HL Deb 31 January 2005 vol 669 cc12-22

3.16 p.m.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to be able to introduce this measure, which takes forward an important part of central and local government's actions to encourage greener, safer and healthier ways for pupils to travel to school.

Perhaps I may start by sketching out some of the problems faced. Private car use on school runs has doubled in the past 20 years. The school run accounts for about one in five of all cars on the road in urban areas at the morning peak of 8.50 a.m. Increasing car use on schools runs contributes to congestion and pollution and has serious environmental and health implications.

Against that background, school transport legislation has remained largely unchanged for more than 60 years. Parents, pupils and local authorities all tell us that it is outdated. First, it was designed for a simpler world. where few people owned cars and long journeys on foot or by bicycle were common. It assumes that pupils will walk three miles to school if they are over the age of eight. It was designed for a world without choice where all children attended their nearest school, and it was designed for a world where cars did not clog up the school gates and the roads leading to them.

Parents, local authorities and our own research also suggest that current arrangements are inequitable. The rigid three-mile limit leads to real hardship, with free transport provided for pupils living one side of the three-mile limit and no assistance whatever for those living on the wrong side of that divide. DfES research also shows that families from lower income groups are more likely to have to pay than families from higher income groups. On average, these parents pay well over £7 per child per week.

Local authorities also tell us that the system is inefficient—that this simplistic but prescriptive framework severely restricts their ability to target resources according to local needs and priorities. In September 2003, the Local Government Association addressed these issues in its report Children on the move—accessing excellence. It recommended piloting more flexible arrangements to explore new ways of providing home-to-school transport. The LGA argued that current arrangements could no longer be justified in terms of equity, efficiency or need, and that one size will not fit all. Different solutions to the problems of the school run are required in different areas. It argued that, given sufficient flexibility, local government was best placed to address those issues.

Shortly after the LGA's report, the Government published Travelling to School: an action plan. This set out a series of measures to encourage more walking, cycling and bus use—measures that will increase health and bring environmental and safety benefits. One of these measures was a proposal to bring forward a Bill to update school transport legislation.

In March 2004, the Government published a draft School Transport Bill for public consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny. The LGA welcomed the Bill, and we are grateful for its ongoing support and for the cross-party support for the Bill in local government more widely. Perhaps such support should not be surprising. The Government and the LGA are as one in the belief that local authorities are best placed to bring forward solutions tailored to their localities. The measures in the Bill are called for on a cross-party basis by the LGA. The Bill will give local authorities the opportunity to plan and implement school travel and transport arrangements best suited to their communities.

Furthermore, one of the principles underpinning the Bill is that it is voluntary in nature. Following local consultation, local education authorities can apply to become pilots, putting forward more innovative proposals, but there is no compulsion in the Bill or its accompanying prospectus. If local education authorities want to remain with the status quo for whatever reason, they will be able to do so.

Once the pilots start, if a scheme LEA wishes to withdraw from the new arrangements—because of changed circumstances or because the scheme is not working—it will be able to do so. Later on, if the pilots are successful, the travel scheme approach will be opened up to all local education authorities that want it. Again, there will be a voluntary approach and there will be no compulsion.

The Bill is essentially deregulatory in nature, and is about giving more choice and discretion to local government and to local communities. It will enable local education authorities to run school travel schemes tailored to the needs of their area. Schemes will support greener, safer, healthier journeys to school, and will replace existing legislation contained in Section 509 of the Education Act 1996.

Local education authorities that volunteer will make travel arrangements appropriate for their locality, for which they may charge affordable fares. Scheme authorities will be able to introduce a more equitable distribution of subsidies by removing the sharp divide between free and full-cost transport provision that currently exists. Let me make it clear that this is not a cost-cutting exercise. Fares will remain heavily subsidised, and the revenue generated will be reinvested in improvements to a local education authority's travel and transport arrangements. If applications to be a pilot fail to demonstrate this, they will not be approved.

We want schemes to address issues surrounding the extended school day and after-school activities; the wider 14 to 19 agenda; transport to denominational schools; and, in Wales, to English and Welsh medium schools. We also want pilot authorities to bring forward innovative proposals to address safety issues. We want LEAs to be innovative. We do not want to prescribe what they will include in their schemes, but that may be a theme that we may revert to during our debate on the Bill.

