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Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree) (Lab): I find a certain attraction in the amendments proposed by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), but I am a little concerned about whether they would achieve what he intends, particularly with respect to amendment No. 9. Does it relate to parents who have children in those schools at the time that the travel scheme is being put forward, or does it relate to the parents of children in those circumstances for all time? In other words, is it an attempt to preserve the status quo or something akin to it? If so, I would have greater sympathy with it.
A real question for people who represent rural or partly rural areas is how precisely to define a rural area. I envisage considerable discussion and debate taking place about whether a particular child lives in an area defined as rural. Some rural areas, of course, have substantial towns within them, where the provisions may not necessarily apply.
I believe that amendment No. 11 should secure widespread support in respect of the aspiration. I mention my own county of Essex where, dare I say it, a Conservative-controlled county council is in the process of removing free school transport to denominational schools. That has caused a considerable uproar, as one might expect. There is no obligation under present law to maintain such free school transport. Indeed, at the height of the debate, the most recent Secretary of State for Education and Skills, if I may call him that, wrote me an effusive letter, saying that all would be revealed and resolved when the new Bill was introduced, but I am not entirely certain that it does.
I have enormous sympathy with the three Liberal Democrat amendments, but if they were incorporated in the Bill, I fear that the Bill would then be as nothing. The essence of the Bill is taking money from one area and moving it over to another. Unless I am completely misunderstanding it, there is not much new money in the scheme of things, yet that would be necessary if we were to expand the concept of school transport on a free or subsidised basis.
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I was a little concerned, Madam Deputy Speaker, about the remarks of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I may be too simple a soul if I read him to mean that the best way to have the fittest children would be entirely to remove school transport and let them walk to school. I am sure that that cannot possibly be Conservative party policy on these matters.
Mr. Gummer: Not only could that not possibly be Conservative party policy, but the hon. Gentleman's comments could not possibly be an accurate interpretation of what I said. What I said wasI am afraid I said 20 years ago, but it should be 40 years agothat 40 years ago, 80 per cent. of children walked to school, by comparison with 5 per cent. today. Given the known problem of obesity, I simply asked whether there could be some connection. That is a perfectly reasonable thing to say and provides no basis for the preposterous interpretation that the hon. Gentleman put on it.
Mr. Hurst: I am glad that the statement has been repeated, but whether the meaning has changed is another matter. One could interpret it as meaning, "Let them walk." I do not say that: I allow the right hon. Gentleman's words to bear their own interpretation.
There is considerable merit in the main theme underlying these three amendments. I do not want us to retreat from the position that we have occupied since the post-war settlement in these matters. I understand the need to be more imaginative in extending access to school transport. My worry is that we might lose what we have had for a long time, that the gains to be made will be insufficient compensation, and that there will be losers as well as winners. In their innocent way, these amendments seek to address that problem.
Mr. Gummer: I rise to support that aspect of these amendments that deals with parents' ability to choose their children's education, and to address the important inconsistencies identified by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). The extension of specialist schools, and the Government's admirable aim of offering more choice and of reinstating in the education service some of the options that used to be available but which have been removed in recent years, open up some real problems for school transport.
It is right to say that that is part of a bigger problem. We have tended to believe that it is necessary to provide transport even in circumstances where alternatives might prove to be a better option. It is a good thing to walk short distances, and in general that should be encouraged. I am not keen on discouraging that, and people who disagree are not facing up to the reality of life today. Many schools could be more imaginative in promoting walking, such as by the use of walking bus schemes, for example. They could also try to help people to walk in circumstances that might be less safe. We should encourage that, and not make misleading comments about any suggestion that exercise might be a good thing.
When the Government talk about exercise, they find themselves in real difficulties. As a result, they do not talk about it any more. They talk only about food, but I am keen to ensure that both food and exercise are considered at the same time. I am pretty tough about such matters myself, and I declare an interest in the sense
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that I am very aware of the effects of food and drink in that respect. However, I also try to be energetic and to walk whenever possible, simply because it is a contribution that one can make. I do not believe that everybody should be transported everywhere, in any circumstances and over even short distances.
Dr. Pugh: The right hon. Gentleman talks a lot of common sense. Is he aware of research that shows that children who walk to school, even over a relatively short distance, arrive less stressed and more ready to work, and that they are better behaved throughout the day?
Mr. Gummer: Thank you for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, it is difficult to restrain oneself after the very peculiar intervention made by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst)who, of course, does come from Essex.
We are concerned about longer distances, and the problems involved are serious. In Britain, we have arrived at a very satisfactory solution to a problem that has caused huge trouble in many other parts of the world. We have found a way to deal with parental choice in education, especially in connection with denominational schools. Many countries have not been able to achieve that solution, and it is not something to be thrown away lightly.
One looks at the secularist arguments in France and the problems there, from Jules Ferry right up to the present day. Those arguments have gone on and on, but we have managed to find a way through. That satisfactory solution, which has been further and carefully extended by the GovernmentI give them all honour for thatis one that I am keen we should build on.
I do not approve of the decision by local authorities to take away transport help for denominational schools. Doing that will make things extremely difficult for some parents for whom denominational schools are a vital part of how they want their children educated, which fits with the idea of choice. For many people, it is the most important choice when it comes to picking a school for their children. Those of us lucky enough to have been able to afford to make the choice for ourselves without having to look for people outside to support us are particularly obliged to make sure that choice is extended to others. It is quite wrong that this choice will be restricted to those rich enough to afford to make it and that others should be excluded. For me, this matter is crucial to a society in which there is equality of opportunity. I very much hope that the Government will think again about the possibility of taking this and one or two other amendments into the Bill.
This is not a peripheral matter. One of the things that I found difficult in dealing with Suffolk county councila Labour-controlled council that sought to do precisely the same thing as its neighbours, so we need not think there is some party political issue herewas the peculiar argument that this is something that costs the general ratepayer money in order to give a particular choice to
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individuals. Yet that is the nature of freedom. We pay for it generally because we think it is important to do so. I thought that that was a hugely unhistorical way of defending the decision, and it was also extremely inelegant. A society that cares about its members does not treat people as having to stand on their own feet in all circumstances but understands that there are those who cannot do so and treats those people with the dignity that choice gives. The amendment is intended to provide that dignity and to ensure that it is not removed, which I think is vital.
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