to the school. I can think of two cases in my division where congestion around the school is so bad that regular bus services had to be suspended because they could not get through. The local authority has introduced "no waiting" areas around the school which need enforcement. However, resources for that are limited. They are enforced one day, but the next day everyone comes back again.
Therefore, in considering rules relating to better ways to school, will the Minister examine, first, the available funding so that schools can get into a queue and get their schemes working? Schools can contribute a great deal to the scheme in both thought and money. Secondly, should they not be allowed to look at one or two potential drop-off points which would be safe places to walk from? I refer to places which will not require people to cross roads and are generally in sight of the school gate.
The problems referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, generally occur outside the school gates. Cars from two or three directions come together, people drive in and out, reverse and gossip. We must understand that much of the congestion takes place during periods of gossip. While that takes place, accidents happen. In one case, the local bus service has had to be suspended at about 8.45 a.m., when most people want to use it, because the bus cannot get through due to congestion around the school. While the remedies that the noble Lord suggested may not commend themselves to the Minister, the problems are real and need addressing.
§ Lord Hanningfield
I support what the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said. But, for example, my local authority constituency has just put two enormous roundabouts at a new road junction. Therefore, although the distance is still well below the statutory distance, it is impossible for children to walk across those very busy roundabouts. Arguments are going on about it, but no one has been able to afford to put in proper crossings. So, from a local authority point of view, if there was more investment in minor works, 199GC there would not be so much need for this legislation because youngsters would be able get to school on the right type of routes.
If the Government are to charge parents for driving their children to school, the quicker they bring it in before 5 May, the better. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. We could do with more investment in minor works to enable youngsters to walk or to cycle to school.
§ Baroness Walmsley
I agree with my noble friend Lord Bradshaw. The Minister referred to the herds of cows in Kensington and I agree with his sentiments in that respect. However, I hope that he will remember that in the remoter parts of Scotland and Wales, in particular, there are children who cannot get to school unless they are being driven in a 4x4, especially in winter when the snow is deep. If there is any question of charging people for using such vehicles in those areas, it would cause complete uproar and would be quite unjust.
As regards congestion charging, does the Minister know whether there is any intention to introduce differential charging for vehicles in relation to their size in London? Are there any proposals to introduce any additional congestion schemes, other than the one we know about in Edinburgh—for example, Cambridge?
§ Lord Triesman
All the questions illustrate precisely why this legislation is before Members of Committee. The intention is to encourage local authorities to deal with problems in the ways that they best judge are required. I was interested and intrigued, because it illustrates the point so well, to hear about the problems where two roundabouts have been built and the specific problems of a different kind in a different area. All those things are problems that require—
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but it is an irony, to some extent, that we have been discussing the charging of parents driving their children to school, whereas the Bill is about charging children in buses going to school. It might be appropriate to charge parents and to ring-fence those revenues to lay on school buses to take children to school.
§ Lord Triesman
I think that I shall persist in dealing with this Bill rather than one that made a completely different proposal. The Bill makes it possible for specific things to be done by local authorities to resolve the issues that they regard as central to getting children to school safely, without too much congestion and so on.
I have argued that it is not appropriate to treat 4x4s differently in any respect, but it would be wholly inappropriate to treat them as though they were exactly the same if deployed as mobile weaponry in Kensington or used in some rather more remote place. We have no plans to do that. We have no plans to introduce charging before any date in May. It would 200GC be inappropriate for us to have plans because it must be for local authorities to have those plans. They do that in the light of what they regard as best for management.
The question of funding is important. The Department for Transport is providing £659 million to local authorities in 2004–05 for small-scale capital projects, including safe routes to school. Nearly 4,000 schools were expected to have at least one safe route by March last year. So a significant sum has gone into that. The 20 miles per hour zones are funded through local transport plans and associated funding.
I hope that that addressed the first of the points raised by the noble Lord. Lord Bradshaw, but I should say that it also potentially dealt with some of the points raised in his second question, although I am strongly tempted to say that local authorities which police parking effectively do not generally end up out of pocket. The revenues that are raised by the effective policing of places that should not be parked in—whether people do that for a few minutes to gossip or whether they stay or whatever—generally cover the costs more than effectively. If there were issues of that kind, it would be good to see the law enforced.
§ 4.30 p.m.
I am grateful to noble Lords. We have had a good debate, have we not? I thank all noble Lords who have taken part. This is a group of probing amendments which are carrots and sticks. I am not sure that the carrot can yet be reached over the fence in all cases, but we have heard some good ideas.
One matter that we have not discussed, because it is not part of the Bill, is what should be done about private schools, which are some of the worst offenders. That area clearly needs more enforcement and, although local authorities may cover their costs, if they do not spend any money in enforcement, they are not losing any. Therefore, I am not sure that that situation altogether solves the problem.
My noble friend mentioned some other government policies, such as VED labelling in new cars, which is a great idea that I have always supported. He will be aware that it was reported in the press last week that the car manufacturers are trying to make the accident tests less stringent and those who are concerned about road accidents would oppose that. But the new car assessment programme that I mentioned originally is supported by the Department for Transport and many other member states. It is an official organisation, so to speak.
I shall not press this matter any further. I should tell my noble friend that when our party is still in government in three or four years' time and the Bill, I hope, has become law and a few trials are taking place, it would be interesting to revisit whether more cars are being used on the school run by parents, or whoever, taking children to school. I have a horrible fear that there will be. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Lord Hanningfield
moved Amendment No. 4:Page 2, line 12, at end insert ", and (d) arrangements for the safety of the transport under the scheme,The noble Lord said: The amendment would place on the relevant authority a duty to ensure that arrangements were in place for the safety of transport under the scheme in question.
Evidence from the Transport Select Committee and the Education and Lifelong Learning Committee of the Welsh Assembly clearly shows that school buses are often among the oldest vehicles on the road and that their cosmetic appearance does little to inspire the confidence of parents. Conversely, yellow bus schemes have proved more popular with parents who are, on occasion, willing to pay a small charge for the use of new, clean and reliable vehicles.
We on these Benches agree with the recommendations of the Transport Select Committee that safety should form a prominent part of the Government's school transport initiatives. Indeed, the committee was slightly surprised that the Government admitted that they did not know the effects of the local government best value regime on the quality of school buses.
Evidence to the committee showed that many authorities interpreted "best value" as "lowest cost" and that the safety of school transport schemes was suffering as a result. Therefore, does the Minister believe, like the committee, that there should be a national minimum standard for local authority school bus contracts? If he does not, how can his Government guarantee and ensure the quality and safety of such schemes? I beg to move.
§ Lord Bradshaw
Again, I support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. In letting school contracts, local authorities always go for the lowest cost tender. In Oxfordshire, we have found that when the police undertake road tests of passenger-carrying vehicles, invariably it is school transport vehicles that are prohibited because they fail to meet the standards. I can conclude from that only that standards are very low.
It is an area where a great deal of sharp practice takes place. Many operators have a set of tyres which they put on a vehicle when it goes in for a test, and they immediately remove them and replace them with a substandard set when the vehicle goes on the road. That is the kind of thing that happens. I know that in one case those at the vehicle-testing station marked the tyres so that they knew that they were the test tyres rather than the tyres that were usually used on the vehicle.
Also, many drivers of such vehicles are treading very finely around the law because they are not full-time drivers. They have other jobs. They are part-time people who come off a night shift, and so on, and take children to school in the morning. The whole issue of the suitability of vehicles and drivers—I am not talking about whether a person is a potential sex offender but whether his working life is such that it would allow him within a reasonable working day to drive a school 202GC bus—needs careful examination. I recommend that the Minister turns his attention to that—perhaps not within the confines of the Bill but that he draws the attention of officials to some of the malpractice that takes place in this area and puts the safety of children at risk.
§ Lord Triesman
The amendment seeks to provide that school travel schemes may include arrangements to ensure the safety of transport under the scheme, adding to the general categories of arrangements that could be covered by a school travel scheme, listed under paragraph 2(2). As that paragraph stands, there are:arrangements for the provision of transport … arrangements for the payment of the whole or any part of … reasonable travelling expenses",and,arrangements to facilitate or promote … different ways of travelling".I agree with both noble Lords who have spoken that the arrangements for the safety of transport are an extremely important issue. There can be no doubt about that. However, the amendment is unnecessary because safety is already a requirement. Paragraph 1 of the schedule refers to arrangements which the scheme authority considers it appropriate to make. The arrangements could not be appropriate if they were not safe and it could not be appropriate for someone to endorse them if they were not safe.
Safety has a prominent role in the objectives that were outlined in the prospectus. The guidance states that "best value" is not only the cheapest but that safety issues—for example, spot checks by VOSA, which does not rely on annual checks to enforce safety—highlight best practice. There are certainly authorities that make vigorous checks to ensure that day-to-day safety is enhanced. Cheshire is one of those.
It is open to all local authorities not to accept the lowest tender. In several areas where yellow buses have been introduced, local authorities have introduced enhanced provisions. They pay rather more for the quality of the vehicles and fund parents who are willing to pay for better standards. Hebden Bridge is an example of an authority that has taken that route.
The Government's response to the Transport Select Committee's report on school transport makes those general points in a straightforward way. It states:It is illegal for anyone to use a vehicle on the road if it does not meet at least the minimum roadworthiness standards provided in legislation".I have tried to say a little about what those would be in this case. A number of control mechanisms are built into the system. Apart from annual roadworthiness, there is in-year inspection by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, and any licensed operator not complying with the terms of the licence, which include properly maintaining vehicles, risks losing his licence.
It is genuinely disturbing to hear that there may be scandals, such as people changing the tyres. Although I stand to be corrected, I think that that would be a criminal act. I cannot believe that it would be lawful to 203GC have a vehicle tested with tyres that met legal requirements and then replace them with tyres that did not. In those circumstances, I think that criminal prosecution would be just and merited.
Of course, no one pretends that absolute safety exists in any transport system, but safer arrangements can be achieved by various means. For example, with dedicated buses contracted for LEA use, LEAs and transport operators consider whether escorts are necessary, and I am aware of some cases in which schools and LEAs work together to use support staff as bus escorts. Other safety enhancements can be achieved by providing safe parking bays at schools, by making rules for the driver about when to drive off and, of course, by teaching children how to behave in and around the bus.
In practice, the prospectus deals with many of those matters concerning the Bill. Although I am sure that the Committee will not expect us to reproduce the road safety legislation in the Bill, we must of course insist that it is fully met. If there are scandals in Oxfordshire or anywhere else—I was not familiar with that example until the noble Lord spoke—they must be drawn to the attention of officials, and I will certainly do so.
§ Lord Hanningfield
I want to ask the Minister about what he said about enforcing parking regulations outside schools. Also, we are all obviously concerned about safety in schools. I entirely agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and the Minister said, but this all costs money. We have 600 schools in Essex and there is no way that we can enforce parking outside them all. Most of them are rural schools in villages that have not seen a policeman, let alone anyone else, for five years.
If we are to do that through the local authority system, it will require quite a lot of investment. Is that investment expected to come from charging? Everything that has been said today will cost local authorities money that they do not have. It is all new money. Where does the Minister imagine that that money will come from? Will it come from the pilot schemes? If it does, there will be no income from them because it will all be spent on enforcement of safety or parking and all kinds of other issues.
The Minister spoke about the amount of money being invested in safe school transport schemes. It is peanuts. We need almost billions of pounds of investment to get proper schemes for children to walk or cycle to school. Will the Government comment on where the real money will come from for the investment about which the Minister talked?
§ Lord Triesman
In the previous debate, I mentioned the sum of £659 million that has been introduced.
§ Lord Hanningfield
That is peanuts. We need far more investment than that if we are really to have any impact on the 20,000 schools in our country.
§ Lord Triesman
We may be using different terms of reference. I also mentioned the money available for 204GC enforcing far more restrictive speeding areas. It is also true that enforcement could in part be funded from revenue derived from scheme proposals. None of the schemes under the Bill is intended to save money. I have no doubt that we shall return to that point. I understand that community police in Shropshire are engaged in enforcement in the countryside because it is felt that that is a useful way to deal with an issue that they have chosen to prioritise.
I return to the central point: local education authorities want to pilot those schemes. Knowing the costs and some of the consequences, they still want to pilot those schemes, because they believe that, overall, they will be of benefit.
I conclude by making a point that I hope has not been lost, because I think that we agree about it. In my view, whether it is a school bus that goes through a test with one set of tyres before worse, defective tyres are put on, or whether it is a lorry or a car, that is a criminal act that should be policed. We cannot have vehicles that pass tests on one set of criteria careering around in a defective state. Those are all issues of the cost of policing in the case of any kind of vehicle, although I fully accept that we want to prioritise children's safety.
§ Lord Hanningfield
I thank the Minister for that reply. I think that we all agree about safety: that it should be more policed or enforced and that buses should have legitimate tyres. I do not want to talk about Essex County Council again, but we now spend £30 million a year on school transport. We have very little opportunity to police what we do. We now have 60 community policeman dotted around the county. They would not have a chance to enforce parking outside schools. They are all far too busy doing their various jobs. If we are to try to do some of those things, with much more enforcement and protection of the whole system, we need new people. The current system does not have the capacity to do that.
