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Orders of the Day

School Transport Bill

Not amended in the Standing Committee in the last Session of Parliament, considered.

Clause 1

School travel schemes

2.35 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 1, line 15, at end insert

'either by itself or in conjunction with another local authority.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 7, in page 1, line 15, at end insert

', provided that consultations have taken place with relevant admissions bodies including representatives of denominational schools where such schools are affected by the proposed scheme.'.

No. 12, in page 2, line 12, at end insert—

'2A   (1)   Scheme authorities shall, prior to the submission of a proposed school travel scheme to the appropriate national authority, undertake a consultation process in accordance with regulations made by—

(a)   in England, the Secretary of State, and

(b)   in Wales, the Assembly for Wales.

(2)   Regulations under subparagraphs (1)(a) or (b) may, in particular, include a list of statutory consultees to be asked for comments on the proposed scheme and provide for the nature of the consultation process.

(3)   Power to make regulations under subparagraph (1) is exercisable by statutory instrument.

(4)   Regulations under subparagraph (1)(a) shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'.

Dr. Pugh: It is a pleasure, and something of a relief, to see the Minister for School Standards in the Chamber. We have lost three education Ministers this year and we still have two weeks to go. I hope that he will last until the end of Third Reading. He has become the Mr. Chips of the Department for Education and Skills.

Although I shall probably not press amendments Nos. 6 and 7 to a Division, I shall explain a little about them. Amendment No. 6 suggests that local travel schemes could involve a partnership of more than one local authority and thus function over a sensible geographical area regardless of local authority boundaries. There are good arguments for such an arrangement. There is already much cross-border movement among local authorities and with increasing numbers of special schools, academies and the like, there will definitely be more. That is especially true in London, where people flit between one local authority school and another, and sometimes send their children to school in different local authorities. Local authorities increasingly pool special school provision as a cost-saving measure rather than using private school provision in far away places, and that tendency will increase. Additionally, local authority boundaries often do not follow natural transport routes. We recognise
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that parent-teacher associations are also local authorities and are deeply implicated in most school transport schemes.

The Minister cited one argument against the suggestion in Committee when he said that he was worried that because the schemes will be pilots, they might be vulnerable if a local authority were to withdraw unilaterally from a scheme involving two or three authorities. If we take seriously the belief that the Bill is only about piloting, the argument might have some force, and I accept that the Government must take that line at the moment, putting out a fixed view and keeping up appearances by pretending that we are talking about only pilots. However, I think that they will belatedly accept my suggestion another day as the pilots effectively become the norm.

Amendment No. 7 reinforces the common chorus supporting consultation that unites all parties at the moment. It especially puts a stress on bodies that might be adversely affected—it specifically refers to "denominational schools". The amendment is designed to give such bodies a voice and an opportunity to protect their interests. Given our consideration of the Bill so far, they are not fully satisfied that their interests will be protected.

I anticipate that the Minister's general response to the amendment will be, "It is all in the prospectus anyway. Have no fear; their worries are groundless." In fact, more or less everything is in the prospectus—almost all worldly woes are solved in it—but there is little in the Bill. The prospectus refers to human rights legislation, which will have an anti-discriminatory effect, and to the needs and requirements of denominational schools. However, it is full of the words "may" and "might" and items for consideration—it is full largely of motherhood and apple pie. Everyone would accept that it is the Minister's creation and mutable, and thus that it could be varied—it has already been through several metamorphoses. It is not the same as a legal guarantee.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman admit that he is being far too curmudgeonly about the movement that the Government have made since the Committee stage? For example, the new prospectus on consultation uses the word "must", not "may", and a Government amendment that we will consider later will tie the prospectus into the Bill. Should not the hon. Gentleman say that such amendments are pleasing?

Dr. Pugh: I certainly will say that such amendments are pleasing, but I also say that there is a good case for the Minister's putting such provisions in the Bill. We must wonder why they are marginalised in a prospectus.

In any case, having a prospectus is a model for getting difficult legislation through the House. Although I am not making an accusation about the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), it is a way of getting legislation past more gullible Back Benchers. Although I believe that the Minister has been genuine in insisting that there should be consultation, I would be happier if such a provision were included in the Bill.
16 Dec 2004 : Column 1835

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): I wish to underline two important points. First, I have served as an MP for a long time, and I am always concerned when Ministers say that there is no need to include something in the Bill because it is in a prospectus and they will do their best to make sure that it is observed. I respect the Minister for School Standards, and accept that he does his best, but he is not infallible and does not have an unlimited ministerial lifespan. We want a simple change to the Bill, and if what the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), whom I also respect, says is true, there is no reason whatever not to include the change in the Bill itself.

Secondly, the Minister ought to accept that denominational schools and authorities, particularly Catholic ones, have long-standing grievances about the way in which they were consulted in certain areas. I am sure that that is not the Minister's fault. Some local authorities have done their best, but others have been less effective, so the Government should accept that the House wants the matter to be dealt with properly, which is why I support the amendments.

Finally, there is no area of our lives in which consultation is more important than education. I hesitate to criticise Ministers without just cause, so I hope that comments about who has responsibility for our children were misplaced. I believe that children are their parents' responsibility, and parents may opt for certain kinds of education. Those of us who want state education to provide the widest choice do not want people to be forced to make private provision because choice is not available, so we are particularly keen that the consultation should take place. In my constituency, which is not unusual among rural constituencies, it is difficult to provide parents with any choice whatever. The Bill is therefore important for us, and the consultation is the only point at which parents can tell local authorities about the difficulties that they face. I therefore very much hope that the Minister will accept the amendments.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon) (Lab): We must bear in mind the considerable movement that the Government have already made on consultation and linking it to the Bill. I am sorry that some Liberal Democrat Members do not feel that that is much of a concession, as I believe that it is a major step forward. My constituents, led by Mary Powell of the special educational needs network in Merton, also welcome it. Indeed, I do not think that we accept the comments by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) at all. Before our debate, I was contacted by the Special Educational Consortium, which is convened under the auspices of the Council for Disabled Children to protect and promote the interests of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. Like my constituents and myself, it very much welcomed the revised prospectus, which requires local education authorities to consult before making formal applications.

We welcome the fact that parents of disabled children and children with special educational needs are mentioned specifically in the list of people who must be consulted. It is clear that disabled children and children with special educational needs are significantly more reliant than others on LEA school transport, and it is important that parents have the opportunity to express
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their particular needs and interests before any change to school transport arrangements is made. The consortium accepts that it may be appropriate to develop the parameters of the consultation in the prospectus, but it believes that the basic duty to consult should be included in the Bill itself. I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on that. While the consortium recognises that the scheme authorities may wish to retain flexibility over the way in which they carry out the consultation, the duty to consult should not be flexible; it should be a requirement. I should be grateful if the Minister would deal with that when he responds.

2.45 pm

The consortium believes that the scheme authorities should report on the provision of school travel schemes for disabled children and children with SEN. A monitoring exercise will be particularly valuable during the pilots, and will be easier to conduct when we have a limited number of schemes. It may be appropriate to include details on the reporting of such monitoring in the prospectus. However, the consortium's main wish is that the basic principle of consultation should be enshrined as strongly as possible in the Bill. I am grateful for the steps that the Minister has already taken to achieve that aim, which is extremely important and whose realisation will be welcomed by my constituents.

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