|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I have no intention of delaying a possible vote on these amendments, so I shall make only a couple of points, starting with my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Minister. Now that he has been promoted, I hope that he will be able to do even more about some of the things that we brought up in Committee.
Rurality, denominational schooling and special educational needs are covered by this group of amendments. I make no apology for talking about rurality first. As various parliamentary questions have been asked since the Committee proceedings, it would be helpful if my hon. Friend responded to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) by telling us that he is still looking into those issues and that there will be an opportunity in the Lords to tie down exactly what we mean by rurality, especially the ongoing question of who in rural areas is eligible for help. There is now a unanimous belief that eligibility for free school meals is a wholly inappropriate way to ascertain eligibility for free school transport in rural areas, if not in urban areas. There must be a more sophisticated and comprehensive way to assess entitlement.
On denominational schooling, I thought we had received an assurance that there would be no change in the Government's intention that there should be no discrimination against those who choose to attend religious schools, subject to the fact that local education authorities have some discretion in the matter. Although in these days of new localism we have to allow some discretion, I hope that we can reinforce from the centre the view that people should not be discriminated against if they want to send their children to denominational schools, provided that it is within the admission arrangements. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassert the Government's policy.
My main point is that we should look again at special educational needs. We were pleased to follow the lead of my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) in Committee. He made several speeches that clarified the issue and my hon. Friend the Minister was able to respond. I have studied the letter that accompanied the prospectus, which I am sure that other members of the Committee received. It is generally welcome, especially as it seeks consensus that children with special educational needs should not be worse off under the new proposals.
Point 9 of the letter suggests that there should be no additional imposition on such children. We need to be a bit more positive than that. We must make it abundantly clear that children with special educational
16 Dec 2004 : Column 1859
needs have to be protected. The letter refers to that, but we need to do more than merely ensure that they are not worse off than their able-bodied counterparts. Will my hon. Friend the Minister say something about point 9, to make it clear that children with special educational needs may, and often do, have additional requirements? They may need additional protection on journeys; we need assurances about who goes with them, as we all know what can happen if things go wrong.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will have more to say. I welcome the prospectus but we need clarification of the letter. Given the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, I hope that we can look forward to further Government amendments in the Lords so that when the Bill returns to this place the safeguards will be stronger.
Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth) (Lab): I rise to speak briefly to amendment No. 10. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) said that this was essentially an urban Bill. Although I cannot quite agree with him, I can say, as someone who represents a very rural constituency, that school transport is vital. The fact that it is free for a high proportion of children is very significant, and I would not want measures to be introduced that would penalise those people in my constituency.
I note from the guidelines that have been issued that the Government claim that only 10 per cent. of children in England have such school transport arrangements. Although they acknowledge that the figure is 20 per cent. in Wales, the proportion is much higher than that in my constituency. For example, 40 to 50 per cent. of children at Monmouth comprehensive school use some form of school transport arrangement; either school contract buses or arrangements made with local service bus providers.
My hon. Friend the Minister will know that, in Committee, I expressed the concerns of many parents about overcrowding on those school buses. I note from the letter that he gave to members of the Committee that, following its proceedings, he has ensured that the prospectus will include an assurance that local authorities should not enter into contracts that incorporate the so-called three-for-two rule, a concession that allows local authorities to make arrangements with bus companies whereby three children under the age of 14 can sit on a double seat. The consequence is that a bus that we would regard as having 52 seats could technically take 78 or 80 people if all those sitting were under the age of 14. If we add those who stand as well, there can be gross overcrowding.
I have told the House in an Adjournment debate and during the Committee's deliberations that the buses that travel six miles up the Wye valley from Llandogo to Monmouth were grossly overcrowded when I travelled on them. To the credit of the local education authorityMonmouthshire county councilthat situation has now been resolved locally. I welcome the fact that the prospectus will include the assurance that local authorities will not be able to use the three-for-two rule in any pilot area. I hope that that will lead to a national withdrawal of that rule generally, because we should not allow legalised overcrowding.
16 Dec 2004 : Column 1860
Mr. Hoban: This important group of amendments tackles some of the issues at the heart of the Bill, particularly charging. On Second Reading and in Committee, we made it clear that the introduction of charging for those who live more than two or three miles from their primary or secondary school is a move away from the principle set out in the Education Act 1944 and a significant move away from the provision of free education.
Amendment No. 1, which I tabled, is an attempt to reinstate the status quo, to ensure that children who live more than two miles away from their primary school and those who live more than three miles away from their secondary school will still receive free transport. It would not prevent LEAs from trying to tackle congestion relating to children who live less than two miles away from their primary school or less than three miles away from their secondary school; it would allow LEAs the freedom to do so.