We all agree that safety is paramount. I hope that the Government will reflect on how we can make certain that that is reflected in the Bill, so that people are not always looking for cheap options. We must make certain that the quality of buses and other transport used is right. I think that we all agree about that. I hope that the Government will reflect on that as the Bill passes. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Lord Hanningfield
moved Amendment No. 5:Page 2, line 12, at end insert— "( ) A school travel scheme must include arrangements to ensure that any person engaged in driving or escorting a child with special educational needs or a disability to and from school shall be required to have an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau check before they start work.( ) A school travel scheme must include arrangements to ensure that any person engaged in driving or escorting a child with special educational needs or a disability to and from school shall be required to receive appropriate disability equality training.205GC The noble Lord said: In a way, this amendment is similar. Again, it is a probing amendment tabled so that we can hear the Government's comment about it. We are concerned about the possible—abuse is not the right word—support to vulnerable groups of children as they travel to and from school. There have been cases in which disabled children have had problems of physical and other abuse during their transport to school. Often they are taken to school in taxis and that will continue to be the case when just one or two of them are going to a school. Those youngsters are often unable to communicate their experience to parents, teachers or carers, which means that problems may continue. There should be more—policing is not the right word—supervision. Those drivers and escorts have regular and unsupervised access to that specially vulnerable group of children. Although there are Criminal Records Bureau checks, they are not always enforceable as we would like, especially in the case of taxi drivers.
Moving to the second part of the amendment, appropriate disability awareness training for employees or volunteers who drive or escort pupils with special educational needs or disability would help to overcome some of the difficulties currently encountered. It is essential that escorts and drivers understand the particular disabilities of the children for whom they are responsible. A lack of awareness of disability among drivers and escorts can lead to the child's safety being put at risk. For example, children with autism often display challenging behaviour when they are frightened. It would therefore be good for their drivers and escorts to have some experience and training to help to support them.
Disability awareness training would help to equip the escort or driver with the right skills to manage pupils with disabilities or special educational needs and communicate more effectively with them. I beg to move.
§ Lord Filkin
CRB checks for drivers and escorts, and disability equality training are both issues already addressed by other legislation or good practice guidance. There is DfES and Welsh Assembly guidance on preventing unsuitable people from working with children. It is clear that applicants for positions that are excepted from the provision of the Rehabilitations of Offenders Act 1974 should be asked to declare any convictions, cautions or bind-overs which they have incurred, including any that would be regarded as "spent" under that Act in other circumstances.
In plain English, "spent" convictions are not spent for the purposes of people in particular positions where there is particular vulnerability. That includes any position in which the normal duties include caring for, training, supervising or being in sole charge of children under the age of 18 and would include taxi drivers or escorts in that position. In addition, taxi or private hire car drivers are already subject to enhanced criminal record checks when they apply for a licence and each time they renew it, in most parts of the country. That will also be the case in London by April 2006, which is before any scheme would he approved and in operation under this Bill.
206GC The guidance requires more than just CRB checks to be carried out before staff are recruited to work with children. In addition to the CRB process, the guidance says that potential employers should check an applicant's qualifications, references, including professional and character references, direct from the referee and including their most recent employer; and previous employment, including satisfactory explanations for employment gaps.
The second part of the amendment relates to the provision of disability equality training. That issue was debated in the other place and as a result we have amended the prospectus to state that it is good practice for those responsible for planning and managing school transport to have disability equality training. We have also set out what we think the training should include. The Special Educational Consortium provided the wording and believes that it is an excellent and effective addition.
There is a wide variety of different issues which escorts and drivers of children with disabilities need to have an understanding of, which can vary markedly from case to case. This can range from receiving training on the use of specialised equipment or administering medication, through to the wider issues addressed by disability equality training, which explores the concept of people being disabled by society's barriers and attitudes, highlighting the role of the organisations in the removal of those barriers and in the changing of attitudes.
I hope that with those clear assurances we will make these matters clear in the prospectus and remind authorities of their obligations that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord Hanningfield
I thank the Minister for that answer. In tabling our amendment, we were not quite so worried by the criminal side. We hope that there are now sufficient checks in place to double-check that. We were more concerned with the training side with regard to helping taxi drivers and even some bus drivers. They may need training to help the children that require the service. The Minister mentioned that the Government were going to strengthen the training in the prospectus. That is what is required: better training for people who act as drivers or escorts for these youngsters. I shall read his answer in Hansard. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 6 not moved.]
§ Lord Rix
moved Amendment No. 7:Page 2, line 25, at end insert— "( ) the school at which he is a registered pupil is within walking distance of his home but he is unable to walk to school in safety and reasonable comfort for a reason related to his disability or special educational needs.The noble Lord said: In my Second Reading speech I called on the Government to ensure that the Bill would not exacerbate the difficulties that parents of disabled children and children with special educational needs have in accessing appropriate school transport for their sons and daughters. I thank the Minister for his 207GC constructive approach to working with myself and the Special Educational Consortium in seeking to provide reassurance for families of disabled children. I know that he shares my own commitment to improving outcomes for disabled children and children with SEN.
[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 4.55 to 5.6 p.m.]
§ Lord Rix
Amendment No. 7 is concerned with pupils with special educational needs and disabled pupils within walking distance of their school. shall continue from where I left off, on the second page of my notes.
Many children with disabilities will go to a school within the statutory walking distance but will require additional assistance to get to school safely. Although there has not been a separate duty for LEAs to make special transport arrangements for disabled children in those circumstances, LEAs currently have to provide transport where it is "necessary" to facilitate attendance under Section 509 of the Education Act 1996.
Local authorities running school-travel schemes do not have any duties under Section 509, and instead their responsibilities are set out in the Bill. However, neither the Bill nor the prospectus clarifies the authority's responsibility to support disabled children who live within the walking distance of their school. In light of that omission, the Special Educational Consortium and I are concerned that such disabled children will have reduced entitlement to the support that they may need to travel to their school, should they live within two or three miles of it.
The matter needs to be cleared up. The amendment seeks not to extend provision for disabled children, but simply to ensure that current entitlements are not undermined. We need to provide clarity for all stakeholders and much-needed reassurance for families. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My name and that of my noble friend Lady Sharp are attached to the amendment, which we support. It is clear that the current arrangements that local authorities have in relation to children with SEN and disabilities are removed and repealed by the Bill. There is a general understanding that the application of the two or three-mile limit is generally inappropriate where a disabled child is unable to walk the distance independently.
I draw the Committee's attention to the fact that the Joint Committee on Human Rights questioned whether the continued reliance on walking distance as the trigger to the duty to provide school transport, without making any provision in relation to children with mobility difficulties who may not be able to walk the statutory distance in a reasonable time or at all, was in breach of Article 14 in conjunction with protocol 1 of Article 2. Protocol 1 provides the right to education, while Article 14 requires that the enjoyment of convention rights must be secured without discrimination. The new arrangements could discriminate against such children without objective and reasonable justification.
208GC The prospectus notes that concern in relation to ECHR and it states,we are clear that a child with mobility or other difficulties who is unable to walk 2 or 3 miles would have to be provided with transport or other assistance".However, as the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said forcefully, the Bill does not make that requirement.
I understand that the DfES considers provision within the walking distance to be safeguarded by the Disability Discrimination Act and the ECHR. But that would have to be tested in court, so a family would have to go to judicial review. From my current experience, going to judicial review is very difficult. The fact is that the prospectus may change and develop in due course. So provision for disabled children must be laid out in the Bill. The entitlement must be very clear so as to reduce the likelihood of a series of disputes occurring. Where provision is withheld, there needs to be a straightforward route to recourse for parents, as in the Gateshead cases that I quoted in my Second Reading speech.
It is not reasonable to expect parents to police LEA policies or to ensure compatibility with ECHR and the Disability Discrimination Act. Parents of disabled children face challenges enough that other families do not have to cope with. It is unfair to expect them to have the capacity to monitor and to take part in all future consultations on the prospectus.
Before closing, I should like to add my confusion to that expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, about the meaning of some of the wording in the prospectus. Paragraph 32 states:We will only approve schemes that protect pupils with SEN and/or disabilities from any charges additional to those that apply to children of the same age living in the same area who attend their neighbourhood school, if special arrangements have to be made to accommodate a child's disability or SEN".I am not sure what that means. Can the Minister clarify it? It seems to mean: if all children are to be charged, so will children with special needs. But, of course, in order to avoid such charges, able-bodied children can avoid going on the bus for which they might have to pay by walking, whereas disabled children cannot do that.
§ Lord Filkin
First, perhaps I may refer to what paragraph 32 of the prospectus means. My noble friend Lord Berkeley was patient and I should deal with it without further delay. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, quoted paragraph 32, which states:We will only approve schemes that protect pupils with SEN and/or disabilities from any charges additional to those that apply to children of the same age",in the neighbourhood. That means that no pupils with SEN will be charged more than other children in the neighbourhood who attend the nearest suitable school; that is, no extra charges if they travel further to a special school, or no extra charges if other children walk a short distance to school that a pupil in a wheelchair cannot.
As regards the specifics of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and others, paragraph 2 of the schedule in the Bill requires local authorities to 209GC make "appropriate" travel arrangements. What is appropriate will depend on the circumstances in each child's case. When seeking applications to run the new innovative schemes, we will require LEAs to include in their applications a description of how their proposals cater for pupils with statements of SEN and/or pupils with disabilities.
We are clear that "statutory walking distance" is not a relevant criterion where a child physically cannot walk or cannot be expected to walk due to his special needs. If a child cannot walk for those reasons, it would be unreasonable for the local authority to say that it was not appropriate to make travel arrangements for him.
To clarify that, we have made changes to the draft prospectus to the effect that in deciding what is appropriate, the scheme authority should consider the needs of the child, the nature of the route, and so on, and should not take into account parental means.
Paragraph 38 of the prospectus states:Our other area of concern is for pupils with mobility difficulties, and those with SEN, where the minimum obligation to provide transport is not sufficient to meet their needs. Paragraph 2 of the schedule to the Bill requires LEAs to make appropriate travel arrangements for children, and we are clear that a child with mobility or other difficulties who is unable to walk 2 or 3 miles would have to be provided with transport or other assistance. In deciding what transport arrangements are appropriate, the scheme authority should look at the needs of the child, the nature of the route to school and the suitability of existing transport options. Parental means should not play a part in the decision as to whether transport arrangements are suitable".This up-dated version of the prospectus has been shared with members of the Special Educational Consortium. I pay tribute to the thoughtful way in which the consortium and the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has addressed these issues. It is sensible and realistic. We believe that in principle they are both content with the provisions, but it is important that they are put into the record in Hansard as part of the debate on the amendment.
Other legislation offers protection. Article 14 of the EDHR outlaws discrimination "on any ground", which would include disability, in the exercise of convention rights. Article 14 in conjunction with Article 2 means that scheme authorities may not discriminate on grounds of disability in providing school transport, unless that discrimination can be objectively and reasonably justified.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, questioning whether reliance of "statutory walking distance" was a breach of the non-discrimination provisions. Following our clarification based on paragraph 37 of the published prospectus, the JCHR's 17th report said:We welcome the Government's response that, because the draft Bill requires local authorities to make appropriate travel arrangements for children, a child who has mobility difficulties and is unable to walk, or walk 2 or 3 miles, 'would have to be provided with transport or appropriate transport assistance'.".210GC In addition, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, as amended by the Special Needs and Disability Act 2001, also places a duty on local authorities not to discriminate against disabled pupils or prospective pupils in discharging their functions under the Education Acts. This would include their functions in providing school transport under Section 509 or our new Section 509ZAA of the 1996 Act. That is to say that a scheme authority could not, for a reason which relates to his disability, treat a disabled pupil less favourably than it treats, or would treat, others to whom that reason does not or would not apply, unless it can show that that treatment is justified.
In summary, while we do not see any strong reasons to go further than the Bill, we would be happy to insert the above references to the DDA and to the ECHR into the prospectus as an up-front reminder to the LEAs of their responsibilities.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to judicial review. I remind her that because of the power of the Government in terms of agreeing a scheme, we have a strong grip on an authority in that respect. That grip would apply subsequently because if it did something which we felt was in breach, after due inquiry we have the ability to impose sanctions as a consequence.
I hope that that long and, at times, legal statement has been helpful. I hope that it sets at rest the minds of Members of the Committee. If not, we would be happy to have further discussions.
I would like clarification on one of the Minister's remarks. He said that if in the statutory walking distance an SEN child clearly needs transport, the child may be provided with that transport. However, he did not say whether the parents would have to pay for it or whether it would be free.
§ Lord Filkin
No, what clearly was implied by what I said was that if the LEA has to provide transport, that is transport under those specific Acts. It does not imply a charge to the parents.
