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Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): The amendments deal with consultation. Is the Minister aware that Conservative-controlled Herefordshire local education authority has decided at short notice to stop making places on school buses available to children travelling 18 or 20 miles to a Church school from Ross-on-Wye? It announced that just two weeks ago with little consultation among the parents or schools concerned. As a result, parents have only a couple of weeks either to find a new school, which would be disruptive for their children in the run-up to GCSEs, or to find alternative means of transport, which could result in round-trip journeys of up to 30 miles, which is bad for the environment and the already congested streets of my constituency. Does the Minister agree that if there are changes to school transport, there should be adequate consultation with the parents and, indeed, the schools concerned?
Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): May I begin by congratulating the new Minister for School Standards on his promotion? I am sure that there will be an opportunity in future education debates to comment on root-and-branch reform, given the prevalence of Twiggs in the Department.
Amendment No. 12 deals with consultation, which is important in the preparation of school travel schemes. We had a long debate about the issue in Committee, and I am grateful that much of the debate was reflected in the revised prospectus, which the Department circulated among Committee members. There was an increase in the number of groups to be consulted, and a timetable for consultation was provided, with a minimum period of 28 days during the school term, for which I am particularly grateful. There was also a requirement that LEAs should consult where there are material modifications to a scheme. Those changes reflect the consensual nature of our debate in Committee.
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Despite that tidying-up exercise, we need to go a stage further. I support the remarks of the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), because Ministers can change, as we have discovered today. Guidance is likely to evolve over time and the prospectus is not set in stone. It does not have the same status as, for example, a statutory instrument. Amendment No. 12 therefore provides the Secretary of State in England or the Assembly in Wales with an opportunity to draw up regulations to give statutory force to guidance on consultation. I worded the amendment to give it a wide application, but I expect such regulations to cover the issues that the Minister addresses in paragraphs 14, 15 and 16 of the prospectus. It gives groups that are most concerned about changes to school transport arrangements, including the denominational groups mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and special educational needs groups, a statutory right to be consulted. The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) has saved me a job, as he reprised very well the advice of the Special Educational Consortium, which welcomes the changes in the prospectus. It would prefer such changes to be included in the Bill for the sake of consistency and stability. It does not want the prospectus to be changed over time, as that would alter its essential nature.
Roger Casale: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, although many of us would welcome guidance notes that are as strong and as solid as possibleit is good to see the development of guidance notes as a result of our debatesthe problem that we face in my constituency, to which I drew attention on Second Reading and in Committee and which has been picked up by special educational consortiums across the country, concerns not only the contents of the guidance notes, but what to do when the guidance notes are not followed in a particular area? Effort needs to be expended on toughening up the relationship between the Bill and the guidance notes. Although the duty in relation to consultation must be set in stone, that is not necessary for every aspect of the guidance notes because, as he has said, they will develop over time. I wonder whether he recognises the distinction between what is in the guidance notes and what happens when the guidance notes are not adhered to.
Mr. Hoban: The hon. Member for Wimbledon has raised a valid issue. It is important to draw a distinction between the prospectus's detailed contents and what should be in regulations. The prospectus contains some matters that perhaps do not need to be in regulation.
On consultation, a lengthy but non-exhaustive list of statutory consultees such as groups involved with special educational needs, denominational schools and admissions forum schools is important. In the prospectus, the Minister has gone some way to improving that list, for which I am grateful, but we must set minimum standards on the consultation process. When we reach a later group of amendments, I shall refer back to the role that statutory consultees could
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play in changing school transport schemes, but I shall leave that to a later time, because I have taken on board the comment made by the hon. Member for Wimbledon.
It is important that we ensure that protection is in place for the most vulnerable groups in our society. Ensuring that adequate consultation is enshrined in statute rather than in a prospectus is a way to achieve that and to ensure that the voice of the most vulnerable in society is heard, whether we are discussing changes to sensitive travel arrangements that could lead to additional costs being imposed on parents, whether children have special educational needs or whether they attend denominational schools. We must get the consultation process right and, where possible, that should be reflected in the Bill.
On amendment No. 7, I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Southport. We must ensure that denominational schools are consulted properly and that diocesan educational organisations are also part of the consultation process. Again, that should be subsumed into the overall tenor of regulations.
On amendment No. 6, in Committee we raised the issue of how LEAsparticularly small LEAsthat are adjacent to each other work together where considerable movement occurs over their borders. I do not know whether the Minister is still responsible for education in London, but he knows about the cross-border movements that take place in London. For example, some 40 per cent. of children in Lambeth are educated outside the borough, and a mechanism is needed to make those schemes cover them.
