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Mr. Stephen Twigg: I agree that this group of amendments covers the set of issues that is at the heart of the Bill. I shall deal with some general points that right hon. and hon. Members raised during the debate, then discuss each of the amendments in turn.
The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) rightly reminded us of the need to place this issue in a much broader context. I entirely agree with the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal that it isone component among several in promoting health education and healthy living. The obesity issues to which he referred, including the quality
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of school meals and teaching children about food as part of the curriculum, are important, but equally important are physical activity, including PE and sport in schools, which we discussed earlier this week, and the issues involved in the Bill.
I strongly agree that part of the purpose of the schemes in pilot areas will be to encourage, where suitable, more walking to school. Walking to school involves a set of issues to do with safety and security. One of the reasons why some parents do not want their children to walk to school nowadays, yet might have contemplated it 20 or 40 years ago, is the fear of what might happen in terms of criminal activity, attacks on the children and so forth. Projects such as walking buses that are pursued as part of safer routes to school programmes are to be encouraged, and I hope that they will be developed under the pilots.
The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough quoted the figure of £2 billion. It is worth taking the opportunity to remind the House that that is a global sumit is not just for schools and health, but includes all concessionary travel, such as that for the elderly and disabled, and fuel duty rebates. The figure for education is about £600,000. That is still a sizeable amount of money, and I agree that it provides us with an opportunity to achieve a bigger impact. The underlying purpose of the BillI acknowledge and welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for that, even though he may disagree with the way in which we are proceedingis not to cut that money. We are saying not "Let's spend less on school transport", but "There is a lot of money in the system and we want to ensure that it is spent as effectively as possible."
The hon. Gentleman, inadvertently I think, set out a good argument for what we are trying to do when he cited the example of parents having a preference for, say, a specialist school or an academy. As he knows, the entitlement does not exist under the present system unless that specialist school or academy is the nearest suitable school. One of the possibilities of the Bill is that a local authority in a pilot area might decide to provide transport on a concessionary basis for pupils going to those schools, who currently may not benefit from it. The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) gave a good example of how scheme authorities could respond to the concern that he raised.
The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that this is an urban Bill. I would dispute that. In Northumberland, an example of a rural area that was cited on Second Reading and in Committee, only 16 per cent. of pupils travel more than 3 miles to school. The Bill has potential benefits even in a very sparsely populated local authority area such as that.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD):
My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and I cannot possibly support the Bill, as together we represent the whole of Powys, the most sparsely populated local authority area in England and Wales. That area has the authority that spends most per pupil on school transport and, according to a GMB survey, the smallest average income. One can imagine
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the effect that any proposals that undermine the present system would have on people living a long way from schools, but with incomes of just over the £14,000 limit.
Mr. Twigg: We have deliberately taken the voluntary approach so that pilot authorities volunteer. I do not want to make presumptions, but perhaps it would be inappropriate for Powys to volunteer, or perhaps the Bill will help some parts of the county but not others. I conceded that in Committee when the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) made similar points about Northumberland, although I have provided figures that suggest that the Bill may be relevant even there.
Mr. Peter Atkinson : In a sense, the figures mislead. In Northumberland, two thirds of the population live in one small corner of the county while the other third lives in the vast remainder. That third lives in isolated and sparsely populated communities.
Mr. Twigg: That is correct. The hon. Gentleman will recall that we had exchanges about that in Committee, where an amendment was tabled to apply every scheme to an entire LEA area. I made the point that we did not want to place that requirement on LEAs because circumstances in a county or LEA area can vary in the way that he described. We wanted to ensure flexibility.
Mr. Twigg: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave a guarantee on Second ReadingI gave the same guarantee in response to probing amendments in Committeethat we would not approve pilot schemes that are simply about cost cutting. We want the pilot schemes to fulfil the purposes that we have set out in the Bill and the prospectus. The aim is, first and foremost, to encourage a shift away from the school run to greater use of buses, and walking and cycling. We will not support schemes that are designed simply to cut costs locally because that would have the opposite effect from the outcome that we support. The Liberal Democrats support that, too. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that a moment ago.
