HL Deb 31 January 2005 vol 669 cc37-56

4.42 p.m.

Second Reading debate resumed.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

My Lords, we are grateful for the time which Ministers and officials of the Department for Education and Skills have given to discussing the Bill on school transport and its related prospectus with officers of the Church of England Board of Education, our colleagues from the Roman Catholic Church and others.

We warmly welcome the general thrust of the Bill, with its concern for the environment, for the health of young people and for the efficient use of financial and natural resources. To encourage fresh thinking about these matters and to promote new arrangements for bringing children to and from school is surely right.

We are particularly grateful for the content of the revised prospectus for the Bill and for the proposal that it should be placed on a statutory footing. We strongly support this development and welcome the clarity which it brings.

We have been concerned that the Bill might inadvertently serve to worsen the provision of transport to denominational and other faith schools. We therefore welcome the statement in paragraph 10 of the prospectus that the schemes may, improve provision for … pupils travelling to schools preferred on religious or philosophical grounds", and the related and more detailed treatment of this issue in paragraph 36. I should be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that it is the Government's intention that no weakening of faith school transport should transpire as a consequence of the Bill's enactment.

We were anxious, too, that there should be wide consultation, including with relevant denominational authorities, about the content of local travel schemes. I note that the prospectus covers this fully in paragraph 14.

We welcome, too, the references to those who, for philosophical reasons, do not wish their child to be educated in a school with an explicit Christian denominational or other faith-provider affiliation. That seems wholly proper.

However, there is a reference in paragraph 36 of the prospectus to parents' "secular convictions". This allows me to make what I trust your Lordships will recognise as an important point. The Education and Skills Committee has been courteous enough to recognise that there are no secular maintained schools in England or Wales. I agree, and therefore resist the use of this terminology in the prospectus, with its implication that community schools could be regarded as "secular institutions" in any sense which would suggest that religion has no place within them. Daily acts of worship, wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character are required in them by law, as is religious education according to an agreed syllabus, in the drafting of which local faith groups are normally much involved.

In both community schools and faith-provided schools, parents have the right to withdraw their child from both worship and religious education. That very few actually do so is a testimony to the sensitivity with which these vital areas in the life of all schools is treated. Access to the spiritual dimension of life is the right of every child within the limits of their parents' wishes. That must continue to be offered in all schools, not just denominational schools.

Church of England schools proudly offer this aspect of education, but we do not wish to see clear parental preference in this matter being frustrated by the legislation. I am therefore particularly grateful for the assurances in paragraphs 29 and 30 of the prospectus in respect of low-income and multi-child families.

In my diocese, we have a raft of over-subscribed Church schools in some of the most challenging parts of south London. I believe that they provide a wonderful springboard of opportunity, particularly for minority ethnic children.

Nationally, 67 per cent of the 44 new Church of England secondary schools which have opened in recent years or are agreed to open are either in areas of high deprivation or are replacements for previous schools in major difficulties. It is especially important for us that Church of England schools should be open to all those who wish to have their child educated within them, not merely to those who can afford the bus fare or are happy to bring out the family car.

I am glad to support the Bill which I trust will, if anything, serve to enhance the commitment of the Church of England to providing quality education in partnership with local education authorities, with an especial eye towards the disadvantaged within our communities, a proper care for the environment and the development of children who are healthy in mind, body and soul.

4.47 p.m.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I very much welcome the Bill. I think it is well past the time for a review of school transport. As my noble friend Lord Filkin said, the three-mile limit for free transport is much too rigid—if you live 10 yards outside it, you get free transport, but if you live 10 yards inside it, you do not. How many children these days walk three miles? Three hundred yards is difficult for some of them.

I do not see this as a country/urban debate, as the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, tried to argue. It needs to be looked at in the countryside and in the towns all over the country. It is time to experiment, and the review gives local authorities the opportunity to come up with some very flexible and creative ideas.

I certainly believe that the needs of disabled and special needs children should be looked at very carefully. I have several friends in that category, and declare an interest in that my wife is the chair of governors of a special needs school. Special needs transport is often more expensive because the children often have to go further and extra staff are sometimes needed on board.

An awful lot of children who are covered in the Bill do not fall into those categories. Those on income support, for example, also need to be taken care of. But, for the vast majority of others in the system, there needs to be a shake-up.

We have all seen the traffic jams outside schools at dropping-off and picking-up times. My noble friend Lord Filkin said that the number of kids coming to school by car has doubled, but from what I have seen, it has probably trebled or quadrupled. Cars have become bigger, glossier and higher, which is great for the children who are protected like cocoons inside the car, but very dangerous for the children who happen to be walking outside. They also contribute to the fear of some parents about allowing their children to walk. They cannot cross the road because there are too many 4x4s bearing down on them. That is wrong, and it contributes to obesity and other problems.

I do not see why people in the categories that have not been mentioned should not contribute to the cost of getting their children to school. Some of them already go by bus. I was interested to hear, according to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, that the Conservative Party opposed the idea. I always thought that that party liked to see money being saved and targeted where it was most needed. Frankly, people driving their kids half a mile in 4x4s are not suitable recipients of state aid.

