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Mr. Twigg: I shall be happy to look into that. I think there are problems over data sharing, but we have had discussions with colleagues in the ONS and the Department for Work and Pensions to establish whether we could provide the information in a way that would help local authorities.
The second difficulty is that a family's needs obviously depend to an extent on family size. Larger families will need more income to sustain the same standard of living as smaller families, and it seems unfair to penalise them by looking only at average family income. Thirdly, average incomes vary considerably from place to place. The greatest concentrations of poverty are in the inner cities, while many rural areas are relatively affluent.
The last category mentioned was that of children whose current transport costs are covered by a discretionary fare scheme. I assume that the hon.
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Member for Fareham is referring to children travelling to denominational schools, to schools within the statutory walking distances, or to other schools that are not the "nearest suitable" for which the LEA makes discretionary travel arrangements. I can see that there are good arguments for including information about the charges they currently bear and what charges will be in scheme applications in future, and I will amend the prospectus to achieve that.
In the short time that I have left, let me say something about the important issue of children with special educational needs and disabilities. Amendment No. 14 seeks to include a limited proportion of children with a special educational need or a disability in the definition of "protected child". Those included would be pupils who, because of their SEN or disability, were unable to use transport ordinarily available to children without that SEN or disability and were attending their nearest suitable school, or another school where it had been agreed with the scheme authority that they should be registered as a consequence of their need.
In Committee we had some very constructive discussions on the provision of transport for pupils with SEN and/or disabilities. At that stage, I undertook to look carefully at the position of such children. I think there was a helpful consensus among Members that parents of pupils with SEN should not be placed in a worse position than parents of pupils whose children made their own way to their local schools on foot, by bicycle or on the bus. The Committee also agreed that any charges made for transporting pupils with special educational needs or mobility problems must take into account families' ability to pay.
In response to the hon. Gentleman's challenge, I want to explain what we have done following the comments of my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State on Second Reading. Officials in the Department have had, and continue to have, helpful discussions with the Special Educational Consortium and other groups that speak for children with SEN. I am grateful for the consortium's constructive approach, and for the time and trouble it has taken to explore a broad range of options with us.
After careful consideration of the points made by the consortium and others, I have decided to set out our policy for pupils with SEN and mobility problems in the prospectus, which of course will be referred to in the Bill as a result of a late amendment that I tabled.
LEAs will need to include their policy on providing transport for pupils with SEN in their scheme applications. We will not approve schemes unless they protect pupils with SEN or mobility problems from charges that would be additional to those accruing to the parents of pupils of the same age, in the area in which they reside, where special arrangements have to be made by reason of their disability or special educational need.
I want to respond to two specific points. The hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) made a very reasonable point about the definition of mobility, and I undertake to consider whether we can strengthen and clarify the prospectus in the way he suggested. I will reply to him in due course. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) expressed disappointment, saying that we were simply talking about protecting parents and pupils from the additional costs that might
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arise in respect of children with special educational needs. I can assure him that our ongoing discussion with the consortium and other groups focuses on that issue, and he is doubtless right in saying that we will return to it when the Bill goes to the other place.
The approach that I have set out meets many of the concerns expressed by the SEC. It does not extend free or subsidised transport to every SEN pupil who does not attend their nearest suitable school because we want the provision of such transport to continue to be at the discretion of local education authorities.
In some respects, the approach that I have outlined goes further than amendment No. 14. It protects pupils who are unable to walk or cycle to school, along with their peers, from charges in cases where they require transport. However, the amendment offers protection to such children only in cases where transport is normally available to their peers. In addition, there are some practical difficulties with the amendment as drafted. For example, it refers to a comparator group of pupils provided with transport. In practice, therefore, pupils who live close to their school, and whose comparator group were walking or cycling, might have to pay a contribution to the transport, while those living further away, and whose comparator group were entitled to transport, would be protected from charges.
I am grateful to the House for allowing me to set out in some detail the Government's response to the amendments. As has been said, these issues are at the very heart of the Bill. Through the existing prospectus, we have been able to respond to the many legitimate concerns that were expressed in all parts of the House and by a number of pressure groups. We are almost there but further work is required, which is why dialogue is ongoing. We will return to the issues of SEN and low-income families in particular when the Bill goes to the other place. However, the progress made merits the support of Members in all parts of the House, so I urge the Liberal Democrats to withdraw their amendment.
Mr. Willis: I thank the Minister for the courteous and detailed way in which he has responded to the debate. This group of amendments goes to the heart of the issue, which is providing guarantees for children with special educational needs, and for children who attend schools that are a product of choice, such as denominational schools, as a result of Government policy. There is also the question of how to guarantee school places for children who live in rural areas, and whose parents are on relatively low incomes, without shifting the burden.
Despite the Minister's assurances, the prospectus has proved to be a moveable feast, even during the course of this afternoon's debate. In a sense, that is to be welcomed, because it shows that he is listening and responding to the debate. But he has also made it clear that we are no longer talking about pilots; rather, school transport will be subject to wholesale change. As amendment No. 9 makes clear, we want to keep the existing arrangements in place until the pilots are seen to work effectively. Imposing such change beforehand is unacceptable and a cause of sadness, so with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we will press the amendment to a vote.
I was disappointed at the Minister's dismissing the issue of rurality. The legality of the prospectus is very dubious in this regard, and it would have to be tested in
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the courts, or by the Department itself. It is a pity that the Minister has taken this view, because there is growing resentment among people in rural areas, who feel that the Government's social policy is focused on urban areas. This was a good opportunity to deal with that issue.
The issue that we continue to feel strongly about I hope that there will be other votes on amendments in the groupis denominational schools. It is not feasible for the Government to claim that they have a policy to support denominational schools, as well as academies and specialist schools, and want to expand them, without guaranteeing young people access to those schools relatively free of charge
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