I do not believe that it will be possible for a scheme to have even an unintended consequence of cutting costs. The moneys that are raised through any charging scheme have to be spent on the purposes that the Bill and the prospectus set out. If the money is used as the hon. Gentleman suggests, the effect will not be achieved. I fear that we are straying slightly beyond the amendment and I might get into trouble. I also want to do justice to all the amendments and I shall therefore try to make progress and respond to each of the amendments.
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Amendment No. 9 would maintain the current entitlement to school transport of any child who lives more than two miles away from a primary school and three miles from a secondary school. It would also prevent scheme authorities from removing the existing entitlement to free transport of a child in special education. In essence, the amendment seeks to introduce a transitional period during which pupils who currently get transport continue to have it free of charge, with pilot LEAs charging only new pupils entering primary, secondary or special schools for the first time. The way in which the amendment is drafted makes it unlikely that it would achieve this, but that is clearly what it seeks to do.
We have given a great deal of consideration to the matter. We recognise that changes introduced in the course of a pupil's education, midway through their time at school, might cause some difficulty. We also recognise the valid point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who is present, when the Transport Committee considered the draft Bill, that the urgent problems associated with school transport need addressing sooner rather than later. The Committee criticised us for not moving quickly enough on the measure.
To delay the introduction of affordable fares might undermine the economics of a scheme and make an otherwise excellent proposal unviable. In another authority, it might be possible and desirable to phase in the introduction of affordable fares. In our discussions with LEAs, some have said that, if approved, they would want their scheme to be fully operational from the start. Others have stated that they would prefer the sort of interim arrangements that the amendment suggests. It is important to remember that schemes will be introduced only following wide local consultation. If, thereafter, an LEA wishes to phase in its arrangements, and the finances stack up, the transitional arrangements envisaged in the amendment could indeed be put in place. If there is local support for a less gradualist approach, LEAs will be able to implement full-blown travel schemes from the outset. We believe that given the overall approach of the Bill, and the safeguard of local consultation, this is the right balanceto let the decision be taken locally, according to local circumstances.
Amendment No. 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) on behalf of the official Opposition, would remove from the proposed schedule paragraph 4, which gives scheme authorities the power to charge for transport or travel assistance provided under their schemes, except in the case of protected children, and paragraph 5, which provides a mechanism for recovering those charges as a civil debt.
That would remove from local authorities the capacity to distribute the subsidy for home-to-school transport according to local priorities. The amendment would not affect paragraphs 6 and 7 of the schedule, which provide that if a scheme gives rise to the need to incur expenditure in order for a child to take advantage of anything provided under it, children who fall within the definition of "protected child" in paragraph 7 will have that expenditure met by the scheme authority.
It is worth reminding ourselves that, under the current system, only a small minority of pupils receive free or assisted home-to-school transport. As we have been
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reminded in the debate, a joint survey undertaken by the Department, ConfEd and the National Audit Office last summer suggested a proportion of 10 per cent.about 700,000 pupilsalthough in Wales, as we were reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), the proportion is higher, at about 20 per cent.
As such a relatively low proportion of pupils receive free or assisted transport, large numbers of families already have to pay for buses or taxis to get their children to school. The national travel survey records a pretty constant statistic of 20 per cent. of pupils taking the bus to school in England and 30 per cent. in Wales, suggesting that as many families currently pay for school transport as receive free or assisted transport from their LEA.
We have conducted recent research that suggests that parents on lower incomes are more likely to have to pay for their children's travel to school than those on higher incomes. The same research shows that two thirds of children who catch the bus have to pay more than £7 each per week to get to school£300 per year. The large subsidy provided for home-to-school transport is given according to distance criteria rather than ability to pay. In other words, the current system fails to address issues of equity and fairness adequately.
I want to make it clear that although the Bill would allow local education authorities to choose to make small charges for school travel if they felt that that was required, there will be no compulsion to do so. Furthermore, any plans to charge parents would need to be made strictly according to ability to pay, with an expectation that charges would be at a level that would not lead to a shift from bus to car use. I reiterate the comments made on Second Reading by my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Education and Skillswho is now the Home Secretarythat bus fares will remain heavily subsidised.
The Bill aims to give local authorities flexibility in targeting the overall subsidy for school transport more equitably and according to local priorities. We recognise that the introduction of charges may lead to some parents shifting from bus to car use. However, in targeting the existing subsidy, and any additional revenue, on a larger proportion of the school population than currently receive free and assisted transport, the net effect is expected to be a decrease in the number of pupils travelling by car, with corresponding increases in walking, cycling and bus usage.