I am pleased that the LGA supports the Bill in principle, and for saying that flexibility for local authorities to decide what is best for them is important. However, the LGA is concerned that the Bill, does not include the substantive measures for improving the regulation of mainstream bus services". We often debate bus services in your Lordships' House. There seems to be congenital opposition from my friends in government to any kind of changes to the regulation of buses outside London. I do not know whether that has anything to do with the number of people in your Lordships' House or in the other place who use bus services. They certainly do not use school buses. There is an argument for a little bit more regulation of buses because more people would use them, which is one of the objectives of the Bill. But that is a bit of a side line.

It is clear that any scheme must be fair, equitable and sustainable, and must encourage road safety. As my noble friend said, it must encourage cycling and walking. It must encourage more school kids to go by bus, and it must also encourage less use of cars. The Bill wants to achieve all those aims.

Clearly, some experiments will be successful, and some will be less so, but it is right to experiment. There is a real danger that some parents will choose not to take up the schemes and that more parents will try to drive their children to school in even more cars. It is dangerous outside some schools, and it actively discourages walking and cycling. The more cars there are outside schools—they are often double or triple-banked on the zigzag lines where they are not supposed to stop at all—the more pollution is created.

Some driving to school is necessary—even in 4x4s, especially if they come from outlying parts of the country where the roads are bad or subject to a lot of snow and ice. But in Chelsea, Hampstead or Oxford it is a different matter.

As part of the package it would be good to see an option to charge people for bringing their children to school by car, say within a mile, or maybe half a mile of the school gates. There are good reasons for doing that. It would dissuade people from using their cars, and it would balance the costs that they might have to pay for using the buses or whatever scheme the local authority comes up with against the cost of bringing their horrible cars within half a mile of the school. It would reduce pollution around schools, which can be quite high, and it would reduce accidents. Those are all desirable objectives.

How can it be done? I believe that if such a scheme is to work, all parents or guardians will have to tell the school how they intend their children to travel to school. If it is by bus, they will be charged; if by some other means, they may not. There is no reason why they should not say what kind of car they will use. The charge for using a car should be steeply graded, depending on two things.

First, the danger to people outside the car must be considered. There is an excellent means of measuring that, called Euro NCAP, which gives all cars that one can buy in this country star ratings for safety both inside and outside the car. Most 4x4s receive excellent stars for inside the car but just about zero for outside because they are higher and bigger. The second criterion would be the pollution that they cause. The bigger the vehicle and engine, the more exhaust fumes they push out. That idea would make the schemes more attractive, and would discourage people from driving their children to school. If they have to do it, for whatever reason, they could drop them off half a mile away to give them a bit of exercise and maybe help them to lose a bit of weight. I shall table some amendments in Committee and discuss the issue further then.

4.56 p.m.

Lord Rix

My Lords, I support the broad principles behind the Bill for the reasons that the Minister outlined with his usual eloquence and clarity. He made no direct mention of disabled children and those with special educational needs.

However, the noble Lords, Lord Hanningfield and Lord Berkeley, produced trailers of their concerns, while the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, presented a fully-blown scenario which said pretty well everything that I wished to say as joint chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Learning Disability, as president of Mencap and as the grandfather of a lovely lad with Down's Syndrome who very soon will be entering mainstream schooling. I was particularly delighted that the noble Baroness stressed the needs of children with disabilities who are over the age of 16.

I readily admit that there is a demand for flexible and innovative approaches to the provision of school transport, but I find it difficult formally to welcome a Bill that will remove the right to free school transport for many thousands of non-disabled and disabled children.

I shall concentrate my comments today on the need for families with disabled children and children with special educational needs to be treated fairly because I am concerned that their rights may be under even more threat than those of other children.

With that in mind I ask the Minister to set disability campaigners' minds at rest at the earliest opportunity by making it clear that nothing in the Bill will exacerbate the already very difficult situation that parents of disabled children and children with SEN have in accessing appropriate school transport for their sons and daughters.

Many disabled children, or children with SEN travel long distances to access appropriate education because their local mainstream school is unable to meet their needs. It is important that those children are not additionally penalised for the lack of provision locally.

Similarly, many children with disabilities will go to a school within the statutory walking distance but will still require additional assistance to get to school safely. They, too, must not be penalised and the assistance must be provided.

One of the ways in which the Minister could reassure parents and children is to have a cast-iron guarantee on the face of the Bill that when disabled children or children with SEN are provided with transport to enable them to get to school that is additional to, or different from, that provided for non-disabled children, they will not incur any extra charges.

While we are on the subject of charging, I feel that the Bill must make it clear that DLA mobility allowance is not to be used to fund school transport provision. I would welcome assurances from the Minister that that will also be spelt out in the Bill.

The Special Educational Consortium, of which Mencap is a member, has informed me that much work has been done in another place on improving the prospectus for school travel schemes. In particular, it, and I, welcome the fact that there is now a firm commitment to ensuring drivers and escorts of children with SEN or a disability receive appropriate disability awareness training as well as being checked by the Criminal Records Bureau. This really must be an absolute minimum to ensure the safety of disabled children and I applaud the Government for taking this stance.