We need to recognise the fact that, when we discussed the issue in Committee, we talked about a charge of £1 a day for pupils. For a family with one child, that is about £200 during a school year, but it does not take much for the figures to multiply, depending on the number of children. A family with four children could face a bill of £800 year for sending their children to school. That is an expensive addition to housekeeping costs for many hard-working families. We must also remember that the cut-off for free school transport for protected children is fairly low, and is set at an income of about £13,000the same as the entitlement for free school meals. In many constituencies, the average income is £24,000. At the same time, however, the Government have introduced means-tested benefits through various tax credit and child care schemes from which families who earn up to £59,000 a year can benefit. It is inconsistent to give money through some child tax credit schemes to families earning £59,000 a year while taking it away from families who may earn only a little more than £13,000 a year. We must therefore be consistent in the way in which we tackle need and people's ability to pay.
Amendment No. 13 would provide clarity about concessionary fares in the documents produced by the scheme authority. It would cover low-income families, who, while they may receive more than £14,000 a year, have below average earnings for the area. It would also cover large families, whom we discussed at an earlier stage. The scheme prospectus has been strengthened, for which I am grateful, but we need to make sure that when authorities introduce a scheme, particularly when the scheme is under consultation, they make their concessionary policies clear to families in the area. If they do not wish to extend a concessionary scheme to certain families, they should be transparent and explain why there are not prepared to do so.
Amendment No. 14 tackles the issue of special educational needs, which dominated a large part of our discussions in Committee. Indeed, it dominated Second Reading, when the previous Secretary of State gave a commitment to my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), who, in connection with children with special educational needs, asked whether he was
"On the hon. Gentleman's argument concerning fundamental rightsthe rights of the parent who has a child with a statementI can give him the assurance that he seeks. If we can provide greater clarity on that issue in Committee, I am perfectly happy to go down that route."[Official Report, 28 October 2004; Vol. 425, c. 1609.]
I am sure that, like me, hon. Members will have interpreted that to mean that a provision would be included in the Bill that, at the very least, would protect children with a statement of special educational needs. Disappointingly, that clarification was not made in any of the Government amendments tabled on Tuesday, but the other place will have an opportunity to discuss the issue. If children have special educational needs, their parents should not be penalised through additional transport costs.
Amendment No. 14 seeks to include children with SEN in the definition of protected children, and identifies two separate categories. The first is relatively straightforward and includes children with SEN who attend the nearest suitable school. We dealt with the second category in Committee, and it is covered by paragraph (ii)(b) of the amendment. If parents choose to send a child with SEN to a school that is not the nearest suitable one, is the scheme authority required to pay their transport costs? The amendment says that it will do so if it has agreed that the child should be registered with that school. It would therefore cover statemented children and, given that the Government are trying to encourage local authorities to move away from statements, it would also cover children whose parents have reached an agreement with the LEA that a particular school, albeit not the nearest one, is the right one for them. A school, for example, may have a special unit for children with autism or hearing problems. It may not be the nearest school, but the local authority may have agreed with the parents that it is the right school, so the child should be considered a protected child, and the local authority should pay transport costs. That is important protection for children with SEN. Although the Special Educational Consortium has welcomed the strengthening of the prospectus and the comments about the transport costs of children with SEN, it, too, wants to see some of the protections on which the Minister has given assurances in the Bill, so that they are available as a statutory right, are enshrined in legislation and cannot be taken away without further primary legislation.
The definition of "mobility" in the prospectus is important. It relates not only to children who have problems with walking, but to children who, by the nature of their condition, would find travelling on a school bus a problem. When the Bill was in Committee, the Special Educational Consortiumif was not the Special Educational Consortium, it was the National Autistic Societypointed out the problems when autistic children travel on school buses. Such children may have problems that prevent them from travelling on school buses, and as a consequence parents may incur additional costs. I am concerned that the definition of mobility is not sufficiently broad and detailed to cover those needs.
Denominational schools are important and were discussed on a number of occasions in Committee. At the moment, a discretionary scheme operates, and
16 Dec 2004 : Column 1862
hon. Members have outlined those authorities that have sought to restrict or withdraw support for denominational transport and the problems that that causes.
"to provide free transport or assistance with fares for pupils or students who attend the nearest school or college of their parent's religious denomination, even though they could have attended a non-denominational institution nearer home".
The Bill does not turn the clock back. It reiterates the guidance, but it does not provide any greater statutory protection for children who attend denominational schools. That raises the question of the power of guidance to continue to inform decisions taken by LEAs on school transport, which we touched on in the previous group of amendments. If the guidance has been progressively ignored, the prospectus, in which the Minister places great confidence, could equally become progressively ignored over the course of the next 10 years. The guidance on SEN, concessionary fares and the problems of rurality, large families and families on low income can again be progressively ignored. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) rightly pointed out the need for statutory protection on concessionary fares.
It is important that greater protection be included in the Bill for groups who look to concessionary fares. We should recognise that the transport costs of children with SEN should be properly covered by any scheme rules. Although the guidance in the prospectus is welcome, it is not sufficient in itself and should be in the Bill. Above all, amendment No. 1, which would reinstate the status quo, is an important measure to protect free school transporta principle that has underpinned education for the past 60 years. With your leave, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall seek to divide the House on amendment No. 1 later.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|