From our discussions with local authorities, we are aware of a number of emerging themes, for example, area-wide concessionary fare schemes enabling weekend and evening use of buses as well as school use; addressing inadequate public service provision through dedicated bus services; allowances to encourage more pupils to cycle; and using some of the revenue generated to increase the number of school crossing patrols and escorts for walking buses and for cycle training. In short, schemes will not have to focus exclusively on improvements to bus transport.

The Bill defines "protected children" as children from lower-income families who will receive free transport where they attend their nearest school. The Bill defines a national minimum level of protection, but, as we make clear in the prospectus, we want local authorities to put forward definitions suitable for their locality. The Bill maintains the existing definition of walking distance as a minimum guarantee. Beyond that distance, local education authorities will continue to have an obligation to provide transport. But we want local authorities to go beyond this minimum. We expect them to address the needs of all pupils in the scheme area: those living within and outside walking distance. That can be done in variety of ways.

Clause 2 allows for the travel scheme approach to be piloted in a limited number of local education authorities in England and Wales. All schemes will need the approval of the appropriate national authority; that is, the Secretary of State in England or the National Assembly in Wales. That will ensure that schemes consider the needs of all pupils and improve travel and transport arrangements.

I believe that there is a wide consensus that the Bill's piloting approach is the right way to proceed. It will allow a small number of authorities to test the new arrangements and will allow others to learn from the experience of the pilots.

The Bill also includes a power to repeal the Bill, if the travel scheme approach being piloted is not deemed to be a success. It could be used only after there has been sufficient time to evaluate schemes and we have reported to Parliament. The power to repeal lapses after the evaluation period.

If the scheme approach is successful, it will be open to all authorities that want to adopt it but, as I have already indicated, the approach will remain voluntary. If local authorities want to continue under their current arrangements, they can.

Much of the detail of how schemes might work is contained in the draft guidance to local education authorities, which is available to the House. The guidance covers the scheme's objectives; the local consultation exercises, which are so important; the integration of schemes with other forms of public transport; ensuring good quality and safe transport; any charging arrangements; addressing the needs of pupils with SEN or other disabilities; the application and approval process; and the evaluation and monitoring of schemes.

This is a short Bill, with cross-party support in local government. It will introduce flexibilities for scheme authorities to address urgent cross-cutting issues, such as health, the environment and safety. The Bill is voluntary in nature, both during the pilot phase and in the longer term. It will enable local government to innovate and to make arrangements that meet the needs of local communities in the 21st century. I warmly commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Filkin.)

Lord Hanningfield

My Lords, I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate from these Benches. As the Minister said, this is a small Bill, but one that could have profound implications for pupils and the education system far beyond the simple provision of school transport.

Unsurprisingly, I wish to take what time I have today to concentrate on the controversial aspects of the Bill. As the Minister said, the arrangements under the Bill would replace Section 509 of the Education Act 1996, which requires LEAs to provide free transport for school pupils where it is considered necessary to facilitate attendance. LEAs that volunteer, by applying to become scheme authorities, may make travel arrangements that they consider appropriate, for which they may charge affordable fares. The Minister said several times during his speech that the scheme would be voluntary. The Bill includes a power to repeal if the pilots are not deemed a success, but it can be used only after the Government have had time to evaluate the schemes and have reported to Parliament, and it lapses after the evaluation period.

The Minister said that the Bill is seen as deregulatory. I am not so sure about that, because it simply enables local authorities to volunteer to take part in the scheme. As for deregulation and setting local authorities free, it is an odd enabling of local government that gives councils no new powers or resources, bar the power to levy charges for a service that has been provided free for six decades. But it has been a feature of the past seven and a half years that a declaration of a new freedom usually turns out to cost someone more money. I hope the Minister will comment on that when he replies.

Only a few weeks ago, I asked the Minister in a Written Question how many local authorities had expressed an interest in operating such a scheme. I received a rather non-committal reply, so I ask the question again. The Minister said that the Bill initially had cross-party support and some support from local authorities. Indeed, the local authority that I lead, Essex County Council, was interested to start with, but when we realised that local government would get all the blame for any charges, we backed off. Will the Minister comment on that? I understand that very few authorities are now interested in being a pilot on this scheme.