I also welcome the fact that the Government have accepted the principle of consulting families in, I hope, an accessible way but, again, the Special Educational Consortium would like to see that duty on the face of the Bill rather than simply in the prospectus.

Similarly, a duty to report on how well school travel schemes have provided for disabled children and children with SEN should also be clearly on the face of the Bill although I accept that the detail of how this would work in practice could then be put in the prospectus.

As I said at the outset, this is a Bill which neither I nor many in the special educational needs sector particularly welcome. It complicates an already difficult situation for families who are often struggling to make sure their child has a decent education—or indeed an education at all.

Under these circumstances it is absolutely vital that this Bill does not make things markedly worse. The changes I am suggesting today will go sonic way to alleviating the concerns of parents of disabled children and the children themselves. They are worried and they need our reassurances.

I have absolutely no doubt that the Government have the best of intentions for this Bill and therefore I am extremely hopeful that the spirit in which the Department for Education and Skills has approached discussions with stakeholders so far will continue. I look forward to hearing what the Minister says in his summing-up and, similarly, look forward to discussing these issues further as the Bill makes its way through your Lordships' House.

5.1 p.m.

Lord McKenzie of Luton

My Lords, I welcome this Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said, it is a narrow measure but I believe that it has the opportunity to impact in a very positive way on the quality of life of possibly millions of schoolchildren and their parents.

It is remarkable that the current system has remained unchanged for 60 years. I am surprised that noble Lords opposite are so wedded to the current arrangements. I cannot believe that anyone who has been a local councillor for a number of years or, indeed, has served in the other place, has not had an inquiry from two households close to one another in the same street where one household's children are getting free school transport but the other is not. We should not adhere to that crude cut-off arrangement any longer.

I should at this stage declare my interest as a member of a unitary authority that has LEA responsibilities and as a school governor for several local schools. I draw on that experience in saying why I welcome the measure that is before us. Luton is a compact, urban area but we suffer greatly from the school run. We suffer from disruption and congestion. The roads get clogged. There is indiscriminate parking compromising safety around many schools. You do not need a timetable in Luton to know when the schools are sitting; you simply look out of the window at the traffic flows. This will all get worse if we do not look to change things as increasing affluence will result in more people having access to private cars and being more inclined to use them.

I did not follow the point of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, when he said that on the one hand local authorities were not going to express an interest in the measure as they would be blamed for charging fees, but on the other that this was some ghastly plot by government to switch resources from rural to urban areas. I hope that my local authority—I no longer have responsibility for leading it—will express an interest in the measure. I know that it is the officers' view that we should. As in most urban areas, children go to their local primary school and they mostly get there by walking with their parents. Obviously, journeys to high schools are longer as there are fewer of them, and journeys to the sixth form colleges and the FE college are even longer.

A concern has been raised with me on which I hope that my noble friend the Minister can give assurance. If a key criterion of the pilots regarding who will be able to participate favours those who can most effect modal shift, will my noble friend assure me that those urban authorities where there is less ability to do that, given the primary school aspect, will not be disadvantaged?

The opportunity for local schemes to be developed is particularly apt given the changing nature of provision. Certainly the old pattern of young people attending secondary school at one location for five years, possibly visiting an off-site location for the occasional sports activity such as swimming, but more or less attending the same facility throughout their school life will change. I draw on local examples to demonstrate that. My authority is part of the Government's Excellence in Cities initiative. A state-of-the-art e-learning centre is attached to one school but is a facility used by all of the schools. Although part of it can be enjoyed by virtual access it cannot be enjoyed to the fullest extent without having access to proper and planned transport arrangements.

The development of vocational provision within the curriculum—I refer to John Tomlinson in this regard—will challenge the model of attendance at one site throughout the 11 to 16 phase. Locally, the LEA is developing the concept of a consortium of high schools to help deliver that with each school in the consortium providing a different component of the curriculum. If that is to work successfully, appropriate travel arrangements will need to be made. Other suggested models for vocational development include the creation of separate vocational centres that youngsters will attend for part of their schooling. If that is to work, there will have to be new ways of organising travel and transport arrangements.

The 14 to 19 agenda will anyway drive more and better co-operation and interactions between FE colleges and sixth form colleges and schools, all with implications for access and transport. The development of specialist schools and Building Schools for the Future—exciting programmes—will all have similar implications.

Like most, if not all LEAs, we have denominational schools. However, there is only one secondary Roman Catholic school in Luton. It is quite possible that there will be an increase in denominational schools. There is a desire among the Muslim community to develop faith schools. That would give rise to increased journeys across town.

The LEA underwent a thematic Ofsted inspection a couple of years ago. I believe it was a pilot arrangement and that it was never repeated. It considered how the LEA impacted on community cohesion. One feature of current provision for us is a degree of polarisation in the ethnic composition of schools. An emerging recommendation from the review was to seek to make each school more representative of the ethnic composition of the local community as a whole. It was pointed out that that cut across issues of parental choice and therefore a different approach was needed to develop emerging strategies to encourage more interactions between young people from different ethnic groups, for example, through sport, the arts and the use of specialist colleges. All of that has implications for new and changing transport patterns within the area.