§ Lord Filkin
If a comparator child were walking, it would be free. If a comparator child were paying, it would not be free.
§ Lord Filkin
I shall do my best, but there is probably a limit to how far one should go on expressing exactly how the law will apply in the situation. Essentially, the child who has a disability must not be treated any worse than a comparator child unless that can be specifically justified. Let us imagine a child who was disabled. If a comparator child were not to be charged, the disabled child should also not be charged. If a comparator child were charged, that could mean that the disabled child could be charged—
§ Lord Filkin
But it could be charged no more than the comparator child. I hope that the noble Baroness 211GC will bear with me. That is a clarification, which I think is essentially what was sought. It is a guarantee of no "worsenment" or disadvantage.
§ Baroness Walmsley
Will the Minister take into account the point that I made? It was that, if a child lives within the walking-to-school distance and chooses to go on the bus, he or she may be charged and probably will be in future. I think that the Minister is saying that a child with disabilities in such a situation would also be charged—no more, no less. Is that correct?
§ Lord Filkin
Yes. Within the statutory walking distance of, say, three miles, if a child with SEN or disabilities—they may not be physical disabilities—is able to use the bus, their access to education is effectively not physically impeded. They are able to get to school. If a comparator child were charged a pound for using the bus—for the sake of argument—the disabled child could be charged a pound also. However, the reverse could not apply. The disabled child could not be charged when other children were not to be so charged.
§ Lord Filkin
I would have hoped that a single word was a clear answer. If a child is not able to walk, they will not be charged as a consequence of the transport provided.
§ Lord Rix
Would that apply if a child had slight behavioural problems and was seen as an embarrassment on the school bus by other parents? If they had, say, cerebral palsied movements that might cause upset to other parents and children, they would still be entitled to that free transport, I am sure.
§ Lord Filkin
That is a fine distinction. The clear distinction that I sought to give was where it was apparent and obvious that the child could not walk to school. That was the point on which I was able to give such a strong answer. In the circumstances that the noble Lord described, the local authority would have to judge whether it was reasonable to expect the child to use that transport—in other words, whether their various rights under the ECHR and so on would be fulfilled by expecting them to use that transport. If, in an extreme case, the local authority judged that the child's palsy and behaviour were so clearly acute that it was unreasonable to expect them to be able to travel with others, they would undoubtedly find under the various Acts that they had an obligation to provide transport.
§ Lord Rix
Good. I thank the Minister very much for those responses. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for a remarkable speech—far better 212GC than mine—on the amendment. Mind you, my speech was interrupted, so I can claim that my train of thought was rather broken.
I have already mentioned to the Minister that the previous time that I was interrupted was in the middle of a theatrical performance, when the manager came forward and we were all sent to the street because of a bomb warning. That was many years ago. The Minister will know that, in those days, I was acutely aware of the need for belt and braces on numerous occasions during my performances. I was very glad to hear the belt and braces that he was able to give us just now.
However, the Minister's speech was long and complicated. I am sure that he will understand if we take it away and look at it in Hansard before returning—if we need to return—to it or writing to him for further clarification. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
moved Amendment No. 8:Page 2, line 28, at end insert— "( ) A school travel scheme may not remove entitlements to free transport in relation to any child in special education.The noble Lord said: The Committee has covered some of the ground. My amendment is designed to be short and sharp and probably would also cover the ground covered by Amendment No. 7, but it might not.
[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 5.27 to 5.33 p.m.]
I was moving Amendment No. 8, which, as I said, is a little simple and straightforward and probably does not fit the Bill. But, compared with Amendment No. 7, which I would also have supported, it enables me to make a few probing points. I shall not go back over what the Minister said in response to our various queries on the previous occasion. I shall read them and try to discover whether the guarantee of "no worsenment" will apply from the present or the future if the Bill is amended, and we can then carry on debating the issue.
I declare an interest as my wife is chairman of the governors of an SEN school in Oxford and I have several friends with SEN children under a variety of education authorities. My particular concern arises from some correspondence that I have received from a friend. He cycles and I meet him on the train some evenings. He is a fitter with one of the train companies in Reading. His third child has special educational needs. My friend works at night and his wife works during the day.
The child, who is now aged 10, had made no progress in his local schools—SEN or otherwise—but, by dint of my friend working very hard and putting a lot of pressure on people, the child has been accepted at a school in Surrey, this side of Guildford, and he travels there by school transport each day. During the six months that he has been there, the child has started swimming and riding. Having done nothing for 213GC 10 years, that is pretty amazing. This man has written to me and I shall quote from his letter. He states that, being of a poor family,if we have to pay part (or all) transportation costs for my son to go to the school of his needs",they will just suffer and will probably have to give up the school. He states:We are just getting by",and, should there be a change in the law,our 7 year battle will be wasted".That is a short case study.
I am concerned about the changes that would occur under the Bill in respect of SEN children. The child to whom I referred probably has special transport for at least an hour and a half morning and evening with escorts and so on. His local authority in Westminster—he lives in Paddington—has supported that and is paying for it. The school clearly fits the child, as do many other special schools; there is nothing unique about it. But will his parents have to pay for transport to the school in the future? Will local education authorities say, "We're not going to source school places outside our area because the transport will cost too much"? Even if LEAs continue with the group of children who are presently at special schools, what will happen in the future?
At present, it is clear that if a child's parents, local authority or anyone else finds the right school to deal with a particular disability, the LEA will fund that, including the transport. I did not learn much from the discussions on the previous amendment—that is probably me being thick again—and I still do not understand whether under the new scenario of the Bill this child and those like him would continue to receive free transport and whether the education system generally would be prepared to act as responsibly and flexibly as it has done in this case by finding such children a suitable school a long way from home. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Morris of Bolton
I want to speak to Amendments Nos. 21, 23 and 25, which are grouped with Amendment No. 8. Obviously we have touched on some of these issues already but, like the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I, too, was not totally clear about the answer given by the Minister. Therefore, perhaps if I go over part of the issue again, I shall be able to look forward to a further explanation.
We believe that as the Bill currently stands there are serious flaws and deficiencies in the way that the legislation is drafted, in particular in relation to the protection of vulnerable children, those with special educational needs and their transportation to school. The general effect of our amendments would be to ensure that transport was provided for pupils with mobility problems or special educational needs that prevented them walking to school. They would either be protected from charges or protected from charges that were higher than those for their peer groups travelling to maintained schools.
214GC It is generally accepted that SEN provision is a large and growing part of the school transport budget. We also know that the situation varies considerably from place to place and that SEN covers a broad spectrum of circumstances. Pupils with statements of special educational needs may well have highly specialised transport needs. There may be an oxygen dependency or a requirement for measures to prevent pupils with brittle bone disease sustaining injuries. In those cases, the statement will usually set out the type of transport needed and the LEA will have to provide it free of charge.
Those are the simple cases where there is no dispute. I doubt that parents will apply for statements purely to become entitled to free school transport. The process of statementing is based on educational need and applications are driven by a range of factors. It is unlikely that applications driven purely by the desire for free transport provision would get very far.
Many parents of children with special educational needs have other financial pressures. Some grants for equipment are means-tested, and parents who do not meet that means test have to find significant sums from their own capital or income to buy specialist equipment. They also find that the respite care allocated from social services is insufficient for their needs and they have to pay for top-ups.
Schemes will have to offer a complex range of transport facilities to suit the broad spectrum of need covered by the term "SEN", and costs will necessarily increase as services get better at providing for pupils with the highest level of need. We cannot help but believe that the Bill as it stands is not primarily concerned with the details of SEN transport and thus that it treats it in a manner that could produce unintended and detrimental consequences.
§ Baroness Walmsley
This amendment is very similar to the third part of the next amendment in my name and therefore I want to say a few words about it now. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, is the only one who is, as he described himself, thick. I think we are all thick because I, too, was somewhat confused by the Minister's earlier answer, detailed and careful though it was.
It strikes me that the Minister was saying that a child with an SEN or a disability may have to pay for his transport if he lives within the walking-to-school limit if his parents are not protected from charges because they are on a low income. That is a problem. I tried to intervene earlier but was too long-winded in making my point and another noble Lord intervened. The fact is that an able-bodied child can avoid such charges by deciding to walk to school but a child with disabilities cannot do so. That is the difference and that is why I do not think that disabled children are being treated the same as those who are fully able-bodied. Both groups of children may live within the statutory distance and be charged for their transport but they are different.
§ Lord Filkin
I suspect that any confusion is my fault but this is also a complicated issue. Therefore, I shall 215GC go once more into the breach, but it may well mean that noble Lords will be threatened with a serious—but, I hope, not too complex—and very thorough letter on these matters.
I shall start where the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, ended and set out the position on one point. She said that it would be unreasonable for children with some form of special educational needs within the three-mile limit to have to pay if they were within walking distance. But that is the current situation. Many children with SEN living within a three-mile limit may currently be paying something towards their transport. That is a fact of life and it is the current situation. Not every child with SEN receives totally free transport.
I turn to the specific example given by my noble friend Lord Berkley. One should never respond to specific examples from the Dispatch Box but it may be helpful in this case. The charges will not be high, if paid at all. They would be no more than those for a child who travels to an ordinary school. Of course, that situation in London is relatively straightforward because, as from September, all transport for children in London will be free. Therefore, it follows that in that situation transport for SEN pupils must also be free so that there is no worsenment under the ECHR.
Under the legislation, a child with SEN would be protected if his peer group walked to school but not if the peer group paid for transport by bus. But the child in question would not pay any more than the peer group on the bus, irrespective of the complexity of need or the distance travelled by the child with SEN. The issue is not simple but I hope that I have started to clarify the matter, although my letter may achieve more. If the Committee can bear with me, I shall give noble Lords the full benefit of my admirable speaking notes because, again, that may help reflection.
A number of problems are associated with Amendment No. 8—not least that a child with special educational needs is not a legally defined term and there are no entitlements to free transport as such. An LEA is under a duty to provide transport where it considers it necessary to facilitate attendance.
Amendment No. 21 seeks to include in the definition of "protected child" a limited proportion of children with a special educational need or a disability. Those included will be pupils who, because of their SEN or disability, are unable to use transport ordinarily available to children without that SEN or disability and who attend the nearest suitable school or another school where it has been agreed with the scheme authorities that they should be registered as a consequence of their SEN. Amendment No. 23 seeks to ensure that any pupils with mobility problems that prevent them walking to school will have transport provided and that they will be protected from charges.
From my discussions with the Special Educational Consortium, I know that there is a helpful consensus that parents of pupils with an SEN should not be disadvantaged in comparison with parents whose children make their own way to their local school on 216GC foot or by bicycle or bus and that, where possible, improvements to existing arrangements might accrue from travel schemes.
After listening to these points being made in another place, we have provided a number of clarifications of that policy. LEAs will need to include in scheme applications their policy on providing transport to pupils with SEN. They are not approved schemes unless they protect pupils with SEN or mobility problems from charges which would be additional to those that accrue to the parents of pupils of the same age in the area in which they reside where special arrangements have been made by reason of disability or special needs.
These provisions would cover transport provided as a result of mobility limitations or where a child's SEN prevented him making his way to school independently on foot where that was the normal mode of travel for children resident in the neighbourhood. It would also cover transport provided in order to meet a pupil's SEN where it could not be met through transport available to pupils generally in an area. It would include specialised transport to a local school attended by pupils with SEN and non-specialised transport to schools further away than those attended by pupils resident in the area.
Paragraph 32 of the prospectus requires LEAs to set out in detail their approach to providing transport for pupils with SEN and, as I said, we shall not approve schemes that do not fulfil it.
However, we cannot accept that throughout the Bill all SEN children can necessarily be protected from charges and that all SEN children should be able to travel free. I believe that in part that is what is behind the amendment. That is not currently the law and we do not think that it should be the law in the future. If, on the back of this Bill, one sought to make a major change of this sort, it would effectively frustrate to a major extent any possibility of flexibility or creativity by local authorities.
It would be a nice world in which every parent of a child with SEN, whatever the nature of the disability, had everything free. But that is not the current law and we do not believe that it is reasonable to change the law in this respect. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, for the fact that, when we touched on this matter at Second Reading, he made it clear that he was not seeking to be adventurous in that respect on the back of this Bill. That was reputable, given the pressures that were no doubt placed on him. I think that that was the difference between us and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on this matter.
In many respects, the measure that I have outlined goes further than the amendment. It protects pupils who are unable to walk or cycle to school, along with their peers, from charges where they require transport. The amendment offers protection for children only where transport is normally available to the child's peers. In addition, there are practical difficulties but I shall not go into those. 217GC With regard to Amendment No. 23, the children in question must already be provided with transport where it is needed. The Bill requires scheme authorities to make such travel arrangements as they consider appropriate for each child.
Amendment No. 25 seeks to extend free school transport to pupils who have to attend a specific school because it caters for their special educational needs. I agree that it is important that transport costs and availability do not prevent pupils with SEN attending the nearest school that makes appropriate provision for those needs. However, I think that the existing system strikes the right balance between the needs of this group and the needs of mainstream pupils. Pupils with statements of special educational needs may have specialised transport needs, such as oxygen dependency or measures to prevent those with brittle bone disease sustaining injuries. In these cases, the statement will set out the type of transport that is required—which will continue to be provided free.