For 60 years, it has not mattered how much a child's parents earn, how many siblings it has or whether it gets a free school meal. The right has been simple: if the journey is too long, the bus will come along. Under the Bill, parents earning more than about £13,000 a year could be charged for a service that is now provided free: it will be means tested. Such a step perhaps heralds the beginning of the end of free school transport. For 60 years, children living a long distance from their nearest school have had the right to use a school bus. The Bill has the potential to end that provision. That is a significant and worrying step. Anyone who has tried to interfere with school transport over the years will know that it is like dealing with dynamite. I have experienced that several times.

Let me take this opportunity to highlight a number of other concerns that we have about the Bill. Too many vulnerable children could lose out. The Bill provides no specific protection for children with disabilities. There is only a guarantee that special educational needs children with a statement will continue to receive free school transport and not special educational needs children without a statement. During the Second Reading and Committee stages of the School Transport Bill in another place, there was strong cross-party consensus that the Bill must not disadvantage disabled children. The revised prospectus responds to many of the concerns raised, and we welcome the fact that the Government have now put the prospectus on a statutory footing. However, we believe that the basic duties in relation to consultation, entitlement and protection from charging should be clearly and explicitly written into the Bill.

In addition, many children with special education needs travel long distances to access appropriate education where local mainstream schools are unable to meet their needs. It is very important that these children are not additionally penalised for the lack of appropriate provision locally by being charged according to the length of their journey.

The Bill is based on a false analysis. The Government have given a seriously inaccurate account of how children get to school. Journeys to school by car remain a small minority of overall journeys. The Department for Transport's national travel survey shows that only 30 per cent of children are driven to school and that that proportion is falling. By contrast, nearly half—46 per cent—of children walk to school. That proportion seems to be rising and is officially thought to be under-recorded.

The Bill is a further attack on the increased choice of schools. The Government seem confused about the objectives of the Bill. The then Secretary of State said that it will encourage more children to walk or cycle to their local school, yet that does not sit easily with Government policies to increase diversity in schools and to allow for the expression of parental preference. That approach encourages greater mobility. This was also a major concern that the Education and Skills Select Committee highlighted in its report last year.

Most strongly, we feel that the Bill is a redirection of resources from rural to urban areas. The present system of funding school transport is based on distance criteria. It inevitably means that a large proportion of resources are directed to areas where significant numbers of children live several miles from their nearest school. The Government are already providing far less funding per pupil for rural areas than for urban areas. That is at the heart of the cross-party campaign mounted by the f40 Group of local education authorities, which seeks a fairer basis for distributing resources.

The Bill is often described by Ministers as merely an enabling mechanism for a few pilot areas. It includes a provision to make its changes permanent and, in all probability, universal, regardless of the outcome of the pilots. I would, therefore, like to ask the Minister what criteria and what timeframe will be used to judge whether the pilots have been successful and whether this process will be conducted in public.

The practical steps needed to encourage further expansion of alternatives to car usage, such as better cycle facilities in schools or greater co-ordination of bus and school timetables, do not require this legislation.

The fear of "stranger danger". which leads some parents to resist any option involving their children travelling on their own, relates to worries about the state of our society and of our criminal justice system that will not be addressed in any way by this legislation.

Parents who decide that they cannot afford to pay £400 or £500 a year may decide to change their work patterns and take their children to school by car, thereby negating the entire object of the exercise. It would bring more cars on to the road. This is an issue that the Government could address nationally, without any of the measures in the Bill.

We cannot support this legislation because it removes the right to use free school transport if the journey is too long, which has been enjoyed by English and Welsh people for more than 60 years. It means more means-testing, higher costs for hard-pressed parents and, worst of all, it is possibly a new stealth tax on families living in rural areas.

The Bill can be seen as both an over-reaction and a distraction. Therefore, we await with interest the Committee stage and putting our points forward.

3.34 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, perhaps I may say at the outset that in general we on these Benches believe that local authorities should have power to make suitable arrangements for their local area in relation to transport matters and the related welfare of the children who attend their schools. I also accept that there have long been major congestion and road safety problems around school gates in the morning and afternoon and that many children do not get anywhere enough exercise. There are also escalating costs relating to school transport.

However, in relation to the Bill, I believe it is our duty to ensure, in giving authorities increased flexibility to make their own arrangements, that, first, children who are currently entitled to free travel are protected; secondly, that poor families are protected, and large families have their travel costs capped; thirdly, that there is no barrier to access to the best schools or the nearest suitable school for all children who are able to obtain a place on the basis of their ability to pay for transport—a suitable school may include those of the family's religious denomination or one that teaches in the family's preferred language, such as Welsh; and, fourthly, that proper consideration is given to the needs of children with physical or mental disabilities and their family circumstances, even when they live within the two or three-mile limit. That should include all the time they are in school, even beyond 16, since many such children take longer to reach an equivalent educational standard than children without such problems.