A scrutiny committee of the council looked at lifelong learning and analysed attainment and the factors that made a difference and enhanced attainment within schools. As we all know, a whole range of things impact on that. The overall conclusion was that schools and LEAs needed to do a number of things consistently and better and that there was not just one nugget which made a difference. One of the issues that cropped up was that of having banded admissions to schools. We did not take that very far. You would have to be politically brave to do that, although I believe that model existed and perhaps still does in London. If something like that had a real impact on attainment, and if it was to be progressed, there are significant implications for transport across an area.

I support this Bill because it could be a catalyst for other developments. It is certainly an opportunity to do what some councils have already done, which is to integrate social services and educational passenger transport. As an authority that claimed it was greatly joined-up, it was an interesting experience to try to get people out of their silos to do it, but it has been done locally with some benefits. It meant looking not only at school hours and consultation on how they could be staggered to make better use of transport, but also at when day centres, family centres and community centres are open.

Another opportunity for local councils arising from this Bill is the chance to take a more strategic view on commissioning of passenger transport. We understood when we did our analysis that there was a lack of capacity in the market, and the way we went about trying to commission transport was impacted by that. Putting extra capacity in the market will not help that in the short term, but it will give greater reassurance to the market and possibly enable councils to develop direct provision of transport as part of these arrangements.

For a variety of reasons, particularly what is happening to education and the increasing joined-up partnership working entailed by that, this Bill is long overdue. It can bring significant benefits, and I hope that it will have speedy passage through this House.

5.11 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Walmsley made clear, we on these Benches welcome many aspects of this Bill. As the Minister stated in presenting the Bill to the House, the main objectives are to get more children walking and cycling; to limit the number of private cars on the school run; to encourage local education authorities to introduce novel and attractive alternatives and to encourage more children and parents to use communal rather than private transport.

So what is objectionable about it? All of us experience the relief during the school holidays that was noted by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. We learn from the statistics that one in five—20 per cent—of cars at the height of the rush hour are taking children to school. We know that these numbers have doubled in the past 20 years, and that the knock-on effect on traffic congestion, pollution, safety for pedestrians, safety for children and cyclists is bad. We also know that the figures for obesity in school children have increased alarmingly, and the reason is not just their diet but because they are not getting the exercise that they used to get.

Is it not therefore sensible that we come up with some better way of spending the £600 million spent on school transport every year? Yes, it is, but—this is where one begins to look at the downside of this Bill—the Bill raises a real problem. The fundamental problem is that it breaches a principle that has been with us for 60 years. Schooling between the ages of five and 16 is compulsory, and where schooling is compulsory if a child lives too far away from the school to reach it easily by foot—for a child over the age of eight at three miles and under eight at two miles—to enable them to enjoy free schooling during compulsory ages they should be provided with transport to school.

This Bill proposes that the principle of free transport if it is not easy to get to school, is to be breached and that local education authorities may charge for taking children to school. It is made clear in the Explanatory Notes that such charging will not be made for those who are very poor. Paragraph 4 of the schedule requires the scheme to set out a charging policy. The Explanatory Notes says: 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". I will come back to that issue later.

Essentially, it extends the concept of means-testing to school transport, and says that if a family can afford to pay it is reasonable that they should pay. If a child is eligible for free school meals, roughly speaking that means that you are earning £13,000 to £14,000 and have a couple of kids. Otherwise, how much will be charged? A number of figures have been quoted, and it looks as though there could well be a return charge of £1 per day per child on the school bus. Two children travelling on the school bus will cost £10 per week. That is not much if you earn £35,000 or £40,000 a year, but a lot if you are earning £15,000 a year and if your budget is already tight. This is the fundamental difficulty with the Bill. The right reverend Prelate welcomed the Bill, and he quoted paragraph 10 of the school travel schemes prospectus, which states: All schemes must aim to cut car use on the home to school journey. Beyond that, they must focus on local priorities and may improve provision for one or more of: pupils travelling to schools preferred on religious or philosophical grounds". Yes, but he did not mention that they might have to pay for that privilege. This is a fairly fundamental breach of a principle that has been with us for 60 years. It is always the same. Here we have a proposal to change, and there are many sensible reasons why we should change, but inevitably there will be some gainers and some losers. Overall, will we have more gainers or losers?

The advantage of the Government proposals is that they are saying, "Okay, but it is only pilot schemes. What we are suggesting is that local authorities have the right to run a pilot, and we can see how it works out". This in itself is attractive, because it enables us to see whether it works. Does it work? Will it cut car use? The great danger is that once you start charging £5 per week, or £10 if you have a couple of kids, parents will say, "Oh, I am not going to pay that", and bundle the children into a car rather than send them by bus. The danger is that those who currently travel by bus, who live three miles away and get that bus for free, will come by car in future. We do not know how people will react; it will depend on the style of the pilot. that is an advantage of running pilots, but it may backfire.

Why do we need legislation to run pilots? The Bill is putting the cart before the horse. Normally, you run a pilot and if it is sensible you pass legislation. Here, we are passing legislation to run pilots. Do we need it? The experiment is interesting, but normally we do not need to have legislation to run pilots.