In other cases, pupils with SEN will be able to attend a mainstream school alongside their peers and share transport. Pupils with severe dyslexia, for example, may fall into this category, as may pupils who are blind or deaf. In these cases, we would expect pupils with SEN to be treated in the same way as their mainstream peers—which is the situation now.
Some other pupils with special educational needs will have to travel to special schools or mainstream schools with specialised units attached. In these cases, children may have to travel a significant distance to a suitable school. If a local travel scheme has charges in place, then their parents are more likely to have to pay than when their children attend mainstream provision. We fully understand that parents in these circumstances may think that additional charges are unfair and I think that we have made it clear that LEAs will not be able to discriminate in that way.
There is a further problem with the amendment—and, again I shall not refer to technical faults. It refers to pupils attending a,school that is suitable by virtue of provision made for particular needs".This does not specify that the school has to be the closest school that can cater for the pupil with special educational needs. A parent could choose a school a considerable distance away rather than one with adequate provision that is closer to home. In some cases, a further school may be named on a statement by agreement between parents and the local education authority, with the agreement that parents will pay for transport—putting these parents in the same position as other parents who exercise parental preference in the educational mainstream.
If the Bill overturned these existing agreements which work, making all transport to special schools free, there could be unacceptable pressure on LEA budgets. We are not using the Bill to change the existing structure of protection further than is required to ensure compliance with the ECHR or DDA, or whatever.
218GC I hope that the Committee will accept that a blanket exemption from charges for all pupils with SEN is not appropriate, as a proportionate response, for the reasons that I have given. Nevertheless, this stuff is so complex that I hope the Committee will bear with me in sending a pretty full and as succinct a letter as possible in the circumstances—perhaps with some illustrations, because the more we illustrate it the more likely it is to be grounded in real life, rather than lawyers' necessary sophistications.
I hope that that has been partly, if not completely, helpful.
§ Lord Filkin
If the noble Lord, Lord Rix, is continuing to be helpful and is suggesting that this debate has just covered most of the issues in Amendment No. 18, and he wished it, post facto, to be grouped with it, I shall not resist him.
§ Lord Rix
I am grateful to the Minister. I have little more to say, except that we wish to see that providing support to enable disabled children to go to school can be expensive and we are concerned that future financial pressures may lead to the prospectus being watered down, making it more difficult for disabled children to access education. That is the point of Amendment No. 18, which I am happy to have tacked onto these.
§ Lord Filkin
If I caught the hint behind the words of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, he would welcome a little more speaking from me on this matter. Am I correct?
§ Lord Filkin
I was just checking that if I took the noble Lord's inference correctly, he would now like me to speak specifically to his amendment.
§ Lord Filkin
Indeed. The Bill does not seek to introduce differential entitlement to home-to-school transport for children with SEN and it does not protect children with SEN from charges that a local education authority may wish to levy. But neither does it require participating LEAs to charge pupils with SEN for home-to-school transport. However, we are clear that pupils with SEN and/or disabilities must be protected from additional charges over and above their peers without additional needs.
At paragraph 32, the prospectus states that scheme applicants must describe how their proposals cater for pupils with SEN with and without statements, disabled pupils and pupils with medical conditions. Where a disabled child is unable to walk a statutory walking distance, the LEA will be under a duty to make transport arrangements for them. We know that there is a great deal of concern about the way in which charges affect families with pupils with SEN and/or 219GC disabilities. We will approve only schemes which will protect pupils with SEN and/or disabilities from any charges additional to those which apply to children of the same age living in the same area who attend their neighbourhood school if special arrangements have to be made to accommodate a child's disabilities or SEN.
School transport arrangements cover transport provided as a result of a child's SEN and/or disability where a pupil cannot avail himself of transport provided for all pupils or make his way to school independently on foot or otherwise where that is the normal mode of travel for children resident in the neighbourhood.
Transport has to be provided in order to support education and the meeting of pupils' SEN which cannot be accommodated through transport available to other pupils living in the area. This would cover both specialised transport to local schools attended by pupils with SEN and specialised or non-specialised transport to schools further away than those attended by pupils resident in the area.
The intention of this paragraph is to ensure that parents of children with SEN and/or disabilities do not pay any charges additional to those paid by parents of pupils without SEN and/or disabilities—for example, where more expensive specialist transport is required—or because they had to travel further to access suitable educational provision. That is the nub of it. When we give an example—I shall not chance my arm and do so now—it will become explicitly clear. We will use real examples of real charges and signal that they cannot be charged more than the charge for their peers going to a local school when they are going, for the sake of argument, 15 miles.
To ensure that there was no charge to parents of pupils without SEN and/or disabilities—for example, because they were able to walk to school—there would he no charge to parents of a child with SEN and/or disabilities where transport arrangements are required by reason of that SEN or disability or because they had to travel further to access suitable educational provision. The prospectus accompanying the Bill is now on a statutory footing, as I have signalled on a number of occasions, and the guidance makes it clear that where pupils with mobility or other difficulties may need additional help, LEAs must consider whether their scheme discriminates against those pupils on ECHR and other grounds. It also requires LEAs to provide a thorough analysis of the impact. Furthermore, the DDA, as amended by the SEN legislation, also applies and I have covered that issue in speaking to other amendments. These functions would include providing school transport under Sections 509 or 509ZAA.
On the watering down point, the LEA would sign up to the prospectus in force at the time. Any changes would have to be approved by the Secretary of State. I apologise to Members of the Committee for wearying 220GC them with the length and complexity of the issue, but it may be possible that that is helpful when people read Hansard.
§ Baroness Morris of Bolton
I, too, am grateful to the Minister for his reply. We are concerned that some children may have an entitlement to specialist support but who do not have a statement. However, I will read with interest the noble Lord's letter and what he has said today.
The Minister said that it is a complicated issue and it is. But precisely because of that, we need better and clear guidance to meet the real and understandable concerns of parents and children with SEN.
§ Lord Filkin
It is not merely that we should understand the issue but that parents should, too. That is a profound point and we need to reflect on it. As to my threatened letter, if there are further issues on which Members of the Committee require clarification, they should come straight back to me and we will try to provide it. It is important to get it as right and as clear as we can within the limits of where we can move.
§ 6 p.m.
For my part, I would find a letter with examples very helpful. I am requesting it now rather than writing the Minister a letter.
This has been an interesting discussion, and I have learnt a lot. But for the people outside who are, as the Minister said, desperately concerned about these matters, although perhaps without cause, this is an opportunity to put their minds at rest. I would welcome a letter— as short as the Minister feels that he can make it, including some case studies. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff)
In calling Amendment No. 9, with which Amendment No. 12 is grouped, I make the point that if Amendment No. 12 were to be agreed it would pre-empt all the amendments from Amendment No. 13 to Amendment No. 18.
§ Baroness Walmsley
moved Amendment No. 9:Page 2, line 28, at end insert—A school travel scheme may not—
221GC The noble Baroness said: I tabled this amendment for the sake of the environment and for the sake of children with special needs.
- (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."
Paragraphs (a) and (b) of my amendment relate to all children who live outside the current walking-to-school limits. Naturally, some of those children will be from families on low incomes, whose free transport will already be protected by the Bill. But there will be other families who may—and I say "may" advisedly— be able to afford to pay for their children's school transport, which they now get free. It must be said that all families are under financial pressure these days; it is an expensive business bringing up children and even those not on benefits struggle to manage. Indeed, they are always looking for ways in which to do things more cheaply. That is what worries me, unless we include the amendment in the Bill.
Here is why. Parents, especially those with several children, who receive a bill for school transport having previously received it for free, may well pile all the children into the car and drive them to school. Then, hey presto, the stated objective of the Bill has been defeated. Normally we on these Benches are in favour of targeting financial help at those most in need. Indeed, the Minister reminded me of that fact in his reply at Second Reading. But on occasion that principle must be put aside in favour of the greater principle of protecting the environment. If a little bit of help were given through the amendment to families who strictly speaking do not need it, so be it. It would be worth it if it achieved the aim, to which the Government are committed, of getting the children out of the cars and on to the buses, or their feet, or their bicycle.
Paragraph (c) of the amendment refers to children in special education who already have an existing entitlement to free transport. We have to be clear about the need to provide transport to those children strictly based on their needs and not on where they live. The additional cost of getting to a more distant but more suitable school must be covered, even if they have to pay the equivalent cost to the cost of getting to the nearest school, which their fully able peers would have to pay. That is because other benefits that they may receive are for other things—for example, disability living allowance. The free transport that they have had up to now is not covered by any other benefit. That is why we need to ensure now that all such children are provided with free transport to the best school that can serve their special needs. I heard welcome reassurances from the Minister on that point a little earlier.
As to those children who do not currently have free transport, the Minister assured me—in reply to the very first question that I asked him in a pre-Bill meeting with the Minister and officials—that money-saving is not the objective of the pilot schemes. One purpose of the pilots is to allow LEAs to redistribute in a different way the limited resources available to subsidised school transport. I would think that helping children with SEN or disabilities who currently pay some or all the cost would be a good way in which to 222GC redistribute those funds. If that was one of the objectives of one of the pilots submitted for approval to the department, how would the Government respond? Would they believe it to be an appropriate way in which to distribute the limited resources available? I beg to move.
§ Baroness Morris of Bolton
Amendment No. 12, which is grouped with Amendment No. 9, is probing in nature and is an attempt to reinstate the status quo. It would ensure that children who live more than two miles away from their primary school and 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 living fewer than two miles away from their primary school or fewer than three miles away from their secondary school. It would allow LEAs the freedom to do so.
We need to recognise the fact that, under the Bill, parents could be looking at a charge of £1 a day for each pupil. For a family of one child, that is about £200 during the school year, but it does not take much for the figures to multiply according to the number of children. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said that it was expensive even for parents who are not on a low income; I might add that it is expensive for Members of this Chamber, too. A family of four children could face a bill of £800 a year for sending their children to school, which is an expensive addition to housekeeping costs for many hard-working families. However, I noted in the prospectus that there is a particularly strong case for providing protection from charges for the fourth or subsequent child of compulsory school age in a household. as they comprise less than 1 per cent of the pupil population.
We must also remember that the cut-off of 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 childcare 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. 24 introduces the case of a pupil attending a specialist school, having taken and passed the necessary entrance qualifications. It would be useful to allow a child who lives on the wrong side of town and who has a particular interest in attending a specialist school because of the nature of its speciality to attend that school, and it would be useful to provide some support for that child's transport costs. Amendment No. 22 raises a similar issue in regard to a child registered at a Welsh-language school.
That raises the question of how one assesses whether the child ought to go to such a school and whether the school is suitable for the child. The Government have 223GC made some suggestions as to how we might determine what is a suitable school for a child and how we might introduce an objective test to measure it. In their response to the report by the Select Committee on Education and Skills on school admissions, the Government accepted the need for aptitude tests for certain types of school. The examples of that were special sports schools and schools specialising in visual and performing arts and languages. Those schools would be able to continue to set an aptitude test and select up to 10 per cent of their pupils on the basis of their aptitude in sport. the visual and performing arts or languages.
If we are to go down the route of trying to encourage more pupils to attend a school that will meet their particular needs—in this case, one that will give that child specialist support—we ought to provide free school transport to the pupils who pass that aptitude test. It is an objective measure of whether that school is suitable for them.
§ Lord Filkin
I fear that the Committee is to be subjected to a fairly long speech again from me, but I hope that it will bear it with fortitude and even that some of it is helpful.
Amendment No. 9 would maintain the current entitlement to school transport of any child who attends primary school and lives more than two miles away or any other child who attends secondary school and lives more than three miles away; it seeks to prevent travel scheme authorities from removing any existing entitlement to free transport.
If such an amendment was passed, the effect, if not the intent, of it would be to destroy the Bill. If you protect all those who are currently protected, you pre-empt such a large amount of the scope and funding that local authorities have that they will have precious little room for manoeuvre to do anything positive or creative to get more children out of cars into walking, cycling, other forms of transport such as buses or other ways to get children to school that are more environmentally friendly, healthy and equitable. I hope that that is self-evident from the arithmetic alone; if you protect everybody whom you currently protect, you pre-empt the scheme. I shall not assume that that was the intent; I shall assume that these are in the nature of probing amendments and unpack what lies behind them.
Under the current system, only a small minority of pupils receive free or assisted home to school transport; only about 10 per cent of pupils in England and 20 per cent in Wales get anything at all. There is a relatively large subsidy—although I shall be careful in referring to figures of £600 million as large in front of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, as it might upset him. About £675 million was spent in England in 2002–03 on school transport; that is large in these contexts, if not in total local government terms. I am only teasing the noble Lord.
