School Transport Bill

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Mr. Hoban: The clause does not give sufficient protection to parents and the institutions to which they send their children. We need a far more robust clause to protect people, because this is the only opportunity that we will have to introduce, through primary legislation, the safeguards that we want for children who travel to school. If we simply say that, in future, the matter will be down to regulations, and that it will be up to the Secretary of State to roll out measures, we will be letting down people who, in a few years' time, as a consequence of one of the pilots, believe that there should be more statutory protection for, say, children with special educational needs.

There should be a more generous income test in terms of applying charges, and there should be statutory protection for children who live in rural areas beyond what is provided in the Bill. Simply allowing the clause to go through today, and allowing the Secretary of State to determine what is appropriate

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in future, is not adequate if we are trying to protect the interests of our children.

Mr. Twigg: It is worth saying—and it is probably appropriate to do so now—that there were a number of courses of action that the Government could have taken in addressing the issue. One of them, and probably the easiest path, would have been to ignore some of the concerns expressed by local government on a cross-party basis, and to leave the legislation in place with all the anomalies described in Committee and on Second Reading. A second option would have been to have gone full steam ahead with a scheme that would apply in all parts of the country. The approach that we have taken, which is deregulatory, and enables authorities to volunteer to have pilot schemes and enables us to learn the lessons from those schemes, is the best way of taking matters forward.

Clause 3 gives appropriate powers of repeal, but does not give an absolute guarantee that something will be repealed regardless of whether its provisions turn out to be successful against a set of criteria. There is not a great deal of difference between the different parties represented in the Committee about what the success criteria will be.

The clause contains powers to repeal the school travel scheme provisions in the event that the approach is unsuccessful. The legislation would be removed from the statute book and school transport would return to the current arrangements. The clause is drafted in a way that allows the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales to make separate arrangements. It specifies that the piloting provisions may not be terminated until 1 August 2011 at the earliest. That allows LEAs to put in place pilot school travel schemes that can last for several years.

I take the point made by the hon. Member for Fareham that we could be talking about quite a long period of time. A number of LEAs have said to us that they may wish to phase in new arrangements—for example, they might want to examine some of the issues that arise when pupils are changing schools from primary to secondary school. It may take several years for the full impact of a set of local changes to have effect and, therefore, that bit longer for us to be able to evaluate that. For the reasons that I set out in earlier remarks on the amendments, we have got the timing about right. The sorts of timings that have been suggested as alternatives would not give us sufficient opportunity to evaluate very fully. On that basis, I recommend that the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 5.

Division No. 2]

AYES
Atkins, Charlotte Casale, Roger Coaker, Mr. Vernon Dean, Mrs. Janet
Drew, Mr. David Edwards, Mr. Huw Kidney, Mr. David Twigg, Mr. Stephen

NOES
Atkinson, Mr. Peter Chope, Mr. Christopher Hoban, Mr. Mark
Pugh, Dr. John Young, Sir George

Question accordingly agreed to.

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Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Power to exclude scheme services from registration requirements

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

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

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

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

3.15 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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