That brings me to my next question. The Minister made it very clear that no local authority would be forced to follow the principles. You can run a pilot, and have a variation in pilots. There may be some backing away from pilots because they do not seem sensible. Over time, we will undoubtedly see what seem to be the most successful schemes. However, from what the Minister said and from the Bill, it would appear that there is no obligation on any local authority to move down this route. That is fine. Does it mean that some local authorities can maintain their present arrangements ad infinitum? Do they never have to change, or is the idea that there will be further legislation down the road, in order that what appears to be best practice from the pilots is carried out nationally?

My impression is that the local authorities that have embraced the ideas with alacrity are very much those such as Luton, for which the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, spoke. The same is true of the local authority that I represent, Surrey. We had representatives from West Sussex talking to us the other day. Those are all local authorities with a substantial spread of suburbia, where the school run is a very big issue and so they are trying to come up with some innovative ideas to cope with it. The school run here is less than three miles most of the time. We know that the average journey is about two miles. The authorities that are confronted by huge problems as a result are those with substantial rural areas, such as Northumbria, Cumbria and Cornwall. There, children go considerable distances even to their nearest primary school.

There also arises the question of what the Government's objectives are. We are told very firmly that they want to get children to go to the nearest school, to which they can walk or cycle. However, we also had the Government's five-year strategy published last summer, which makes it clear that they are anxious to encourage parents to choose from a diversity of schools and not necessarily for children to go to the school nearest home. That was picked up by the Select Committee in its examination of the Bill when it was in draft form. The committee concluded: The Government seems confused as to the objectives of its draft Bill. The Secretary of State has said that it will encourage more children to walk or cycle to their local school, yet this does not sit easily with Government policies to increase diversity in schools and to allow for the expression of parental preference; an approach that encourages greater mobility", and variation in choice of schools. A rather splendid paragraph in 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 is choice for those who can afford it, but very little choice for those who cannot.

One comes to the conclusion that there are problems with the Bill. It is difficult to know what its true objective may be. David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says that the Bill, will cause uproar amongst parents. They will ask whether this is the beginning of an attack on free education. It will be deeply unpopular and could be extremely expensive for those with several children". One sometimes wonders what the purposes of modernisation are. Perhaps the Bill is yet another move towards modernisation that is actually a fairly fundamental attack on the principles of the welfare state. In this case, the principle is free public education. I finish by quoting John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, who said: This moves away from the principle of free education for all".

5.25 p.m.

Baroness Morris of Bolton

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important and significant debate. The Bill extends beyond the mere transportation of pupils to and from school. It directly affects policy on diversity, choice and equal access to education for pupils, whether they live in town or country, and whether or not they live with a disability.

We have heard a number of powerful and enlightening speeches today. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, voiced major concerns about schemes affecting SEN children and counselled against eroding their rights; we agree. The right reverend Prelate argued passionately that faith schools should be available not only to those who could afford the bus fare or bring out the family car; as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, said, they may have to pay on the bus. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said that the Bill was about getting cars off the road. We agree, but think that it might put more cars on the road. I say the same to the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, spoke eloquently about the difficulties facing parents and pupils in accessing transport; again, we entirely agree.

Make no mistake—this may be a small Bill, but it is an important Bill, with what will be the first changes to school transport legislation in more than 60 years. Yet—my noble friend Lord Hanningfield made the case—we on these Benches do not believe that the Bill we have before us is the best way forward. We can all support the need to reduce car use on the home-to-school journey, particularly where that leads to undue traffic congestion. However, we believe the measures in the Bill will be counterproductive and effectively contradict existing government policy.

Does the Minister agree that giving LEAs the power to start to charge parents for discretionary school transport schemes which are currently free will lead to parents switching from bus to car, therefore defeating the stated aim of reducing congestion? Furthermore, is he concerned that any attempt compulsorily to stagger school start times will fall foul of the Government's extended school and childcare policies?

I would like to touch briefly on a number of specific areas of concern that we have with the Bill. At present, it takes no consideration of the special transport needs of disabled pupils. That is of particular concern, given that the vast majority of pupils with some form of disability do not possess a statement and will therefore be included in the Bill's provisions. We believe that those children and their families will be penalised unfairly by incurring additional costs as a consequence of their disability. That is an important area. A lack of appropriate school transport can be a barrier to a child with disabilities accessing proper education. Children with SEN cannot always get the best education that they need at their local school. We simply must not add any further stress to those children or financial burden to their families.

We are also concerned about the impact that the Bill will have on pupils in rural areas. Indeed, we cannot help but think that this is yet another piece of legislation that will unfairly penalise those living in our villages and rural towns. The vast majority of pupils who live in rural areas and currently receive free transport would he expected to pay if the changes were brought in. The impact will be hardest on those living in areas where greater distances have to be covered to get to school. In short, it will effectively be another tax on living in the countryside. In rural areas there is often insufficient public transport and in all areas it may not he arranged to suit the needs of young people on the way to and from school or college. Furthermore, public transport in rural areas is rarely flexible enough, reliable or cheap enough to make sure that children and young people can use this as a way of returning home if they want to stay on for after-school activities.