That subsidy is given simply on the basis of distance criteria, because that was what legislators in the 1940s believed was a good enough rule. In practice, we know that nearly two-thirds of pupils who arrive at school by 224GC bus have their fares paid by their parents, not by the LEA. Those pupils who have their fare paid for by their parents are disproportionately drawn from families with lower household incomes. I would be more sympathetic to the argument to protect the status quo if the status quo were not disproportionately subsidising richer rather than poorer parents. I have given the evidence for that previously. If we deny local authorities the opportunity to raise additional revenue for reinvestment to redistribute the subsidy for home-to-school transport, as this amendment and others would do, those children would continue to shoulder this burden and we would make no contribution to health or environmental improvement.
As we said at Second Reading, there is no public funding available to expand free provision of school transport. Grown-up politics says at times that one has to consider how to get the maximum amount possible from a fixed sum of money rather than always being able to throw more money at something. So it is vital that local authorities are given the scope to be more thoughtful and creative in using their limited resources. Although the Bill will not lead to increased public funding, it will allow authorities to design improved services through a combination of efficient use of existing resources, reinvestment of revenue from charging and redistributing.
The amendment would eliminate the possibility of reinvesting revenue, as schemes would be prevented from charging, prevent the redistribution of the existing subsidy, and remove the capacity to make improvements. I hope that no one really wishes that to happen—otherwise we are all wasting our time. We are considering how to create a system that will achieve more equity and make an environmental contribution, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, rightly said that she wanted to.
When charges are proposed, the prospectus asks scheme applicants to set out in great detail their proposals for charging, which must be the subject of wide local consultation. The prospectus emphasises that charges must be affordable and not pitched at a level which would increase car use—otherwise the whole venture will be abortive and a waste of time, because it will lead to what it was meant to cure. It also requires local schemes to take full account of the effects of family size and the pressures on low-income families.
On Amendments Nos. 22 and 24, I agree that transport for pupils attending denominational and Welsh-medium schools is important, as those pupils are likely to make longer journeys than their peers who attend their neighbourhood community or, in Wales, English-medium community school. Many parents exercise parental preference so that their children can attend denominational schools, and in those cases local education authorities have no obligation to provide transport, unless the school is the child's nearest suitable school and outside statutory walking distance. This is similar to the debate that we had on 225GC SEN, in that we are not seeking to use the Bill to provide betterment for groups who currently do not have betterment. The consequence of that would be that we would remove the scope of the scheme for creative improvements.
I understand that parents and pupils attending denominational schools are becoming increasingly concerned that discretionary transport to denominational schools, both free and subsidised, is being withdrawn by some authorities. The Catholic Education Service and the Church of England Board of Education recognise some of the problems with current transport arrangements to denominational schools, and want to work with us to put in place arrangements that will increase the availability of affordable transport to children attending denominational schools. That may be why they have not been at all averse to the Bill—because they have seen its potential.
Paragraph 10 of the prospectus identifies transport to denominational schools and to Welsh-medium schools as a priority area for school travel schemes. That is the relevance of it. The prospectus accompanying the Bill is very clear on how LEAs should address the question of charges and denominational schools. It states:LEAs should pay careful attention to the impact of any charges on low income families whose parents adhere to a particular faith or philosophy, and who have expressed a preference for a particular school as a result of their religious or their philosophical beliefs (or in Wales because of the language of instruction). In our view, it is possible that these categories of pupils may be discriminated against if they are treated differently from other pupils from low income families, unless the different treatment can be objectively justified, for example on grounds of excessive journey length, or having a detrimental impact on the child's education".The prospectus also makes it clear that when provision is made for pupils travelling to denominational schools, it must be made for pupils travelling to non-denominational schools to be educated in accordance with their parents' philosophical beliefs. However, we cannot accept that pupils travelling to denominational schools should receive free transport, if pupils attending community schools are making a contribution to their transport costs. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, will see the comparison there with the debate that we had on SEN.
The effect of Amendment No. 22 is to extend the protection from charges to all pupils of compulsory school age who attend a Welsh-medium school. We cannot agree to this amendment, not least because it is incompatible with the Human Rights Act. It would require scheme authorities to discriminate in favour of pupils who attend Welsh-medium schools, and therefore to treat those children more favourably than pupils who attend English-medium schools.
Many parents exercise parental preference so that their children can attend Welsh-medium schools, and in these cases local education authorities have no obligation to provide transport. It is often provided on a free or subsidised basis, but that is discretionary, not 226GC mandatory. On a practical level, different LEAs have different levels of Welsh-medium school provision. I shall not go into detail now, although I could do so later if that was helpful.
The situation regarding specialist schools, which is the subject of Amendment No. 24, is somewhat different. We want all secondary schools to play to their strengths and provide a curriculum that offers flexibility. Our five-year strategy set that out. More than two-thirds of secondary schools have already achieved specialist status. To date, 15.8 per cent of specialist schools are rural schools. Specialist status does not limit pupil choice or narrow the curriculum; every comprehensive school in the country is obliged to provide the full national curriculum. Therefore, parents in rural areas will not need to make school preference decisions on the basis of a school becoming a specialist school. They will get the core offer of the national curriculum in any specialist school that they go to.
The Government recognise that schools in rural areas are often geographically far apart. The specialist school concept does not pose a barrier in this regard and for school partnerships, we fully appreciate that it may be necessary to concentrate on ICT-based links, or teachers with a particular expertise travelling to pupils rather than pupils travelling further. Such approaches sit well with the programme.
Amendment No. 24 would extend free school transport to pupils who have passed an aptitude test to attend a specialist school. Only 6 per cent of specialist schools and about 2 per cent of all secondary schools select by aptitude. Despite that, we cannot accept that pupils who have passed an aptitude test should receive free transport. If they attend their nearest school, we think that they should be treated in the same way as other pupils. When they do not attend their nearest school, we think they should be treated in the same way as other pupils whose parents exercise parental preference. Although some scheme authorities might implement proposals that would have the effect of facilitating attendance at schools of parental preference—for example through area-wide concessionary fare schemes—we feel that there should again be local discretion in that regard, as that is part of what the Bill is all about.
There is nearly an end to this monologue. The part of the amendment to which I have just referred, if it became part of the Bill, might even lead to parents applying for places in specialist schools—although let me not labour that point. I hope that the Committee will agree that this amendment would create unnecessary divisions between pupils in the same school, and would not reflect our wish that the cost of school transport for all pupils better reflects their family circumstances.
I have spoken at length, but I hope that I have illustrated some of the essential architecture of the Bill, building on the debate that we had on SEN. I hope that my speech was helpful, despite being of a wearisome length.
§ Baroness Morris of Bolton
I thank the Minister for his very full and detailed reply. Indeed, the intention was to probe and to unpack some of the thinking behind the Bill.
I shall read the Minister's comments with care, although we are still concerned about the cost to low-income households. We believe that the Bill sits uneasily with the Government's mantra of choice, not only for denominational schools but for specialist schools. If a child has a particular talent and gets into one of the specialist schools, why should they be disadvantaged just because they come from a poor family? Why should the only choice that they have be their nearest school?
§ Baroness Walmsley
I shall just make one comment, before I move to my amendment, on the little debate that we have just had about specialist schools and whether children should get free transport to the nearest specialist school if they have been selected on aptitude. I am aware that although specialist schools have that power, none of them uses it. If they are not going to give children free transport to such a school if they have been selected by aptitude and the school is further away than the nearest school offering the national curriculum, as all schools do, what is the point in having that power at all? I wonder whether the Minister could tell us whether the Government have any intention of removing the power to select on aptitude. No one seems to want it and no one is going to pay for it, so why bother to have it? It sends out the wrong message about those schools.
I want to make a comment on Amendment No. 9 before I withdraw it. I accept all that the Minister says about the status quo giving the minimum help to those who need it most. I accepted in my opening remarks that some help currently goes to some people who do not need it very much and would continue to receive it if my amendment was accepted. I also accept what he says about my amendment probably destroying the Bill in destroying the flexibility that local authorities are looking for in running the pilots. But I was hoping by moving the amendment to open up a debate about the balance between two objectives that the Government say that they want for the pilots. That is the balance between the objectives of environmental protection and appropriate financial support for those who need it.
I do not believe that we have had that debate, and I do not believe that we can, because this Bill is not the way to do it. What we really need is a bit of blue-sky thinking about public transport—but this Bill is not it. The countries where they have really succeeded in getting people on the bus have done so by making it free for everybody, including those people who do not need the money. I do not need the money to come here free on the bus to your Lordships' House, but because I am over 60 I have a "freedom pass". That has made me use the buses more, even though I could perfectly 228GC easily pay the fare. So I can tell you from personal experience that it does help to get people on to the buses. But that is a different debate for another day.
I shall make a point that I did not make in my opening remarks. When children first go to a school from which they are more than three miles away, the parents expect that they will go to the school for seven or eight years. They start off with free transport. That is an implicit contract with those parents, who plan their family budget on the basis of it when the child goes to the school at 11 or 12. The Government are planning to let local authorities change that contract.
I hope that the Government and the local authorities planning to do that will bear in mind the potential electoral consequences. More than that, I hope that they will bear in mind the potential consequences on the environment. People are only too willing to jump into the car if they think that it will save them money. People think about the cost of a car only when they put petrol in the tank. They forget that there are other costs in having a car, such as buying it in the first place, and having it serviced and insured. People do not think of that when they compare the cost of the bus fare with the cost of the petrol.
We are living in the real world. We have to bear in mind how people actually act, leaving aside sometimes the logic of how they act. Sometimes it is illogical. If you take all the costs of a car into account, it probably is cheaper to go on the bus, but people do not always see it that way. I was hoping to open up a debate about the balance between the two stated objectives of the Bill. We have not really had it, and I do not think that we can because the Bill is wrong in many ways. There are other ways in which we need to address the needs of the environment and poor families. However, in the mean time—
§ Lord Filkin
I was troubled that the noble Baroness was ending on an almost iconoclastic note of saying that because the Bill does not effectively solve all the environmental problems it is not worth while. I know what she means in part; I take her point about reality and marginal costs of car use. It is open to local authorities if they wish and can afford it—as Transport for London is doing—to go further in terms of their transport schemes and bring in totally free transport of the sort from which she benefits. Perhaps I will benefit from it one day if I ever fill in the forms.
Within the realities of current resources, we do not believe that a system that locks a subsidy in to people by distance and does little to address some of the consequences of that is good enough. Local authorities should have the scope to see whether they can pilot innovative and better schemes. That is at the heart of the measure and why we are keen that it be implemented.
§ Baroness Morris of Bolton
moved Amendment No. 10:Page 2, line 29, leave out "has the meaning given by section 444(5)" and insert "means one mileThe noble Baroness said: This is a probing amendment. It is intended to air the issue of statutory walking distance. The current position is that free transport is provided for primary school children who have to walk more than two miles to school and secondary school children who have to walk more than three miles. I am sure that we will touch on the issues that face rural areas later in our proceedings. However, as was mentioned at Second Reading, in many urban areas congestion problems arise not from children travelling more than two or three miles to their primary or secondary school, but from children being taken by car to school where the distance from home is less than two or three miles. By sticking to the two-mile to three-mile limits, to what extent are we requiring scheme authorities to grasp the nettle of congestion in urban areas where journeys are short?
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley—I am sorry that he is not in his place—talked of the law of unintended consequences when he moved an amendment earlier. At Second Reading, the Minister said that I was pretending that a consequence of the charge would be that people might get into their cars. Had I not been suffering from a temperature that day—my legs would not have got me to my feet—I would have protested that I was not pretending. I have done a little of opinion polling of my own between Second Reading and today. I am not saying that YouGov, ICM or MORI would immediately dash to my door to ask me to join them. It is not necessarily a representative sample. I did not load it one way or the other. However, it slightly satisfied the frustrated psephologist in me.
I asked: "If the school is just down the road or if people start to charge for a journey that was normally free, what would you do?". The answer was: "We would probably just get in the car and take our children to school". Someone said, "It's fine, Trish, walking when the weather is nice". But most of the time where I live in Lancashire, it is pouring down, so it is much easier to get in the car to take your children to school.
The Audit Commission study on school transport found that more than 60 per cent of primary school children who live between one and two miles of their school travel by car and that about 30 per cent of secondary school pupils who live between two and three miles of school also travel by car. If LEAs were forced to provide free transport for pupils who live more than a mile from school, that might make them look more carefully at congestion in urban areas, to which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, also referred.
Coupled with the ability to charge, which we will debate later, it will give them some means of financing the schemes that meet the needs of pupils who live 230GC closer to their schools and of reducing the burden on our roads, which is particularly great at home time and when children go to school in the morning.
As the Bill is drafted, local authorities might not choose to address congestion in urban areas. This amendment probes the Government and presses them to encourage LEAs to tackle that problem. I beg to move.
§ Lord Filkin
We know that one of the problems with our processes is that it is not always transparent to spot what is lurking behind the amendment from the literal words of the amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, was, I think, sorrowful that we could not have the debate that she wanted on her amendment as a consequence.