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Twigg): First, I thank the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) for his kind remarks about my appointmentI will not be drawn into discussions about the number of twigs on the ministerial tree. I am delighted to welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp).
On amendment No. 6, the issue was raised in Committee, where I explained that I do not think it desirable or practical for LEAs to propose joint schemes. We considered allowing LEAs to make joint applications to the Secretary State and the National Assembly for Wales when we first drafted the Bill. We reconsidered our initial decision following public consultation, when a number of LEAs suggested that they would like to make joint applications, although they foresaw that groups of more than two authorities might run joint schemes, particularly in some of our larger urban areas, for the reasons referred to by the hon. Member for Fareham.
We felt that there are a number of problems with that approach, some of which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) when he moved the amendment. In practice, good schemes could fail or suffer delays if one authority failed to carry out an adequate local consultation. Secondly, if one LEA wanted to make small changes to a joint scheme, every participating LEA would have to carry out a
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consultation, which could turn out to be costly and unnecessary. Thirdly, one LEA might decide to revoke a scheme, but another might want to continue with that scheme because it felt that the scheme was working well, which would pose practical difficulties.
The Bill is already sufficiently flexible to allow two or more LEAs to come to us with schemes that they have developed in consultation with each other, and London may well provide a good opportunity to do that, for the reasons set out by the hon. Member for Fareham. Such schemes might dovetail, although each LEA would need to submit its own separate scheme for approval. Indeed, we understand that some LEAs are already considering that approach, which we encourage.
I agree with hon. Members that collaboration makes a good deal of sense where cross-boundary issues must be addressed. However, I hope that they agree that the drawbacks of joint schemes outweigh their advantages. We will continue to encourage authorities to make their own applications in which they can explain how their scheme relates to others and ask for joint consideration, where appropriate. We are convinced that that approach offers the joined-up dimension sought by amendment No. 6.
Before I address amendments Nos. 7 and 12, I shall respond to the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). It is disappointing to hear about a failure to consult. When school transport changes are proposed, whether they are part of the Bill or whether they are broader changes, it is vital that consultation occurs. The particular example from Herefordshire demonstrates the importance of innovative approaches. At the moment, an innovative approach enables students who might not qualify for free transport to use buses that take children to denominational schools. With the hon. Gentleman's leadership at a local level, I encourage Herefordshire LEA to reconsider the matter and, perhaps more important, fully to consult parents and others in Herefordshire on the proposals.
Amendment No. 7 would require LEAs to consult admissions bodies and representatives of denominational schools and would prevent a scheme from being made until those consultations have taken place. Amendment No. 12 would give the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales powers to make regulations specifying the consultation process that LEAs must undertake before making a scheme application. The regulations could also provide a list of statutory consultees.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) that a full consultation process is vital to underpin any applications as part of the legislation. I also agree with the comments made on both sides of the House that a number of key consultees must be included in the consultation process in every authority. A number of consultees, including the Education and Skills Committee, have suggested a number of additional stakeholders who should be included in the section in the prospectus on local consultation. During recent scrutiny in the House, we made further additions in response to the most helpful suggestions made by members of the Committee. I hope
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that the list of consultees now in the prospectus is fully comprehensive, but I remain receptive to any further suggestions.
The list includes school governors, including governors of special schools where pupils in the authority are placed; teacher association representatives at the local level; parents and prospective parents; the schools forum; the admissions forum; bodies representing any denominations with schools in the area; transport operators; further education; as my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) rightly stressed, groups representing parents with children with special educational needs and/or disabilities; organisations with an interest in pupil safety, such as BUSKBelt Up School Kidsand Stuart's Campaign; and any other partners with a material interest in school travel schemes, such as passenger transport executives and Transport for London. Admissions bodies and representatives of denominational schoolsthe subject of amendment No. 7are included in the list, and rightly so.
The National Assembly for Wales will be responsible for issuing the prospectus in Wales and will conduct a wide-ranging consultation with all interested parties, including admissions bodies and representatives of denominational schools. In Committee, I explained that the prospectus is binding on scheme authorities and that we will not approve pilots that have not had adequate consultation. We are responding to those and separate concerns of Committee members through amendment No. 26, which will place the prospectus on a statutory footing. I hope that that will be sufficient to allay the concern that Members have expressed today that pilots could be put in place without adequate consultation.
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