In addition the Bill appears to be at odds with the Government's stated aims of achieving greater parental diversity and choice in education. I am sure that the Minister will have studied in great detail the report by the Education Select Committee, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford. referred, about the draft version of the Bill. He will, therefore, be aware that the committee concluded that the Government appeared to be confused as to the Bill's objectives. Indeed, when the then Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, gave evidence before the committee, he stated that the Bill's main aim was, the encouragement of people to go to their local neighbourhood school and. therefore. to travel less". The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, stated in his opening speech that people would receive free transport where they attend the nearest school. However, the committee's report stated that Charles Clarke's interpretation, seems directly to conflict with Government policies on diversity of schools and parental preference, which increase mobility". The committee added that the Bill gave children from poorer families no legal entitlement to free transport to any school other than their nearest and concluded: it is therefore hard to see how the Bill will extend parental choice to low-income families". Under the Bill, the costs of travelling to and from school would become prohibitive for many families in urban and rural areas. Such costs may become a very significant factor in school choice, so that children whose families cannot afford to pay for travel will have to attend the school nearest to where they live, putting them at a further disadvantage, compared to their more affluent contemporaries. Could the Minister comment on whether he agrees with the Select Committee's interpretation and, if so, how he would justify to poorer parents restricting the choice of schools available to their children?

A further key weakness identified by the committee was the criteria on which fares would be set. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, also said, in the pilot areas, fares would be means-tested, on the basis of child's entitlement to free school meals. Does the Minister agree that if a means test based on free school meals is used, many who cannot afford to pay will be ineligible, simply because they do not choose, for whatever reason, to apply for free school meals? The committee said that a more "sophisticated" indicator should be used. Perhaps the Minister, himself a veritable model of sophistication, could tell us exactly which criteria will be used.

I wish also to pose some further questions. If a local education authority wishes to introduce a travel scheme for part of its area, will it thus be able to charge parents in one part of the LEA but not in another? Does not the power for an LEA completely or partially to reimburse travel expenses offer an opportunity to discriminate between parents? A low-income family will lose its right to free travel if it chooses to attend a school further afield. By what criteria will the judgment be made that the family was offered a suitable school closer to home? What happens if the family correctly believes that the school is not suitable? What is the definition of "suitable"? Furthermore, the Bill allows for the new provisions and trials to be discontinued if they are unsuccessful. However, what will be the success criteria and over which time frame will they be judged?

In conclusion, we believe that the Bill misses a clear opportunity to take more cars off the road while failing to provide for affordable, safe and well supervised transport to and from school. Rather than reducing the right to free school transport, the Government should give more pupils the right to use it and investing in purpose-built buses. That is the real route to reducing car use. The effective abolition of free buses for those living two to three miles from school will increase, not reduce, car use. Charging for home-to-school travel will also tend to increase car travel and will particularly disadvantage many pupils, especially those with some form of disability or special educational needs. It will also reduce school choice and unfairly penalise those pupils and parents living in rural areas.

This is not a school transport Bill; for many it will be a withdrawal of free school transport Bill and we on these Benches cannot give it our support.

5.35 p.m.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, more in sorrow than in anger, I shall respond to some of the issues raised. I am grateful to noble Lords who have, I suppose. set out so clearly some of their interests and concerns. I am particularly grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, who took a thoughtful and reasoned stance which he thought it important to mark. But he had the grace, as you would expect, to recognise that the status quo was pretty indefensible. We are not describing a good situation and that is where I have been—shocked would be too strong a word—very surprised indeed by the tone of some of the debate. The status quo is not good. It is not fair. It does not address the problems. If we as a government sought to introduce a crude measure of subsidy by saying that those who lived a certain distance away from a school would be subsidised in full and those who lived a shorter distance away received none, irrespective of any other issues, we would be rightly laughed out of the House. Yet, some Benches argue that the current situation is fine and, therefore, any movement away from that is wrong. I find that hard to understand.

The second question is whether there should be some experimentation. In the present complex situation, it is self-evident to most people that there should be some experimentation. Arguably, the worst action that any central government could take would be to bring in national regulations which tried to capture the great diversity of needs, problems and priorities in transport, and the wealth and need inequalities in our society. That would be madness and the Bill's stance is that central government do not know the answers to all of that. It is right that local people, local communities and local democracy should be better placed than central government. It is fundamentally right that we should proceed by pilots. I have heard scant acknowledgement of that stance from either Opposition Bench. I am surprised by that, because we could not sensibly specify a better system from the centre.

It is also a strange stance, given that the measures seek to affirm that local people, through local democracy and local government—who will be pretty well conditioned by their own electoral sensitivities not to do the sort of stupid things that have been suggested in some of the speeches we have heard—should carry the responsibility of trying better to shape schemes, because they will pay the price locally if they do so. Also, the scheme is voluntary, so no one will charge when that might have the sort of consequences that the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, pretended would flow. No local authority in its right mind would behave in the way that she suggested they would under the Bill. Local authorities have too much common sense.

If the House seeks to constrain the Bill by raising straw men and by raising phantoms and terrors, and to put on the face of the Bill so many limitations and protections, that will strangle the measure, so that it will not be able to do the job that is needed—to promote some innovation and to find better solutions to real problems that ordinary people face day by day in getting their children to school without causing worse congestion, without worsening health inequalities and, above all, without addressing some of the serious iniquities in a system which currently, I repeat, subsidises the well-off much more than it subsidises the poor. So I am surprised that those Benches are not standing four-square with me in saying that this situation is indefensible morally and that we have to find a better way forward. That does not mean that we do not have to address the detail of some serious issues. That is what we are all here for and we shall enjoy many happy hours and days in Committee doing just that.