All pupils in England eligible for free school meals who go to their nearest suitable school would continue to get free school transport where provided by the LEA, regardless of how far they live from their school.
To summarise, the small charges that may be introduced in scheme areas, coupled with the existing large subsidy for home-to-school transport, will provide revenue for improved, extended and better focused transport services for pupils.
The amendment seeks to prevent LEAs from discriminating financially against parents and children in rural areas. It does not define "rural areas", nor does
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it define "financial discrimination". The meanings are sufficiently vague and uncertain in legal terms to make the provision unenforceable. The amendment would leave scheme authorities uncertain about what their charging policies should be. They would also be uncertain where their scheme covered what might be termed "rural" and "non-rural" areas, which are not defined, as my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) pointed out to the House. Equally, the amendment would leave uncertainty for the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales about whether schemes submitted to them could be approved.
As we have said, current school transport arrangements cater only for a small minority of people. On Second Reading and in Committee, we heard a number of examples of villages that are up to 2.9 milesjust below the criterion of 3 milesfrom their nearest school, where pupils must currently make their own way along narrow country lanes because no school bus is provided. We have heard of communities split down the middle by the three-mile limit, with pupils living in low-income estates happening to be just inside the 3-mile limit and therefore receiving no assistance. Recently, my Department published research that suggests that the fares of nearly two thirds of pupils who currently travel to school by bus or taxi are met by their parents, not by the local education authority. We are seeking to address the needs of those pupils through this legislation and the piloting procedures that we are following.
I am aware that I am up against the clock, and I want to move on to the remaining important amendments. Amendment No. 13 sets out a number of changes to the category of protected child for larger families, in terms of family income, and for those whose current transport costs are covered by a discretionary fare scheme. The first point is that concessionary schemes stem from transport rather than education legislation. Outside London, the passenger transport executives and local authorities have discretionary powers under section 93 of the Transport Act 1985 to offer concessionary travel for young people in full-time education. There is a range of provision for school-age children and young people, usually covering journeys in general, not just the home-to-school journey, and in some cases concessions will cover travel by train, tram, metro and ferry, as well as bus.
In the shires, decisions on concessionary fares are made by unitary and district councils, whereas in metropolitan areas, passenger transport executives make the decisions. In London, children's fares are set by Transport for London, and discounts are available for young people up to their 18th birthday. Currently, children under 11 travel free, and the Mayor intends to extend that to under-16s next year.
I hope that that brief explanation has demonstrated the great variety in concessionary fare arrangements around the country. In many cases, they are either set on a commercial basis or decided by transport authorities in a way that caters for transport generally rather than focusing on the school run. As we know, the Bill will allow local education authorities to make charges, but
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provides that where a child is protected, travel must be free. Where the child is not protected, we anticipate that LEAs will continue to charge pupils for whom they provide transport now, where there is no statutory requirement to do so, and make small affordable charges for transport provided to pupils who at present receive free school transport. The prospectus requires LEAs to set out their charging policies, making it clear how many pupils will be charged, in what circumstances and how much. Charges need to be affordable and pitched at a level that does not produce an increase in car journeys to school.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) raised again today the important issue that he raised in Committee. I very much understand his disappointment that there are not Government amendments on the issue. The reason is that we are still undertaking detailed work on the issue, to see whether we can achieve a broader protected child category that can be adopted in a realistic way in the terms of the legislation as set out. I expect that we will be able to return to the matter in the other place. I acknowledge that that is not ideal, and I would have preferred to bring the issue back to the House today, but it is vital that we get it right if we are to provide the kind of protection for poorer families that those who debated this in Committee were keen that we should provide. We have of course sought to use the prospectus to do that.
It is highly unlikely that concessionary fares would differentiate between children in differently sized families, as there is no mechanism for that to be done cost-effectively. As has been said, through the prospectus we encourage local education authorities to consider offering lower or indeed no charges to families containing four or more siblings attending school.
The second category of pupil referred to in the amendment is that of children who are not "protected", but are drawn from families with below-average incomes for the authority's area. There are a number of difficulties. First, there is no mechanism for LEAs to obtain income details for families in their area, so it would be difficult to determine the average family income.
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