At one level, the answer to the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, at its simplest, is that we will never know if it is possible, within the current Bill and the reality of constraints, to do better with the amount of money now available, unless we allow local authorities to see if they can innovate by a different form of subsidy than one simply based on geographical distance. Of course, that is at the heart of why a piloting approach is appropriate.
Perhaps I may give the noble Baroness the literal responses to her amendment, which, in part, touch on what she was seeking. From the National Travel Survey, we know that 83 per cent of pupils walk one mile or less to school, 45 per cent walk one to two miles and only 16 per cent walk two to three miles to school. Many children who live between one and three miles from school travel to school by bus, family car or taxi, which is expensive for their parents, particularly when there are several children in the family.
However, the amendment proposes that scheme authorities should be required to provide transport for pupils who live more than one mile from their nearest school. That would be unnecessary, unworkable and prohibitively expensive—I shall give some illustration of that. It is unnecessary because there are already a substantial number of children, particularly of secondary school age, who walk or cycle more than a mile to school. Thanks heaven for that—the problem would be even worse if they did not.
The proposal is unworkable because it would sharply increase the number of pupils travelling to school by bus. Authorities would not be obliged to provide free transport, but if they charged free market fares, pupils might not use them. Above all, the bus network does not have sufficient capacity in the morning and evening peaks, just in terms of sheer supply. It would take a considerable time to build bus capacity.
The killer issue, of course, is cost. The current arrangements are largely based on the two and three-mile statutory distances. It is likely that around £700 million will be spent on home-to-school transport in England during the current financial year and about £80 million in Wales. If we extended that to those who live more than one mile from school, our rough estimate is that it would require between £1.2 billion 231GC and £2 billion extra for all authorities. If someone has a free cheque to give for that, I am that sure local authorities will be pleased to receive it.
However, there has to be a sensible scheme to see what can be done within the realities of finances, rather than thinking that limitless amounts of someone else's money can be thrown at it. That is not necessarily the only way to make improvements. By that, I do not imply that sometimes increased investment is not necessary, but we have to test it within those parameters. I hope that that has been helpful.
§ Baroness Morris of Bolton
I thank the Minister for his reply. As I said, this was a probing amendment to raise the issue. I have some sympathy with what the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said in answer to the Minister's reply to her previous amendment. However, for the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Baroness Morris of Bolton
moved Amendment No. 11:Page 2, line 30, at end insert— "(1) A scheme authority or school can withdraw the entitlement to school transport where a child's behaviour puts at risk the safety of other pupils using the same mode of transport.(2) The scheme shall have regard to the need to be consistent with the scheme authority's transport policy statement prepared under section 509AA of the Education Act 1999 (c. 56).(3) A scheme authority exercising its right under sub-paragraph (1) will be deemed to have satisfied its obligations under section 444(4)(b)(i) of the Education Act 1996.The noble Baroness said: Poor pupil behaviour on buses is cited by parents as a major concern. Not only can it endanger the safety of passengers as drivers are distracted or equipment vandalised, but it also makes for an unpleasant experience for other pupils travelling on the bus. There is some confusion over exactly who is responsible for ensuring good pupil behaviour on school buses.
It would be helpful if the Government issued guidance to LEAs setting out the extent of the responsibilities and powers in relation to pupil behaviour on buses. The provision of CCTV or escorts on school buses may be one way in which to improve behaviour. Escorts could be provided by schools or the bus operator but they would need to have adequate training and a clear remit in terms of power.
If we want more parents to send their children on the school bus, we need to ensure that the behaviour of the children using the buses is of a high standard. In their response to the education committee's report, the Government said that if a child is excluded from a school bus, the LEA has to pay the cost of transporting that child to school. Therefore, there is a financial disincentive to the LEA excluding a child from the school bus. It would have to pay for a taxi or some other means of transport to get to school the child who is misbehaving on a school bus.
There is no incentive for the LEA to exclude children who are misbehaving and putting at risk other pupils on the bus or damaging equipment on it. It is 232GC time that we took a much firmer line on the issue. It should not be the LEA that is left to pick up the cost of sending children to school in a taxi. We should say that the parents of such children should pay the cost of getting them to school and that they should take responsibility for ensuring that their children get to school. I beg to move.
§ Lord Triesman
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, raised a very interesting point. At the risk of making her argument still stronger, which is not my job of course, it could be an incentive for an extremely disruptive pupil to think, "If I carry on doing this, I can travel by taxi", which would hardly be anyone's intention. But this is quite a complex issue and I want to go through it in detail because obviously we must get it right.
The first sub-paragraph of Amendment No. 11 seeks to introduce a power for the LEAs to withdraw entitlement to school transport in scheme areas where the behaviour of a pupil puts at risk the safety of other pupils using the same transport. The amendment would not extend that power to LEAs which were not scheme authorities, and that might be a gap in the amendment. Nor would the amendment address a situation where a pupil's transport to school was not provided by the LEA—for example, where a pupil consistently behaved badly while travelling on a train or a public bus. That is another possible gap.
Therefore, although the amendment seeks to ensure the safety of other pupils, it is important to remember that pupils travel on transport used by members of the public, who, as I am sure Members of the Committee will agree, should be protected. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, that poor behaviour by pupils on school transport is an extremely serious issue to which we must get the right solution. The consequences of poor behaviour can be very wide-ranging.
The DfES and DfT issued a joint document, Travelling to School: an action plan, which asks that each school should promote positive behaviour by pupils on their journey to and from school through rewarding positive behaviour and using sanctions to address poor behaviour. Guidance for schools on behaviour on school transport is contained in key stage 3 behaviour and attendance materials, so it is addressed in schools and in the curriculum. Schools recognise that positive behaviour on the journey can enhance the school's reputation. It also supports good behaviour in the school. We expect schools to work with the police, bus operators and the local community to promote positive behaviour.
Similarly, we expect LEAs and transport authorities to tackle anti-social behaviour through driver training and to work with schools on an agreed approach to make pupils aware of the dangers of poor behaviour. The action plan cites the work done by Essex County Council—I am very pleased to have the opportunity to say that—which is obviously quite exemplary. It found that a behaviour liaison officer and escorts—together with driver training—reduced vandalism and poor behaviour, and significant changes were achieved. 233GC A number of authorities in Wales are also piloting the use of CCTV on routes where there have been some behaviour problems. Those measures are combined with a clear policy of sanctions for disruptive behaviour, including bans of varying periods from the school bus. The results so far are very encouraging.
Poor behaviour on buses is an issue that the LEAs have also raised. We are aware of cases where children who are eligible for free school transport have misbehaved consistently while travelling to or from school and that some authorities have adopted a policy of withdrawing transport, either for a temporary period or, in the most serious and persistent cases, permanently, which, in a way, is what we were being appealed to consider in relation to this amendment.
The intention is that such sanctions would be a deterrent and it is hoped that they would be used only rarely if they had to be invoked. However, it is important to signal to pupils and parents that behaviour which endangers other pupils—or the driver or other passengers—will not be tolerated. That is where there is a degree of confusion surrounding what can and cannot be done in terms of sanctions for poor behaviour on the school bus. Obviously, the intention of sub-paragraph (3) in the amendment is to find a way of assisting with that.
Part of the confusion lies with the interplay between the provision of school transport and the law surrounding attendance at school. Section 444(4) of the 1996 Act describes the circumstances in which a parent of a pupil of compulsory school age would have a defence to the charge of failing to secure the child's regular attendance at school. Effectively, a parent of a child attending their nearest suitable school and living outside the statutory walking distance would have a defence against a charge for non-attendance if suitable transport arrangements have not been provided.
However, the offence under Section 444(1) or (1A) is having a child who fails to attend school regularly. So if a child was banned from the school bus for a day, or perhaps a week even, the LEA would not be able to prosecute for non-attendance under Section 444. That means that an LEA could withdraw access to transport temporarily without having to consider whether alternative transport should be provided. It does not have to do that. That would not, of course, remove the parent's obligation to get the pupil to school by other means. That remains an obligation.
As to the legal position where the withdrawal of transport would result in the child failing to attend school regularly, our legal advice is that there may be circumstances where there is no legal obligation on the LEA to provide alternative transport, which goes to the heart of what the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, was asking us to consider. The Act means that the LEA has to make suitable transport arrangements if it wants to retain the ability to prosecute parents for the failure of a child to attend regularly. But that is not the same as saying that they are under a legal obligation to provide the transport.
234GC 6.45 p.m.
In the circumstances that we are considering, the LEA would not be saying that transport was unnecessary and should not be provided; it would be saying that transport is necessary and that suitable transport has been provided but that the child's behaviour is such that the child cannot take advantage of it. That is a wholly different legal proposition. Furthermore, the DfES guidance on exclusion from school states that:Pupils' behaviour in the immediate vicinity of the school or on a journey to or from school can … be grounds for exclusion".I believe that most people would agree that poor behaviour on transport is an issue that needs addressing through a variety of means: training for drivers, escorts, CCTV, as well as awarding good behaviour on transport and giving appropriate sanctions for poor behaviour. It is clear that the LEAs can already withdraw pupils from school buses on a temporary basis or, in cases of extremely bad behaviour, permanently. In either case, it would be the pupil's behaviour that made it impossible for the pupil to travel on the transport provided. That is the key in answering the points that have been, quite correctly, put to us.
Very briefly, the obligations in relation to post-16 transport are obviously important here and they are covered in passing. I do not intend to make the whole speech that has been provided for me, but there is a duty on LEAs to plan and publish annual transport policy statements locally for pupils over the age of 16. It is our intention that those policy statements and programmes should not encourage the use of cars compared with the use of other forms of transport or walking or bicycling. We would certainly be very keen to ensure that pupils of sixth-form age or those not attending school but still in education are covered by good transport policies, which all pull in the same direction as the legislation in general. That is probably the neatest way of summarising the intentions of the legislation, which I believe are covered by the legislation. In that light, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.
§ Baroness Morris of Bolton
I am grateful to the Minister for that very detailed reply, which I look forward to reading at leisure in Hansard. Had I known that Essex was such an exemplar I could have asked my noble friend Lord Hanningfield and saved the Minister a lot of time. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 12 not moved.]
§ Lord Hanningfield
moved Amendment No. 13:Page 2, line 33, at end insert "and this shall include—235GC The noble Lord said: In Amendment No. 13, we seek to provide guidance to potential scheme authorities on how the charging mechanism might work. Paragraph (a) of the amendment means that there would be a need to understand what the basis of a charge might be. Would it be a flat-rate charge, with everyone on the bus paying the same amount, which would be very easy to administer? There are some attractions to that option, of course, but people living close at hand would probably end up subsidising those who lived further away who paid the same rate. There would be no correlation between the charge and the extent to which someone used the bus. The Government might find that attractive, because they could charge just one rate, as buses in London charge £1.05 regardless of the length of the journey.
- (a) the basis on which the charge will be calculated,
- (b) the arrangements for increasing the charges,
- (c) the availability of concessionary fares, and
- (d) the method of collection."
On the other hand, if there were a distance-related charge, people living close at hand would not subsidise those who lived further away. Would the higher charge for those living in the more outlying or rural areas dissuade such people from using the bus? We had that debate before—the charge is too high and people use cars, and so on. Most bus fares are distance related, but there is a trade-off between flat-rate and distance-related charges, and the Government and scheme authorities need to think about that in relation to any guidance given on the matter.
Paragraph (b) relates to the basis for any future increases. It is all very well having a scheme that one day sets out a charge which those consulted think fair and reasonable. But what happens in subsequent years? What if there is a poor settlement for schools and a problem with local authority funding? The local authority might decide to increase the charges well above the rate of inflation in order to try to recover a shortfall in grant from government. Therefore, it would be interesting to have clarity on the basis of increase in charge.
What happens about concessionary fares? Many groups are concerned about the impact of charging on social inclusion. We need to ensure that concessionary fares are discussed in the scheme consultation. We also need to consider who would collect the fare revenue. Will there be conductors in every bus collecting the flat rate or distance-related charge? Will we expect the head teacher to collect the money from pupils at school and so add to the burdens which they face? Will we expect the local authority to require parents to set up a standing order to enable it to collect the revenue? What would be the most efficient way to collect the charges?
Will we expect parents to pay daily, weekly, monthly or each term? Clearly, collecting one payment per term would make life easier for LEAs and would cut down costs, but what if a family cannot pay a term's transport in one fell swoop? It could well be several hundred pounds and some families will find such a payment difficult. I would look to spreading the payment across a term.
Revenue collection is a dull topic in many respects, but how many schools operate and how we collect the revenue will affect a household's finances. The purpose of the amendment is to tease out some of those 236GC details and to get the department, in its next consultations, to consider the next draft of the prospectus and to discuss the issues with local education authorities. That way, before the scheme is unleashed on an unsuspecting public, there can be some guidance on these issues. They can be consulted on whether the scheme should apply in their area.
I know from my knowledge in local government that often a great deal of time and money is spent collecting small amounts of revenue. We have to do that, but I want to examine the different ways in which we might cut down the bureaucracy. We shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments and I beg to move.