I shall have a go at responding to some of the points raised but I shall not be able to answer all of them. That will come as no surprise to noble Lords because a string of points have been put forward, but I shall do my best to respond to them relatively rapidly with the aid of my good officials. I spoke for only seven minutes in opening the debate but I do not think that I should add the other 13 minutes on to my closing speech because that would add up to 33 minutes and might be too much. But I shall have a go at answering some of the main points.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, suggested that the Bill was redirecting resources from rural to urban areas, but there is nothing in the Bill that says that. The noble Lord knows as well as I do that effectively sparsity is one of the factors that drives grant to local authorities. There is no intention of taking any of that grant away from one local authority and giving it to another, and therefore no change is proposed in that respect. I think that the noble Lord was basically trying to say that no one is interested and so we do not need to take action.

I may have answered the noble Lord rather literally on the question of how many formal inquiries there have been from local authorities. There have been no formal invitations so far but there have been about 50 expressions of interest. One does not want local authorities taken out and shot at this point. Perhaps particularly at this moment in the electoral cycle, none of them is going to say that it is going to go forward. We have to get a Bill in place and give local authorities the opportunity to reflect on it, and we do not intend to rush them into making their views known prematurely. But we know that there is sufficient interest in this matter because local government itself has asked us to act in this regard. The Local Government Association came forward and said, "Please give us better tools to address this issue".

It may be argued that this matter can be solved only by throwing more money at it, but that is the easiest form of politics, as we all know. If that is the stance of the two other parties, they should stand up and say so. But both parties have recently made very public pronouncements that they intend to cut public expenditure substantially. One has mentioned a figure of £5 billion, and I cannot reflect the figures relating to the Official Opposition because they are so enormous. But both parties have taken a stance on reducing expenditure, so do not let us pretend that that is the way forward. One has to find ways of achieving better outcomes within existing expenditure. That is what responsible policies and politics are about.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, who said that the charges are unfair, I say that the current system is unfair. If a poor family lives two and a half miles from school and has three children, it is probably spending £7 per child per week on sending them to school. It is not receiving a bean of subsidy. So do not let us pretend that, if we move away at all from the status quo, that will be the end of the problem. In terms of policy, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said, one has to look at both winners and losers. But we would also be wrong if we took the view that the Bill was essentially a zero-sum game. I have used that expression in responding to the noble Baroness on previous occasions. If things are going well, it is possible that, in aggregate, there will be more gains than losses. It is not automatically a case that one will lose and another will gain.

Choice for parents is an important issue. A number of noble Lords have referred to it and we shall have to return to the matter. It is the intersect between our stance and that of the Opposition Benches, who I think are equally supportive of parental choice within the system. At this point, I shall say only that there is no compulsory transport except to the nearest suitable school. Therefore, the existing system does not necessarily protect everyone, and I say that as a caution in respect of the Bill.

We shall tend to have a debate which says, "Let's not start from where we are now. Let's go much further than we are now and, before we do anything, put local authorities into the position of expecting to protect everyone who is not currently protected". If we try to do that, we shall, by devious means, completely wreck the Bill. You cannot, at the same time, protect everyone more than they are currently being protected and give scope for innovation locally. That is obviously impossible.

I agree that there is an enormous issue to be considered in relation to special educational needs. I am grateful for the courtesy of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, as I would have expected, in acknowledging that there has been much discussion with the Special Educational Consortium. He has put down some good markers. I carry special educational needs as my real day job, as opposed to working in this House in the evenings, and therefore I shall be particularly keen to engage with those issues. But, again, let us not pretend that everyone with special educational needs is currently receiving, or should be receiving, subsidy. They should not. There could be plenty of people with special educational needs. For example, a child in a well-off family may have a reading difficulty. That family will not need a subsidy and we should not pretend that it will; nor did the noble Lord, Lord Rix, argue that.

It was stated that more cars will be on the roads as a result of the Bill. The prospectus states that local education authorities will have to demonstrate to our satisfaction that that will not be the case. It is obviously an issue of displacement—that is, whether the new provision was not sufficiently attractive and it was easier to get into a 4x4. We shall not go down that route and we have said that in the prospectus. We have made it clear that if we are not convinced of the desired effect, we shall not approve schemes, and so some protection is built into the scheme.

On rural issues, current school transport arrangements cater only for a small minority of pupils. Only about one in 10 pupils in England and Wales receives any form of free transport. I have already given the example of 2.9 miles, and I may return to that later in responding to one or two other points.

As would be expected as part of open government, we shall make public the evaluation of the schemes. Individual schemes have already been made public within local authorities. If people asked us for a copy, apart from indicating where they could obtain one, I think we would hardly be churlish about that. We want an open debate about these issues and, as a consequence, there is no need or case for secrecy.

With regard to the Disability Discrimination Act, of course the Act must he complied with. I agree that it is not simply an issue of protecting statements; it goes wider than that.

