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Mr. Willis: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that choice should also be extended to children of other families who are able, under Government-sponsored schemes, to choose schools that are not faith-based but of another category, which is now part and parcel of mainstream policy?
Mr. Gummer: I do not disagree. I took the denominational example because, to a large extent, what the hon. Gentleman is proposing is an extension of the circumstances we have at the moment. I was suggesting that the first step is not to take away what we have now. I do not disagree that if we want choice, we have to recognise that for many people travel and choice are inextricably linked in education. In a constituency such as mine, we clearly could not provide choice and nearness for a large number of people. It cannot be done. People have to travel significant distances. We want variety and to give opportunity, as the Government have said they want to do, and as previous Governments have sought to do. In particular, in the denominational area, we have done that since the historic agreements of 1906 and beyond. If we want that, we cannot ignore the transport element. There is no other way through.
Behind all the amendments is a thought from outside the educational world. I was castigated by the hon. Member for Braintree on the subject of walking, but there is the whole environmental issue. Not even the Minister would defend the record of his Government and, I would agree, of other Governments, on trying to grapple with the huge problem of the impact of transport on climate. Properly organised, school transport can make a real contribution to that. Any of us who drive in a big city know perfectly well when the school holidays begin. It is noticeable from the traffic. A lot needs to be done down that route, but we are not doing it. A lot needs to be done also in terms of collecting a number of children to go to a particular point. The alternative is often, not shared cars, but a whole series of motor cars travelling long distances. That is not a sensible answer for a Government or a nation with environmental targets to meet, which will be difficult to meet. Only last week the Government admitted that they were not reaching them. Therefore, this is one area where they should be encouraging sensible solutions.
I hope very much that the Minister will look again at the amendments and see whether he cannot come at least some way towards us in these important matters,
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not just because of denominational and educational freedom, choice and variety, but also because of the change in life style that we need to encourage in everything that we do.
Mr. Kidney : I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) because I agree on two points. First, it is right to help pupils get to school. I should like to help more than we do. Secondly, I agree that we should do more to end the school run for the benefit of the environment. Although I am uncomfortable about charging as in the Bill, I recognise that that is the way to pay for the work that needs to be done to achieve those advantages. During all the stages of the Bill, no one has suggested a different way of finding the money necessary to do this work. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who moved the amendment, specifically dodged my question, and said that it was a cheap point as to whether there would be more money from a different source to do this work. Charging is a necessary element of the Bill.
Mr. Kidney: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman confirms that he is saying that we want to hold what we have now, with no improvement. But I want improvements, as I have just explained, in two specific areas; to help more pupils get to school and to improve the environment.
Under the charging scheme, there will be a prospectus, schemes suggested and consultation, and entering a scheme will be voluntary. Those are the safeguards against this being an imposition on people who do not want to pay charges. Those who say what we have now we want to hold must accept that the present situation is unstable. In the past one-and-a-half hours of debate the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) complained about his local authority's threat to take away transport to denominational schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) told us that his local authority was threatening to withdraw transport to denominational schools. Anyone who has read the Library research paper on the subject knows that it refers to the full regulatory impact assessment for this Bill, noting that a growing number of LEAs have introduced school transport charges for pupils attending denominational schools, from £94 a year in Rutland to £565 a year in Windsor and Maidenhead. They also know that some LEAs have withdrawn or are consulting on complete withdrawal of home-school transport to denominational schools. It is a fantasy to think that if we stay as we are, everything will be fine. It certainly will not.
Amendments Nos. 10 and 13 deal with rurality, which pupils will be exempt from having to pay a charge and what measure will be used to decide which pupils they are. My hon. Friend the Minister will recall that I tabled an amendment in Committee that dealt with the two issues of morality and means testing. When he responds to this short debate, I should like him to confirm that the assurances that he gave me in Committee still hold and
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that the Government are working on amendments that will deal with those issues. I am disappointed that by the end of proceedings in the House of Commons we do not have those amendments so that I and every other hon. Member can consider whether they meet our concerns. I await my hon. Friend's response to see whether those issues will be dealt with by the time the Bill has finished its passage through Parliament.
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) is wrong about this aspect of the Bill. He talks about the scheme being voluntary. However, as he saidindeed, he made my case for mewhen local authorities have the chance to collect money for a service, as with denominational schools, they will quickly change their minds. If they can charge for it, they will. One cannot say that the scheme is voluntary; once it is in place, any local authority offered the scheme will start to charge. That will happen, as night follows day, and the lessons of history show that that is the case.
The problem with representing a large, sparsely populated and rural constituencyas I dois that choice is very limited. The only way in which choice can be exercised by parents is by using their own transport to convey their children to a school of their choice. We have Catholic schools in the market towns, but in those areas with no Catholic high schools, provision for Catholic education is made in other schools. That provision is fairly limited, but parents who wanted to send their children to Catholic high schools would have to travel right across the county of Northumberland to the only one.
All four high schools in my constituency have specialist school status; one for sport, one for languages, one for art and one for technology. However, children living in west Northumberland could be more than 30 miles away from the nearest high school. If parents want their child to go a specialist school other than their local school, that involves using their own transport or paying for public transport; if it exists, because it is scarce and hard to find in my constituency. Even those parents who use the free school transport system will often have to drive some distanceoften in 4x4 vehicles in the more isolated areasto meet up with the school bus.
I do not want to repeat what was said on Second Reading, but I stress that I support amendment No. 1 in particular, because it would retain the status quo, which I am anxious to do. The problem is that whatever happens, the changes will be a substantial burden on lower income working families. They do not claim free school meals, because it is not in the nature of many people in rural areas to do so, so they will not get counted for help that way. Some of them have several children and the prospectus talks only about help for a fourth child, but the burden of having two or three children at school will be considerable.
I urge the Minister to remember that in many areas, families are sending children to university for the first time. That is to be welcomed, but it puts a heavy
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financial burden on families despite the grants that are available. If a family has one child at university and two others at school who have to pay transport costs to get to school, it will place an intolerable burden on them. That will discourage parents from sending their children into further and higher education, which would be a pity.
I urge the Minister to accept amendment No. 1although I do not expect that he willand to return to the status quo, so that free school transport is available, as it is essential if we are to spread further and higher education in our population.
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