§ Lord Triesman
The amendment would place a statutory duty on LEAs to insert details of charging proposals in travel scheme proposals, the basis on which they are to be calculated, arrangements for increasing charges, availability of concessionary fares and the method of collecting fares.
Our formal consultation on the draft Bill revealed widespread agreement among local authorities that any introduction of charges for home-to-school journeys should be accompanied by an improvement in the services on offer. The prospectus accompanying the Bill requires scheme applications to explain what LEAs and local transport authorities are doing to ensure that good quality, well maintained and appropriate vehicles are used on the journey to school.
The prospectus goes on to state:Scheme applications must set out local charging policies making it clear how many pupils will be charged and the level of the proposed charges".It also insists that charges must be affordable. pitched at a level which will not lead to an increase in car use. We also ask LEAs to explain how they propose to manage the charging regime effectively, taking into account the needs of low income and large families.
I can therefore tell the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, that flat rate or distance as a method must be considered by the charging authority following consultation. It would need to do what suits the area and to examine the efficiency of the operation in relation to the methods of collection. We do not believe that it is right to prescribe those matters nationally because we want those who run the local schemes to think them through. But—I return to the "but" because it is important—a local authority which suddenly decided to charge for the whole year or even a term, or to charge a prohibitively large amount of money, would not take into account the needs of low income and large families or the other issues which are intended to discourage the use of cars. I hope that that gives the noble Lord some assurance on the important points he has made.
We see these requirements as including details which have been sought in the amendment. However, the prospectus goes further than that. It states that charges may have a differential impact within scheme areas geographically. In some areas there will be net losers of public funding, with other areas gaining overall. LEA proposals must provide transparent information about any imbalances between the areas generating or 237GC absorbing charges. The prospectus also requires scheme applicants to provide a thorough analysis of the impact of charging on different groups of pupils to clarify the net impact of any scheme on different segments of the pupil population.
The prospectus also deals with transitional arrangements, requiring LEAs to set out their strategy for introducing the new arrangements. It also provides for ongoing monitoring and the provision of detailed financial information through annual reports as part of the evaluation process. It might be disproportionate in regulatory terms to go beyond all those requirements, which are pretty extensive in their own right.
The place to deal with those issues is the prospectus rather than the Bill. It gives the scope to local authorities that we seek to give in the whole of the legislation, so I hope that the noble Lord will feel that that is a proper response to the issues that he probed and that he can withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord Hanningfield
I thank the Minister for that reply. I am basically pleased to hear that matters will be left to a lot of local discretion. As everyone will gather, I am not much in favour of the Bill anyway. I support the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley—some blue-sky thinking on how we tackle the issues might be rather better. If we are to have this legislation, it might be best left to local authorities. However, I repeat that the cost of collecting very small amounts of money can be prohibitive. Local authorities will have to find various ways of doing it, otherwise people will be faced with large bills, which will not be very desirable in terms of affordability from the point of view of a lot of parents. I will reflect on what the Minister said and see whether we need to come back to the amendment at all. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 14 not moved]
§ Lord Hanningfield
moved Amendment No. 15:Page 2, line 33, at end insert— "( ) Income from the charges shall be applied only to furthering the objectives of the scheme.The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 15 and 28 are fairly straightforward in their intent. They attempt to set out, with some clarity, what expenditure on the schemes can be used for. Heading (a) in Amendment No. 28 is straightforward—"payment for transport arrangements" should be covered by the Bill anyway. As for proposed new headings (b), (c) and (d), under existing regulations, where a walking route to school is not safe, pupils are entitled to free transport. It would be a worthy use of some of the expenditure on the scheme, and perhaps of any revenue derived from charging, to improve the safety of walking routes to schools; we touched on that when I talked about my roundabouts early on. The work could be done by improving street lighting or with the installation of 238GC new pedestrian crossings—again, I remind the Committee of my roundabouts—to enable children to cross the road safely.
There are apparently plenty of examples from overseas. When the Transport Committee considered the Bill, it commented that in Denmark legislation requires there to be a safe route to school for every child, and it gives a definition of a safe route. The legislation says that if there is no such route, free bus transport must be provided. There is a real imperative for the relevant authorities in Denmark to invest in safe routes to reduce the cost of free school transport. That sounds a possible way of proceeding.
So often the measures governing school transport arrangements that we talk about concern the hard assets that we can acquire, such as buses or other equipment that will facilitate children getting to school. However, there are also softer areas that we should consider. Greater resources could be made available for teaching or encouraging children to cycle safely to school. We talked about more people walking to school or encouraging things such as cycling proficiency tests. Such a step might help to reduce congestion in urban areas where children do not have free school transport, and where many journeys are undertaken by car. Cycling to school might be a way to reduce congestion—we discussed that before, but I should like further comment on it—and to help to make children healthier.
I return to safe routes. One of my early jobs in local government was walking school routes. That has been going on for all my time in local government. My postbag contains as much about unsafe routes and parents wanting free school transport as anything else. Although the Minister does not believe it, we would need more than £600 million in Essex to make the routes safe. We need to give much more thought to how to make routes safer and then encourage parents to use them—or insist that they do. Invariably, when parents protest about routes, there is some truth to that and, when you walk them, you accept that children should not walk them. In this day and age, one is concerned about children walking in unlit areas, and so on, so I would like further comment on investment and how we are to encourage people to walk. I beg to move.
§ Lord Triesman
The amendment would ring-fence revenue from charges so that it was spent only on furthering the objectives of the scheme. The Government have made it clear in the draft prospectus, in our response to the report of the Education and Skills Select Committee and in another place—my noble friend Lord Filkin also made it absolutely clear in terms on Second Reading—that it is not, was never intended to he and will not be a cost-cutting exercise and that the relevant national authority would not approve a scheme that sought to treat it as such. It is just as well to put that in plain English on the record. 239GC The prospectus accompanying the Bill states categorically:LEAs are expected to fund schemes from resources already committed to funding school transport, together with any charges levied on pupils … existing funds must continue to support school travel, with budgets uprated each year in-line with comparable LEAs",and that all fare income must be invested in improved services. That absolutely ensures that all the monies with which we are dealing are used for those purposes.
To ensure that that happens, scheme authorities will be obliged to produce annual reports for either the DfES or the National Assembly for Wales. Those reports will contain financial annexes, detailing the economics of the scheme. The reports will form part of the overall evaluation of schemes and will be published by the appropriate national authority.
Amendment No. 15 is intended to achieve that aim by requiring in the Bill that revenue be spent on furthering scheme aims. It is doubtful whether it would achieve that aim, as an authority that sought to reduce its overall school transport expenditure could argue that it was indeed spending the revenue from charges on scheme aims but was merely reducing its previous school transport spend. The approach outlined in the prospectus will be more effective in achieving the objective sought through the amendment, which is common ground between us.
Amendment No. 28 sets out a non-exhaustive list of categories that the noble Lord has envisaged expenditure under the scheme including. The Travelling to School action plan published by two departments refers to a number of sources of funding that can be and are deployed to further the aim of more sustainable travel to school. including Safe Routes to School. Incidentally, investment is already in place for the Safe Routes to School programme. The Department for Transport provides funding through the local transport plan, which was mentioned earlier.
However, including safe routes in legislation would not necessarily be beneficial. It could well lead to endless litigation about what was and what was not safe. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, made comments about Essex that, in a way, illustrate that very point: people could well have differences of view that could end up in litigation if there was a basis in the Act for such litigation to be pursued.
The critical thing is that it is plainly for the local authority to determine what it wants to do to encourage safety, whether providing new footpaths, cycle routes, changes in road layout, about which we talked earlier, traffic-calming, and so on.
However, quite aside from that, it is certainly still the case that the monies raised and deployed under the Bill must be for the improvements that I illustrated earlier. Since December 2003, all local authorities in England have produced strategies showing how they would draw on a full range of local resources to support sustainable travel to school. In the prospectus, we state that we expect scheme applicants to build on 240GC those strategies when putting together their scheme proposals and to set out what is being done to boost walking and cycling.
We want scheme areas to use the new legislation to support arrangements that offer a range of good quality, cost-effective alternatives to the family car on the home-to-school journey. Schemes do not have to enhance bus travel—they can focus in whole or in part on increasing cycling, car-sharing or walking—but the fundamental principle is that the LEA will decide how best to find the right balance for its area.
Those are the key points about the amendment. As I said, any revenue from the scheme will be dealt with as I described earlier. The prospectus is explicit about that: LEAs are expected to fund schemes from resources already committed to funding school transport, plus any charges levied on pupils.
I hope that the noble Lord will agree that matters related to scheme expenditure are best handled through the prospectus. That secures the money in precisely the way that his amendment intends. I therefore ask him to consider withdrawing his amendment.
§ Lord Hanningfield
I thank the Minister for that response. The real problem is that there will be a limited amount of money if schemes go ahead. There will not be the money to invest on improving cycleways, crossings, and so on. They are very expensive. It might be cheaper to encourage more youngsters to go by bike, and you could work with the schools to do that, but given that most of the money will be sent directly to schools anyway and the LEAs will not get much in future, the real money will come from the highways budget.
Whether one is developing new road schemes, town centre schemes or whatever, one wants to take into account how one can create safe routes for children. They are very expensive. I was not joking. In Essex, £600 million would not go very far. To create a really safe route requires a lot of money. These days, you do not get much for £2 million or £3 million when creating cycleways, and so on. They are very expensive. I know, because I have to live with that all the time. It is nice to hear the Minister saying that £600 million is a lot of money, but it is not when it comes to creating road schemes and so on.
Therefore, although there will be no magic wand when a Conservative government is in power in a few weeks' time—they will not have the £600 million either—we may decide that getting to school is part of the overall education budget. At the moment, it is a bit of an add-on. We might decide that we need to fund schools to help the education budget. We may all have the principle wrong at the moment and need to rethink it. But the Bill does not do that, so that takes us back to blue-sky thinking. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
moved Amendment No. 16:Page 2, line 36, at end insert— "( ) The policy to be set out under sub-paragraph (1) shall not discriminate financially against parents of any child who attends his nearest religious denominational. Welsh language, specialist or other school as defined under the admission policy in force within the local education authority.The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 20. This also concerns charging and the amendment also relates to charging policy. It concerns of discrimination and, above all, is intended to ensure that where a child or its parents choose to attend a particular type of school—whether a denominational, non-denominational, specialist or Welsh-language school—that is not its nearest school, they should not have to pay just because they have exercised the right to choice.
The issue has arisen several times and was considered at length by the Select Committee when the Bill was in draft form. Partly in response to the criticisms of the Select Committee and the European Committee on Human Rights, the prospectus before us contains useful words on the issue. Paragraph 36 states:LEAs should pay careful attention to the impact of any charges on low income families whose parents adhere to a particular faith or philosophy, and who have expressed a preference for a particular school as a result of their religious of their philosophical beliefs (or in Wales because of the language of instruction) … The obligation not to discriminate in Article 14"—of the European Convention on Human Rights—requires that where transport provision is made for pupils travelling to denominational schools it must also be made for pupils travelling to non-denominational schools to be educated in accordance with their parents' secular convictions, and vice versa. Similarly, an LEA which provides free transport to an English speaking school where the school nearer to the child's home is a Welsh speaking school must also provide free transport to a Welsh speaking school for children who wish to attend such a school. We think that wherever possible, LEAs should ensure that transport arrangements support the religious, philosophical or linguistic preference parents express".That is clear about expressing a preference concerning denomination, philosophy or language. However, as we know, the choice agenda has been extended considerably. Both the Government and the Conservative Party are placing a great deal of emphasis on the rights of parents to choose schools for their children. The choice agenda applies especially to secondary schools and hospitals. It is argued that nothing improves performance better than a dose of competition. Therefore, not only are the Government encouraging a variety of different kinds of secondary school to develop with different specialities—voluntary-aided, academies, city technology colleges, denominational and non-denominational—as set out in the five-year strategy, they are also positively encouraging parents to shop around and promising that popular schools will be allowed to expand and unpopular schools to wither on the vine.
So choice is now a key dynamic of the system. Paragraph 4 of the new schedule incorporated in the Bill states in all innocence that a school travel scheme 242GC will set out the charging policy and that any protected child shall not be charged. Paragraph 7 helpfully tells us that a protected child is one where Section 512ZB(4) of the Education Act 1996 applies. The Explanatory Notes are extremely helpful here, because they tell us that that means children who are eligible for free school lunches and free school milk. In other words, charges shall not be made to low-income families.
However, extraordinarily, paragraph 13 of the Explanatory Notes states:No charge may be made under the scheme for travel arrangements for children from low income families, unless the child has been given an opportunity to attend a suitable school closer to his home but chooses to attend one further afield".That poses an interesting issue and explains Amendment No. 20, because we must ask, "What is a suitable school?" Who says what is a suitable school? If we take the choice agenda at face value, surely a suitable school must be any school that the parents choose for their children.