Before coming to my major concerns, perhaps I may make a few general comments. I should like to be convinced that the criteria for approval of schemes (Paragraph 11 of the new schedule, inserted by Clause 1(2)) and evaluation of success (Paragraph 10 of the new schedule) will not just be about saving money, although I was concerned to read in the prospectus that: Schemes will focus on measures that meet the needs of LEAs". I would prefer them to focus on the needs of children. What sort of consultation with children will be required? Will LEAs be required to publish the opinions of children about the schemes? My preferred criteria are: reducing congestion and environmental pollution; ensuring and improving the safety and health of children; and equality of access.

Paragraph 7 of the prospectus says that the DfES and the Welsh Assembly will evaluate the schemes each year and make the results available to other LEAs. Will the evaluations also be made public—for example, on the DfES website? Indeed, will the Minister undertake to publish the details of such schemes that obtain his department's approval in the interests of open government?

Your Lordships might have noticed the reference in paragraph 13 of the Explanatory Notes. It states: No charge may be made … 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". In that context, what is meant by "a suitable school"? How much does parental choice count for? What about parents who wish to send their child to a denominational or a Welsh-speaking school? This is a major concern for many families who would not regard a secular state school as "suitable".

Naturally, LEAs will want to make their money go further, and making maximum use of dedicated school buses, such as for social services and hospital visits, makes sense; so does staggering the start and finish times of schools within reason. However, if that is being considered, it is essential to consult and obtain the co-operation of teachers and other staff, since, in effect, their working conditions are being varied and it may have an effect on their ability to see their own children safely off to school. Will the Minister guarantee that LEAs will have to do that? More frequent and staggered school bus schedules, however, could be very helpful to schools becoming extended schools, providing breakfast and homework clubs and to those children who wish to stay on for sports and other clubs, which so much enrich their educational experience.

I welcome the note in the prospectus that schemes must take on the task of getting all local children to school in a safe and suitable way and not just those for whom the LEA has heretofore had transport responsibility; that is those living over two or three miles away, depending on their age. But I have particular concerns about the suggestion that children in rural areas, who nearly always live two or three miles from schools, are penalised by a new charge. It is expensive enough for those living in the country to reach essential services, such as health services, as recently highlighted by the BMA, without a service which has previously been provided free being charged for.

Local consultation is necessary, not just in revoking a scheme, but in setting it up in the first place. However, the Government must realise that any charging of those who have had free transport in the past will be unpopular and LEAs will have to demonstrate major benefits or the local community will be very unhappy and may vent their spleen at the ballot box. There is also the danger that charges that are not extremely modest may stimulate parents to continue to take their children to school by car, thus defeating one of the stated aims of the Bill. I hope that the Government will adhere firmly to the comment about that in the prospectus.

I notice that under Clause 2, LEAs are free to remain within the existing legislation. The Minister confirmed that today. I welcome the amendment made in another place that allows LEAs to opt out unilaterally, with local consultation, but without having to get the permission of the Secretary of State, if they are convinced that they have got on the wrong bus, as it were.

Clause 3 gives the Secretary of State the power to repeal the measures if they are not successful. That prompts me to echo the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and to ask the Minister to repeat at the Dispatch Box what he said to us in private: that cash savings will not be a major criterion of success. Perhaps he will tell us what is.

We have heard from some local authorities that are keen to get started on one of the pilot schemes. They tell us that they may be able to provide travel concessions that allow children and young people to travel free outside school hours using their bus passes. I would welcome that, because it could have a big effect on social inclusion and on the ability of children to take part in sport or arts and to travel to leisure activities in local towns if they live in a village where there is little or nothing for a young person to do. "Nothing to do", is often cited as one of the causes of anti-social behaviour, so anything that helps young people to access useful or enjoyable activities must be welcomed.

Importantly, a good experience of travelling on public transport or dedicated school buses could establish a lifetime habit of using public transport that could benefit us all and the future of the planet. Can the Minister tell us more about what is envisaged for 16 and 17 year-olds in sixth forms, as they are beyond compulsory school age? If the Tomlinson vision of 14 to 19 provision is to be achieved, there must be good services to other providers, such as FE colleges.

