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I shall be brief, to allow other Members to participate in the debate. The Bill will give a small number of local authorities additional flexibilities to tackle issues surrounding what is commonly known as the school run. Twice as many children are driven to school now in comparison with 20 years agoabout 40 per cent. of primary pupils and 20 per cent. of secondary pupils. Most of those journeys cover a distance of less than two miles. In reality, the school run means falling numbers of children walking or cycling to school, with serious health implications in terms of the lack of daily exercise and the growing proportion of children who are overweight. It also means congestion in our communities and increased levels of pollution around our schools.
Of course, much can be done, and is being done, that does not require legislation. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) has reminded the House of the part that he played, as Secretary of State for Transport in the 1990s, in the introduction of safe routes to school. It is now more than a year since the Government published the travelling to school action plan, setting out a series of measures to encourage more walking, cycling and bus use. The Bill is an important part of that wider picture.
We have had useful debates on the Bill in Committee and today on Report. I have listened carefully and made changes, especially to the prospectus that goes with the Bill, to reflect different views and concerns. Today, I moved a number of amendments. In response to points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), I tabled an amendment to place the prospectus on the face of the Bill. Having accepted in principle changes proposed by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire to allow local education authorities to revoke school travel schemes unilaterally, I tabled further amendments to allow that to happen. We have made complementary changes to the prospectus, requiring LEAs to undertake local consultation before terminating schemes, and to give parents adequate notice of changes.
We have had constructive debate on a broad range of issues: safety, consultation, the important issue of pupils with special educational needs, the position of pupils attending denominational schools, and pupils expressing a preference for Welsh-medium schools in Wales.
The Bill, if read the Third time, will go to the other place, and I believe that there will be the opportunity in the other place for some further improvement to the legislation. Throughout our debates, there has been a recognition that the issues faced vary from area to area and that the solutions will be different in rural, semi-urban and urban areas. LEAs need flexibility to respond to local need. We are encouraged by the interest shown by LEAs of all parties throughout the country.
This is a short deregulatory Bill, with cross-party support in local government. It will introduce the flexibility for scheme authorities to address urgent cross-
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cutting issues of health, the environment and safety. It is voluntary in nature, in both its piloting phase and the longer term.
"There is widespread agreement that the current requirement to provide free transport for children living a particular distance from school, and the sharp divide between free and full cost provision, no longer can be justified in terms of equity, efficiency or need. Instead, we recommend that local authorities should be given the freedom to develop their own transport policies."
At the heart of the Bill is the Government's decision to move away from the principle of free education, which has been at the heart of education since the Education Act 1944. Charging children for the right to go to school is a retrograde step, which many of the most vulnerable people in our communitiesthose on low and moderate incomes and those in rural areaswill feel is harsh and view as a third-term tax increase.
The process of discussing the Bill in Committee and in the Chamber has still left several significant gaps in the legislation that, I hope, people in the other place will tackle. I believe that statutory safeguards are needed for children with special educational needs, so that they are not unduly penalised by virtue of their condition. We need a more robust policy on meeting the needs of rural communities and families on low incomes. Statutory protection is needed on the duty to consult, so that people can be certain that their views will be heard on this matter.
One of the issues that we have not had a chance to discuss today is of fundamental importance to the Bill: what will happen on the expiry of the pilot schemes? No further primary legislation will be required to roll out those schemes across the country, even though on a voluntary basis. Throughout the country, scheme authorities can take it upon themselves to extend beyond 20 the number of pilot schemes in England, so that we could reach the point where virtually every child who lives more than two or three miles away from their nearest school must pay for school transport.
The Bill would benefit from a clause that brings it to an end at the pilot stage, so that further legislation can be introduced to learn the lessons of the pilots schemes, to ensure that statutory protection for those vulnerable groups is put in place where necessary, if that is not in the Bill by the time that its consideration is finished in the other place. We need to ensure that the life of the pilot schemes comes to an end in an orderly way, so that we can put in place proper legislation that protects the interests of children with special educational needs, low income families, those who to go denominational schools and those who wish to go to schools where
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Welsh is the principal language of teaching. Those protections are needed, but the Bill does not offer them as currently drafted. If the Bill continues without that definite end point, many of the most vulnerable people in our communities will be put at risk.
We voted against the Bill on Second Reading, and I urge my hon. Friends to vote against it on Third Reading because of its deficiencies and the fact that it moves away from a principle, which has been in legislation for 60 years, that children should be able to go to school for free if they live more than two or three miles away from that school.
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