If a suitable school is any school that the parents choose under the choice agenda, does that mean that a low-income parent has a right to send their child to any school that they choose without any charge being made, or does only choice apply?
That is the issue at the root of the amendment. Does choice apply only to the middle classes who can afford to take their children further afield? Is choice restricted for low-income families only to denominational and non-denominational schools? It seems that there is some inconsistency between the prospectus and the Explanatory Notes and I should be glad if the Minister could explain the apparent contradiction between the explanations. I would also be glad if the Minister would precisely define a "suitable school". I beg to move.
§ Lord Triesman
I shall deal with this briefly, because many of the substantive arguments were raised under the group of Amendments Nos. 9, 12, 22 and 24. They are arguments which my noble friend Lord Filkin has already put to the Grand Committee.
There are some additional problems with this amendment. It does not define "financial discrimination", which is a term that is sufficiently vague and uncertain in legal terms to make the provisions of the amendment unenforceable. The amendment would leave scheme authorities uncertain about what their charging policies should be. It would leave the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales uncertain about whether schemes submitted to them could be approved. Whether the amendment is workable or not is a material issue.
I turn to the more specific points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford. I shall repeat in summary some of the points that have been made. First, we have accepted that pupils attending denominational schools and Welsh-medium schools are likely to make longer journeys than their peers who attend their neighbourhood community, or in Wales, 243GC English-medium community school. We accept that that is a reality. However, we have also said that LEAs are not under an obligation to provide transport to Welsh-medium schools unless the school is the child's nearest suitable school and outside statutory walking distance. Therefore, that is a discretionary provision.
Parents can exercise preference so that their children can attend denominational schools—and in those cases local education authorities have no obligation to provide transport, unless the school is the child's nearest suitable school and outside statutory walking distance. Some LEAs provide free or subsidised transport in those cases, but by no means all do, and they all take their own decisions about whether they wish to do that or not. That remains the case in relation to the points that have been made regarding the amendment.
The cardinal point in relation to the amendment is that the prospectus makes it clear that where provision is made for pupils travelling to denominational schools, it must also be made for pupils travelling to non-denominational schools to be educated in accordance with their parents' philosophical beliefs. Similar conditions will apply to Welsh and English-medium schools in Wales. That point was drawn out by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its scrutiny of the Bill.
The effect of this is that, if concessions are made for pupils travelling to denominational schools for religious reasons, concessions must also be made for pupils travelling to community schools because their parents hold strong philosophical beliefs. We are talking about all pupils in all those circumstances having exactly the same rights, irrespective of cost and whether it would achieve the objectives of the Bill. It would make the Bill extremely difficult to operate.
Two-thirds of secondary schools have already achieved specialist status, including many rural schools. We believe that we are well on the way to achieving our aim of all secondary schools reaching specialist school standard by 2008. Therefore, in the circumstances, it is unlikely to be a barrier to choice in many respects. Although they will be more widely distributed in a rural area, it will be perfectly possible for parents to make that choice.
It cannot be right that, because they make that choice—and all will have the opportunity to make that choice—everyone should receive subsidised transport. We cannot accept that it is reasonable to use limited public funds to provide a guarantee in law for LEAs to transport children to a specialist school some distance from home when a place in another, closer school is available, unless parents want to exercise that decision and deal with the financial consequences.
For low-income families, we have made it clear that LEAs should be careful to avoid discrimination that objectively can not be justified. Beyond that, we feel that LEAs are best placed to consult on and put in place arrangements which are fairer and which cater for more pupils than the current inadequate system. That is why the amendment is unnecessary.
244GC I should like to respond to questions that I was asked concerning the meaning of particular words. I was asked the definition of a child's nearest suitable school. It is the nearest maintained school, providing education suitable for the child's age, ability and aptitude and any special educational needs that he might have. That is in the DfES guidance. It reflects Section 7 of the 1996 Act.
I should add that a recent High Court case has established that arrangements to provide transport to an unsuitable school cannot be "suitable arrangements". If there were circumstances in which someone was directed to a school that was unsuitable in terms of the definition that I have just provided, those would not be suitable transport arrangements. So there is an additional protection on which the courts have decided.
I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, will feel that I have covered most of the bases of the amendment. I have done so by relying on the fact that the detail of many of my points was set out in response to Amendment No. 9, as many of the key arguments are the same. I hope that she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
I thank the Minister for his reply, but I cannot honestly say that I am that satisfied by it. He said that it cannot be right that parents have the right to choose any school that they wish. I understand the logic of his argument, but it cannot be right that choice is available to parents whose incomes are sufficient for them to pay for transport but that it is not available to those who cannot afford it.
The Minister has told me that a "suitable" school is the nearest maintained school, provided that a child does not have special educational needs. It seems absurd for the Government to pretend that they are offering the choice agenda to all parents and then to withdraw it from those who cannot afford to pay for transport facilities to a school that they would like their children to attend.
§ Lord Triesman
Perhaps I may respond briefly to the noble Baroness. It is clear that local education authorities frequently propose area-wide concessionary schemes to facilitate transport to schools of parental preference. They have precisely understood the problem. That is the question that we are asking them to address because they understand the needs of their area and they are finding the right answers to it.
Alongside that, my fundamental point is straightforward. If every child should be paid for in all circumstances, which would be the consequence of the amendment, that should be the matter that is being put to us.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
I do not know that that is the consequence of the amendment. It is the logical consequence of the agenda that the Government are setting themselves. I do not feel that that is an adequate answer. The Minister has not answered the apparent contradiction between the words in the prospectus and 245GC those in the Explanatory Notes; they seem to be in direct contradiction to each other. For the moment, I shall look hard at what he said and what was said on Amendment No. 9 and see whether I can make any sense of it at all. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Lord Hanningfield
moved Amendment No. 17:Page 2, line 36, at end insert—(3) The policy to be set out under sub-paragraph (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 paragraph 7(1) below, but whose family income is less than the average family income for the scheme's authority 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 sub-paragraph (3) above, a statement shall be included in the policy explaining why such arrangements have not been made.The noble Lord said: We are covering much of the same territory—this amendment is similar to one that we debated a short time ago. It is designed to provide clarity about concessionary fares in documents produced by the scheme authority.
Amendment No. 17 effectively attempts to introduce safeguards for large families, who may not be able to shoulder the burden of transportation charges for their children, as we have discussed already. The number of children in a family should be taken into account when developing the charges for a transport scheme. An example is families who have a child at university as well as one in primary and one in secondary school. Should they have to pay the full charges for the school transportation, given that they are already paying a contribution towards the child at university? Families with two or more children in primary or secondary school should perhaps be charged a concessionary fare for the transportation of their children.
The amendment also maintains the standards for children whose transportation costs are currently covered by a discretionary fare scheme. The introduction of a new transport scheme should not affect any arrangements already made for the transportation of a pupil. When we have wanted to do something difficult in introducing a new scheme, it has often been done for new entrants into a school rather than affecting young people and their existing costs.
We need to ensure that when authorities introduce a scheme—particularly when the scheme is under consultation—they make their concessionary policies clear to families in the area. We have said it before—everything should be transparent. That goes back to the explanation of the scheme to parents.
246GC This is a moment to mention one thing that I have not yet mentioned today; I would not necessarily expect an immediate answer. At the moment, local authorities are funded in the revenue support grant for the transport that they are obliged to provide. With the likely removal of the mileage limits for children, how will the revenue support grant affect local authorities? One would not expect it to be affected for some years until the schemes are worked through.
This is probably the last amendment for today, and I beg to move.
§ Lord Triesman
I expect that it is the last one today. The amendment is complex and I shall cover the ground by dealing with it in three parts. Let me start with the general position in relation to concessionary fares for children and young people. Secondly. I want to talk about the proposals for charges. Finally, I shall deal with the three categories of child listed in the amendment.
The first point to make is that concessionary fare schemes stem from transport rather than education legislation. Outside London, and in Wales, the passenger transport executives—PTEs—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 schoolchildren and young people which usually covers journeys in general and not just the home-to-school journey. In some cases, concessions cover travel by train, metro, tram and ferry as well as by bus.
In the shires, decisions on concessionary fares are made by unitary and district councils, whereas in the metropolitan areas it is the PTAs. through their PTEs, which cover the entire metropolitan area.
In London, children's fares are set by Transport for London—guided by the Mayor—and discounts are available for young people up to their 18th birthday. Children under 11 currently travel free and the Mayor intends to extend this to under 16s by September this year.
In the shire areas, discounted fares are often offered by private sector bus operators as a matter of commercial policy. There may be restrictions on use, usually non-availability during the morning peak. There is no local authority involvement in these arrangements.
I hope that that explanation has demonstrated that there is a great deal of variety in concessionary fare arrangements around the country. In many cases, they are either set on a commercial basis or else decided by transport authorities in a way that caters for transport in general rather than focusing on the school run.
Let us look at that in relation to charging. The Bill will allow local education authorities to make charges for school transport, but of course it then provides that where a child is a "protected child" travel must be free. Where a child is not a protected child, we anticipate that the LEAs will continue to charge pupils for whom they provide transport now, where there is no 247GC statutory requirement to do so, and to 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 must be affordable and pitched at a level that does not produce an increase in car journeys to school.
In England, pupils eligible for free school meals will be protected from charges provided that they attend their nearest suitable school. In Wales, the criteria for protection from charges will be set by the National Assembly for Wales in regulations. The Welsh Assembly government intend to lay regulations before the Assembly so that pupils eligible for free school meals and pupils whose parents are in receipt of working tax credit but with an annual income below the income tax threshold for child tax credit will be protected.
The prospectus asks scheme authorities to pay careful attention to the effect of charges on low income working families and large families and records that there is a particularly strong case for exempting the fourth or subsequent child of compulsory school age from charges, especially in low income families.
I turn to the three categories of children referred to in the amendment. With respect to children who are part of a family with two or more siblings, the amendment would require the LEAs to detail the effect of concessionary fares for these children. I presume that the amendment is intended to tease out whether there are arrangements for large families where three or more children are of compulsory school age, although this is not quite what it says.
It is highly unlikely that concessionary fares would differentiate between children in different size families as there is no mechanism to do this cost effectively. We do, through the prospectus, encourage LEAs to consider offering lower, or no, charges to families with four or more siblings attending school.
The second category of pupil referred to in the amendment is a child who is not "protected" but who is drawn from a family with below average family income for the authority's area. There are a number of difficulties with this proposition, which I will set out briefly.
First, there is no mechanism for LEAs to obtain income details for families in their area, so it would be difficult to determine what the average family income was.
Secondly, a family's needs depends to some extent on family size, as larger families need more income to sustain the same standard of living as smaller families and it seems unfair to penalise them through looking at average family income.
248GC Thirdly, average incomes vary greatly from place to place and the greatest concentrations of poverty are in inner city areas, although there are in some rural areas. However, generally speaking, most rural areas are relatively more affluent than the poorer inner city areas.
The last category mentioned was children whose current transport costs are covered by a discretionary fare scheme. I assume that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, is referring to children travelling to denominational schools, to schools which are within the statutory walking distances, or to other schools which are not the "nearest suitable" to which the LEA makes discretionary travel arrangements, about which I so irritated the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, a moment ago.
We can see that there are good arguments for including information about the charges they currently bear and what charges will be in future scheme applications and we will amend the prospectus to achieve this. I hope that that will meet what I have been asked to do in the amendment.
The amendment suggests that where a concessionary fare scheme is not in place to cover a child falling into the three specified categories, an explanation should be provided as to why not.
I hope that Members of the Committee will agree that given the number of bodies dealing with the concessionary fare schemes and the ability of commercial operators to change them from time to time without reference to anyone other than their own internal management, it would be impractical to do some of the things that are suggested.
Given that the prospectus, which will be placed on a statutory footing, contains a requirement for scheme applicants to spell out their charging schemes in detail, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment. We will certainly look at the revenue support grant issue and write as soon as possible on that.
§ Lord Hanningfield
The last point I raised is very important because local authorities will want to know how the scheme will affect the revenue support grant. I shall be interested to have a response from the Minister on that.
The Minister did not mention that when bus operators offer concessionary schemes, often the routes have been subsidised by local authorities. There is therefore some benefit. Local authorities often subsidise bus routes so that bus firms can offer children's fares. That is a double cost to the local authority because it is already supporting the route.
There are many complicated issues on which we have already touched relating to youngsters already receiving discretionary fares. When do you start charging them and when do you stop them? One often finds that a desirable time to start charging is when there are new entrants into a school or when pupils change schools. One should not start sending large 249GC bills when pupils are already in school and receive bills which they did not expect to have to pay. This issue arises throughout this part of the legislation.
I will reflect on what the Minister has said and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn. 250GC [Amendment No. 18 not moved.]
§ Lord Filkin
This may be a convenient moment for the Committee to adjourn until Thursday at 3.15 p.m.
§ The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Haskel)
The Committee stands adjourned until Thursday at 3.15 p.m.
§ The Committee adjourned at twenty-three minutes before eight o'clock.