Annual reports will be made available and published on the website. We have already made it very clear that we expect any charges collected through school travel schemes to be reinvested in improved school arrangements for pupils. I suggest that noble Lords have a look at the relevant paragraph in the prospectus. It is as near a commitment as one can get to saying to local authorities, "This isn't a matter of taking money away; it is about using that money more intelligently with policy innovation to benefit more pupils and to benefit more those pupils and parents who most need it".

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. asked a question about the prospectus which touched on religious issues—a point also addressed by the right reverend Prelate. The status quo is that there is currently no guaranteed protection or subsidy. Indeed, the Churches are fearful that some LEAs are progressively withdrawing subsidies to children who choose to go to schools with a religious foundation. We share that concern, and the prospectus is written to give as strong a steer as possible in that regard without turning it into a set of national regulations.

I am not doing full justice to the issue of SEN but I hope that noble Lords will bear with me in the limited time available. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, mentioned consultation with children. I thought that that was a good point and we shall reflect on it because, if we have not captured it, we shall need to do so. Therefore, we shall return to the matter.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark was also right that the Government have no intention of weakening faith in schools. Clearly we have to do a little work on the prospectus to capture more accurately the current truth that mainstream schools have a significant component of religion in their curricula and in their practice. That is right and proper. We have not captured the reality of the current situation, but I assure the right reverend Prelate that we shall do so in our next draft.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, tempted me to go down a very large cul-de-sac by suggesting that we would include in the Bill measures to attract 4x4s. However, I think that he was probably being more specific and focusing on what are called "Chelsea tractors". We are not going anywhere near that. I hope that he does not test me by tabling amendments at subsequent stages. He may have views on the matter, but I cannot see how this would be a realistic issue even to be considered in this Bill. The Government have no such intentions elsewhere. I am sorry to disappoint him, but I welcome his intelligent recognition that the current situation is not healthy and that we need to do something about it. I have already signalled that I look forward to further discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and with the Special Educational Needs Consortium. My right honourable friend Stephen Twigg undertook to look carefully at the position of children with SEN when he was concluding on the Bill in another place.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, made a very thoughtful speech about the need to make modal shifts and to have sensible experimentation, which was informed by perspectives from the centre and an understanding of what happens in a locality; that is, Luton. I welcome his thoughtfulness. He referred to Tomlinson and paragraph 10 of the prospectus notes that providing support for wider access for the 14 to 19 age group is a priority for our schemes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said that many aspects of the Bill are to be welcomed, so I must not do her too much injustice. I acknowledge that. However, I could not follow her argument that the Bill breaches something fundamental in education in our society. We do not currently give every child free food or clothes to go to school. We have sophisticated systems to identify when a child needs financial help for clothing or food so that it is not deprived of education, so why should we think that the only way to deal with transport is to say that any child who lives more than three miles from its school should have total subsidy and any child who lives less than three miles from its school should have no subsidy? I cannot get my head around why the Bill is an attack on the fundamental principles of education. With the greatest respect, I do not think that the argument stacks up.

I was asked why we need legislation. I can speak from the heart and say that I wish we did not need it, because then I would not have to be here. But we need it because Section 509 of the Education Act 1989 is prescriptive on all local authorities. We have to liberate local authorities to experiment.

Transport is not just a rural problem. It is an urban and a rural problem, but the nature of the problem differs according to the locality. That is why it would be foolish for central government to deal with it. We would get it wrong.

I am wearying the House, so I shall try to come to a conclusion. Denominational transport is currently discretionary, as I signalled previously. We are not moving from a current Valhalla to some form of Hades. Currently, practice is very diverse.

Large families are an important issue because of the potential concentration of children. The last thing that we want is to stimulate large families to think that the alternative way to get their children to school is to get in the car. We are sharply aware of that.

In rural areas, no more than 25 per cent, and usually less, of pupils are eligible for school transport. An enormous number of pupils in rural areas will be travelling from far away. Others will be close to the school.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked her usual terrifying list of 17 questions. I shall not do them justice from the Dispatch Box, for the usual reasons, but I shall respond to them. The Bill does not propose compulsion on schools or local authorities in order to force a shift of school opening hours, which I think she suggested. Governors control start times and we have no intention of changing that, but discussions about how changing opening hours might contribute are part of what thoughtful local authorities are considering.

For information on extra costs, noble Lords should read paragraph 32 of the prospectus. We have previously touched on choice, although we shall come back to it. Reference was made to Charles Clarke and his support for this measure. He believes profoundly in this measure because he feels that local authorities are well placed to address it, and because he can see that intellectually it is not defensible to stay where we are at present.

There has to be an intelligent process of change. I do not believe that the Government are confused about what we are trying to do. I hope that in my opening I set out very clearly, if briefly, what the objectives of the scheme are. I know that it is difficult. I know that an election is coming and that we all have half an eye to the audience outside the Chamber, rather than to that inside it. But I hope that when we are deliberating in Committee we will try to think about why parents and children need better systems than the current one and that we will not seek the easy soundbite to wreck a good Bill. I look forward to working with the House in the Committee stage of the Bill.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Grand Committee.