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School Transport Bill

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Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): May I press the Minister a little bit further? One suggestion made in rural Northumberland, where people travel

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considerable distances to school, was that the education authority should give some money to a parent to provide a daily service using a car, but it prompted an enormous amount of complications because a profit motive was being introduced into the deal and apparently it was not possible to proceed. However, that would be a good solution, too.

Charlotte Atkins: Clearly, profit is the issue. There are relevant situations. For example, volunteers drive patients to hospital, and such arrangements exist perfectly adequately. However, we will consider the matter raised by the hon. Member for Christchurch and ensure that the Committee is fully informed well before consideration on Report.

The hon. Member for Christchurch referred to the fuel duty rebate, but I am informed that the Bill will have no impact on that. The clause proposes that school transport schemes should not have to be registered. Hon. Members will understand that the registration of local bus services outside London is a form of consumer protection and that operators have to run advertised services. A service contracted by the LEA is an arrangement between the LEA and pupils and although some paying passengers might use the service, the advice we were given was that where pupils pay to use the bus—as in the vacant seat scheme—it would bring school transport under the need to register.

We do not believe that it is appropriate for a school bus service that is not generally available to the public to be registered. Registration requires 56 days' notice of any change in the service, route or timetable. That is clearly desirable for services that are open to the public and timetabled, but it can be overly restrictive for dedicated school transport. For example, one pupil who is usually picked up from a farm may no longer need to be collected because they have left the school. It would be crazy to make a detour not to collect that pupil and have to give 56 days notice of that change of route.

Mr. Hoban: We should bear in mind the Minister's remarks on a previous group of amendments about the need for stability in schemes, because people base their school choices on existing modes of transport and available routes. Is there not a risk that if we do what she has outlined children who have decided to go to school X on the basis that it is on a bus route provided by the local authority could be disadvantaged because no notice had been given of a change in route?

Charlotte Atkins: We do not believe that this sort of service should require 56 days' notice, although parents will clearly have to be given notice.

It was asked why the Department for Transport has not considered the generality of the situation, rather than just the school travel schemes. The Department is preparing proposals by means of a regulatory reform order that will make this a change for school bus services in general rather than travel schemes alone. In the meantime, this clause is related only to school travel schemes, not to all school travel.

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Mr. Chope: We have had an interesting exchange. My reading of section 6 of the Transport Act 1985 is that if the Government were to want to legislate to change notice times to fewer than 56 days in relation to school transport schemes, which otherwise have to be registered under that section, they could do that under proposed new paragraph (9), so this power would not be needed to achieve that.

I made a point about the fuel duty rebate. Many people, particularly in rural areas, feel that it is unfair—and bad and unnecessary in terms of the environment—that the dedicated school bus goes by with subsidised passengers on board and that ordinary people who pay their council tax cannot gain access to it even if they are prepared to pay a fare.

If more school bus services were registered services under the Transport Act, my understanding is that they would then be able to qualify for the fuel duty rebate, because that is payable in respect of all bus services that are registered. One way of being more radical about this would be to encourage more school transport services to qualify for the rebate. Perhaps, however, that is not the Government's intention. It would be a sensible strategy to make the rebate subsidy available for further forms of public transport, but at the moment it is not. I do not understand why the Government wish to exclude from the provisions of section 6 of the Transport Act services that would otherwise have to be registered because they would be able to collect fare-paying passengers and thereby qualify for the fuel duty rebate. The argument about the need for flexibility and the rigidity of the 56 days' notice is not an answer to that point, because that point is already covered by the regulation-making power in the 1985 Act.

The Government need to think a bit more about what their agenda is and about the need for people in rural areas to get access to good bus services. Why should not someone who wishes to go to work—at the school itself, perhaps, or nearby—be able to board a bus with vacant seats as a fare-paying passenger, as part of a radical reappraisal of journeys to work and school?

Charlotte Atkins: As I understand it, the eligibility for fuel duty rebate is not related to the need to register. It is related to carrying the general public. The only services that we are proposing to exclude are the ones not used by the general public, and they have never been eligible. The premise on which that radical solution is proposed does not hold.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 5 and 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Short title, commencement and extent

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

Mr. Chope: Why is this to be called the School Transport Act 2005 rather than the School Transport Pilots Act 2005?

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Mr. Twigg: That is not a question that has arisen during the consultation or the pre-legislative scrutiny, but it is one on which I can reflect. Brevity was perhaps in our minds when we were coming up with a title for the Bill, and, therefore, for the Act.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon) (Lab): Is it anything to do with the fact that we are intending to take the children to school by bus and by minicab—in the case of those with special educational needs—rather than by helicopter or by plane?

Mr. Twigg: That is an ingenious answer. I am sorry that I did not think of it. Pilots could be taken to have another meaning.

Mr. Edwards: I am going to agree with the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope); it could be called the School Transport Pilot Areas Act 2005. That would give people a better understanding of what it really is.

Mr. Twigg: I now have two alternative suggestions. My preference is to maintain the brevity of the current description of the Bill and, therefore, the likely description of the Act.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: Before I propose the Question, on behalf of my fellow Chairman and myself, I want to thank Committee members on the way in which they have conducted a frank and informative debate. On behalf of the Committee, I thank those who enabled us to go through the proceedings, particularly the staff of the Serjeant at Arms and the Official Report, the Clerks and police officers, for ensuring that all went well.

Mr. Twigg: On a point of order, Mr. Conway. On behalf of Committee members from all parties, I thank you and Mr. O'Brien for your characteristically excellent chairmanship of our proceedings. We have had a very good Committee stage, in which the various

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issues in the Bill have been fully explored. There are a number of issues to which we will return on Report. The excellent chairmanship of the Committee has enabled us to examine these matters in a frank and constructive manner.{**bch**}

Mr. Hoban: Further to that point of order, Mr. Conway. May I echo the thanks that the Minister gave to you and to your co-Chairman, Mr. O'Brien. We have progressed at a fairly quick pace thanks to your guidance and chairmanship, and that of Mr. O'Brien. As the Minister said, we have aired a number of important issues. While the Bill may be described by the Select Committee on Transport as ''timid'', I know that many people beyond this Room will pay particular interest to some of the issues that we have debated. They hope, as well as we do, that such issues are returned to on Report.

Dr. Pugh: Further to that point of order, Mr. Conway. May I thank you and Mr. O'Brien for your efficient and discreet chairmanship. I thank the Minister for having been charming throughout, for not being especially evasive and for using the scrutiny process to good effect.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Fareham on his debut as an Opposition chief spokesman. His amendments were pointed and worth while, and his contributions were succinct and to the point. They engineered good debate. I also thank many other hon. Members who have made valuable and informed contributions and who did not choose the occasion to get on with their personal mail. That is very good. My sole disappointment is that many excellent amendments that I had prepared will now have to wait for Report and Third Reading. I am sure that that disappointment is widely felt, but we have to disband now.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose at twenty-six minutes to Four o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Conway, Mr. (Chairman)
Atkins, Charlotte
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Casale, Roger
Chope, Mr.
Coaker, Mr.
Dean, Mrs.
Drew, Mr.
Edwards, Mr.
Foster, Mr. Michael
Hoban, Mr.
Kidney, Mr.
Pugh, Dr.
Twigg, Mr. Stephen
Young, Sir George

 
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Prepared 11 November 2004