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Mr. Willis: Amendments Nos. 9 to 11 have been tabled by me, my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel). Before I proceed, may I formally congratulate the Minister for School Standards on his new position? I do not know whether, on 2 May 1997, I was more pleased to see his defeat of a former Secretary of State than my defeat of a former Secretary of State, but the world will always remember the smile of bemused excitement on his face that evening. It is nice to see him move up to his current position with the same smile. The way in which he has engaged in this debate is typical of the way in which he works.
I was not involved in the Committee stage of the Bill, and I will therefore speak briefly on the three amendments. First, all of them, in simple terms, seek to deal with the issue of charging. There was a good debate in Committee. If one reads the Standing Committee Hansard, one will see that the whole Committee engaged with the issues and tried to get a sensible outcome. The prospectus that is in the Bill today is an example of the Minister being incredibly helpful to the House rather than trying to undermine any of the agreements and commitments that were made in Committee.
Secondly, all our amendments seek to retain existing entitlements. When we are considering changing and influencing school transport throughout England and Wales, it may not be a bad idea to start with the existing system and ensure that existing entitlements remain. The third aim of amendment No. 9 is to include those entitlements in the Bill.
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My hon. Friends and I support the Bill's objectives, but it is nonsensical for so many young people to be ferried to school on journeys of only one or two miles or even less, and nothing in the Bill seems to deal with that. The Bill is mostly concerned with plans to be implemented in future. I think that this is a much bigger issue, and one that is not just about education but about changing the patterns of our town and city transport systems.
Mr. Gummer: According to figures published recently, 20 years ago, when obesity was not one of our main problems, some 80 per cent. of children walked to school. Now only about 5 per cent. do, but the Government are concentrating on good food versus bad food rather than on this fundamental issue, which goes way beyond education.
In Committee, the Minister produced a staggering statistic: £2 billion is spent on school, health and social services transport. There must be a better way of using all that money, for the benefit not just of the school population but of the whole community. We are with the Minister on that, but we are less sure about passing some £200 million of expenditure from local authorities to parents, which will be the net effect of the Bill. Indeed, the sum may be greater: that is a conservative estimatewith a small "c", of course.
The prospectus claims that youngsters receiving free school meals will be protected. There is an argument to be had about special educational needs, and the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) will want to say something about that. In general, however, if local authorities are given the powers proposed in the Bill, they will almost certainly be able to transfer some or all of the existing costs to parents. I do not think the Minister would deny that that will be one consequence of the Bill, although I accept that it may prove to be a good thing.
Mr. Kidney: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports the Government's objectives, but is he perhaps in danger of willing the ends without willing the means? Or would the Liberal Democrats introduce a higher tax to pay for improved school transport?
Mr. Willis: So far we have tried to identify the parameters of imaginative solutions. I do not think that making relatively cheap party-political points is the right approach, and I will not become involved in it.
The prospectus is an interesting document. I do not want to rehearse the argument that we produced during our debate on the last group of amendments, but I think that the usefulness of a prospectus without a statutory instrument will be difficult to sustain. I expect that the other place will return to that issue.
"There is a particularly strong case for providing protection from charges to the fourth or subsequent child of compulsory school age in a household, as these comprise less than 1 per cent. of the pupil population."
I turn to children with special educational needs and disabilities. I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale)he is no longer in his placehad to say about the SEN consortium, but the reality is that it does not glowingly endorse what the Minister is seeking to do through the prospectus. The consortium rightly says that the prospectus is a huge step forward compared with the situation when the Bill was first considered. I compliment the Minister in that regard, but there remains a real issue. What do we do about children with special educational needs who, technically, fall outside the scope of the regulations because they can walk, but who need an escort in order to walk and are not entitled to an escort in a taxi?
Although I support the policy of reducing the number of statements, such a reduction gives rise to a problem. I would love to reach the point where SEN becomes a normal part of school life, without having to single out kids through special statements. But without such statements, those children will not get the SEN and disability rights protection that this legislation provides. I hope that the Minister can deal with that issue.
Parents of children with special educational needs have real fears about bullying on the school bus run. Indeed, two parents came to see me in my constituency surgery last week to discuss this issue, with which the prospectus does not deal. There are no escorts on school buses, and unless we are going to provide them to protect such children, the problem will remain. Children with dyspraxia, autism, or sensory or physical impairments will find it difficult to deal with such situations.
Amendment No. 9 would retain the current arrangements as a benchmark for any new legislation. Amendment No. 10 deals with children who live in rural areas, an issue on which I hope the Minister can satisfy us. On reading the Hansard account of our proceedings in Committee and the Bill's accompanying guidance, there is no doubt that this is urban legislation. The needs of children in rural communities have got be considered carefully, and I hope that the Minister will accept amendment No. 10, which would ensure that parents and children in rural areas are not discriminated against.
I appreciate that amendment No. 11 deals with a difficult issue, which was considered in some detail in Committee. The Government claim that human rights legislation does not allow discrimination in respect of children who attend denominational schools, but it also says that parents should have the right to choose a school according to their religious beliefs. Indeed, through the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, the Government extended the right of other faith groups to have their own schools. It is therefore clear that this is an issue that must be deal with.
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Two other aspects should be mentioned. In responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), the Minister mentioned travel arrangements for independent schools and academies. If it is Government policy to be able to choose an academy and the nearest academy is beyond the nearest school, does it not contravene and work against the arrangements made for school transport in the Bill? Secondly, if a parent chooses a specialist school situated well beyond the local school, will there be an entitlement to free travel arrangements to it?
Amendment No. 11 invites the Minister to address that problem. It deals with the circumstances where a choice of faith school is beyond the local school in the light of the fact that Government policy sometimes encourages parents to choose schools for their children that are beyond the local school. There is a real conflict in Government policy here. On the one hand, the Government offer greater choice, but on the other hand, they propose legislation that encourages children to go to the local school. I hope that the House will support my amendments.
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