My major concern about the Bill is about children with special educational needs. As I understand it, about 65 per cent of the cost to LEAs of school transport is taken up by providing services to SEN children. That presents a great temptation to those authorities to save money by looking for ways to erode the rights of those children to free provision. That is what I shall be seeking to address as the Bill passes through your Lordships' House.

Section 509 of the Education Act 1996 requires local authorities to provide or make arrangements for home-to-school transport in cases where it believes that it is "necessary". That has been interpreted to mean when the child lives either two miles from the school, if he is under eight, or three miles, if he is more than eight. Section 509(2) provides that such transport must be free. There has been no particular separate provision for children with special needs, but there has been a general understanding that the application of the two or three-mile limit to such children is generally inappropriate, as many cannot walk significant distances without stress and some, of course, cannot walk at all.

Until the advent of the Bill, it has never been suggested that parents of children with special needs should take on obligations by driving children to school in their own cars or paying for taxis. In deciding whether transport is necessary, the focus has been on the child's needs and ability to make the journey to school. That has been reflected in past DfES guidance. However, there is concern among some who represent special needs children and their families that the content of the Bill is likely to undermine their right to free transport arranged by the LEA. It will do so in two ways.

First, the authorities involved in the pilot schemes will have no separate obligation under Section 509(1) to consider whether transport is necessary. They will have a duly to make arrangements only under paragraph 3(1) of Schedule 35B to the Act, which appears to catch only those who would previously have qualified under the walking distance criteria. That could allow local authorities to escape their general obligation under Section 509 to consider the position of children living inside the walking limits if they, too, need transport.

Secondly, by introducing the concept of charging, the whole interpretation of the word "necessary" has shifted from whether the child can walk—a relatively straightforward test—to other considerations, such as whether the family can pay, with or without a subsidy; whether the parent is able to escort the child; whether the family has a car; or whether it is in receipt of disability living allowance. That raises complex issues of family means, routines, circumstances, employment status, other children or dependants and how much should reasonably be expected of family members.

Taken together, those provisions could seriously undermine the position of children with special educational needs unless it is made explicit in the Bill that schemes must be designed in line with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and ensure that the family of a disabled child does not incur additional costs because of that disability. Sadly, when that matter was raised in another place, the Minister's reply seemed to indicate that he believed that those children's rights would be protected by their statements of special educational need. That is not now the case, for two reasons.

First, the former practice of LEAs of itemising transport needs in part 6 of the statement has fallen by the wayside, due to the Government's revised code of practice of November 2001, which states in paragraph 8.89: Transport should only be recorded in the statement in part 6 in exceptional cases, where the child has particular transport needs". It goes on to say that the LEA will have general policies about that that should be issued to parents and that the policies should set out those transport arrangements that are over and above those required by Section 509 of the Education Act 1996.

Formerly, if the need for transport was itemised in the statement and failed to be provided, that could be easily challenged by judicial review. Under the revised code of practice, a remedy must be built around the legality of the specific scheme, which is a much less clear-cut matter.

The second problem with seeing the statement as a safeguard is that the willingness of local authorities to issue statements has reduced considerably in recent years. That has been encouraged by the Government, who have instead sought to devolve special educational needs funding to school level, for schools to make their own arrangements at a lower stage of the code of practice. However well a school arranges for the education of those children, it cannot safeguard their transport. Indeed, many vulnerable children do not have a statement at all.

It may be that authorities outside the pilot schemes will continue under the existing law and case law conventions. However, there is already evidence that the issues raised by the Bill are being seized on by some local authorities substantially to alter the provision and eligibility criteria for special needs transport from what it has previously been.

I looked hopefully in the prospectus to see if there was anything to set my mind at rest about that. Sadly, it left me even more concerned when I read in paragraph 37 that, LEAs have considerable discretion in making those arrangements and may take into account other forms of help for these categories of pupils, such as the mobility allowance and provision of a 'motability' car". Home-to-school costs can easily take up the whole of the mobility allowance and more, leaving nothing to get disabled children around for the rest of their lives.

I hope that I have been able to outline my concerns. I have a number of real examples of how those concerns are playing out in a number of local authorities in the north-east. I will be tabling amendments to try to protect those vulnerable children, both within and without the pilot schemes, and will use the debate on them to give your Lordships more details. In the mean time, I look forward to hearing whether the Minister can say anything to allay my fears.