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Mr. Kidney: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for the improvements that he made to the prospectus and today's amendment to tie the prospectus to the Bill. I wish the Government well in the other place when improving arrangements to protect the poorest families from having to pay for school transport.
With the existing money that local authorities and the Government spend on school transport and the money from the charging, we could do much more than is already achieved in many more parts of the country and for many more pupils. We could do more to increase walking, cycling, bus use and car sharing. Although I would not normally recommend that people read regulatory impact assessments, anyone who wishes to know how that could be achieved should read the assessment on the Bill, because it sets out two working examples that show how it would be easier to provide transport to pupils attending denominational schools with the guarantee of reasonable charges, rather than the exorbitant ones to which I referred on Report.
We would have greater opportunities to introduce sweeper buses, which are important for pupils who attend rural schools, yet cannot participate in after-school activities at present because they must get on the school bus to go home when it leaves. Sweeper buses would introduce extra flexibility for out-of-school activities at the end of the day.
We could sell more spare capacity. I am especially ambitious for pupils who live just within the current statutory walking distance to be able to access school bus transport at a reasonable and affordable cost. We would also have more money for cycle training and the loan of cycles, and schools would be more willing to discuss staggered start times so that they could make the best use of school transport. On Second Reading, I said that we in Staffordshire are expanding our fleet of yellow school buses all the time, because they are popular and aid such flexibility.
I have talked so far about measures that would improve the safety of pupils going to school, their health, if more took to walking and cycling, and the health of the environment, if we were to cut down on the use of cars to get children to school. However, I would now like to discuss congestion, because that is important to people irrespective of whether they have children who go to school. Everyone who has participated in our debates on the Bill has said at one point that there is a huge difference in the traffic on our roads between the school holidays and the times when schools are in session. I want ambitious schemes to
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ensure that the traffic on our roads moves as freely during school times as it currently does during the school holidays. We should set our sights on such ambitious aims.
I have outlined a good set of aims. If they were achieved, they would be extremely popular. It is not surprising that Opposition parties oppose the Bill, because they know how popular it will be in the future.
Dr. Pugh: I thank the Minister and all hon. Members for the rational, sensible and coherent way in which they have addressed all the arguments presented in the debate. May I return the favour by turning to the essence of the debate without any trimmings or exaggeration?
We have been around the houses on the Bill, but Liberal Democrats are still scratching our heads over one big puzzle: why do we need a School Transport Bill? Much of what is described in the Bill can already be achieved. Local education authorities have had school travel strategies since 2003, and the Bill will give them no new powers and no further incentives. They already have officers in place to look after such schemes, and co-operation with parent-teacher associations already exists.
Why have we got the Bill at all, especially given that special schools are already anxious about their transport arrangements? Children at such schools are not always statemented, so they do not always automatically qualify for free transport. There are already worries about denominational school transport, and rural communities are anxious about losing rights, post offices, hospitals and schools.
There is a key question: why are the Government introducing this small, simple Bill? The possible explanations are fairly straightforward. One explanation is that it comes down to cost: both the current cost and the anticipated increased cost that will flow from a greater diversity of provision including academies, special schools and extended schoolsa similar consequence would arise from turnaround schools.
One way of reducing the overall cost is to allow charging. That already happens, but the Government will reduce statutory entitlements and remove existing free places. The puzzle for the Government is how to sell that to their Back Benchers. The basic ideal of free school transport may date back to 1944, but it is a noble one. Under the principle of free access to education, no child should suffer financially through attending school. The presumption in 1944 was that little legs could not walk further than two miles and that big legs could not easily cope with three or more miles. I would suggest that biological facts have not changed since then. Children are no weaker, and the principle of free access is still very much in place. The Government must therefore use sophistical arguments, which their Back Benchers appear to have fallen for, to remove the "legislative straitjacket" that the previous Secretary of State talked about.
I cannot tell whether I have been duped, because I spend all my time on the Government Benches. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about freedom of choice, but the current provision tends
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to discriminate against children from lower-income backgrounds, who are less likely to enjoy access arrangements for school transport. That is why we need the pilots.
Dr. Pugh: I could not have hoped for a better lead into my next point. There are two sides to the Government's new argument for social equity. First, they argue that some people who receive free travel can afford to pay for it, and have the resources to get to school under their own steam. Secondly, they argue that some people who do not qualify for free travel cannot get to school cost-free and deserve funding. The first argument can easily be dealt with, as it is essentially an argument for means-testing of the better-off. People who can afford to pay for access, it is suggested, should do so under the new Labour social equity principle. If one extended the argument about free access to school one could also argue that people could afford to pay for school books or games lessons. There is no wish, however, to apply that argument consistently across the piece. To be pragmatic, however, individuals who receive free travel yet have the resources to pay for it are more likely to use a second car when they are denied that entitlement, thus undermining one of the Bill's environmental objectives.
The second sophistical argument that Labour Members have fallen for suggests that people who live less than two miles from school can only benefit if entitlements are removed from other people. I accept that walking two miles in 1944 was different from today's hazardous experience. However, is the solution necessarily to deprive others of their entitlement? Is not the more plausible and socially responsible solution to make routes to school safe and improve public transport in general? That is a more joined-up approach to the problem raised by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew).
Neither of the two sophistical arguments stand up, so there must be a hidden agenda. To risk so much grief with so little apparent justification, the Government must either have a cost-cutting agenda or a wish to shift costs from Treasury books. The Bill is not a piloting Bill but a blueprint for the future. Local authorities will pay out less, take in more and, at the end of the day, receive less from the Exchequer. Hon. Members heard it here firstthat is precisely what will happen. In the process, pupils of special schools, denominational schools and rural schools will lose out. That is the harsh reality that Labour Members will vote for. They will have only one thing to offer their constituents when they explain why free access for education is no longer part of the new Labour agenda. The prospectus is the only comfort blanket that they will have. People may not read it in great depth and it may not last for very long, but the removal of free educational access is a principle that Labour will regret abandoning.
I shall be honest with my hon. Friends. When I saw a headline in October last year that said that the Government proposed to end free school transport, I was annoyed. However, I have been assured that the Bill is about pilot areas only. Contrary to the remarks of
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the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), the Bill is not a blueprint, but an opportunity to look for more flexible arrangements.
Like other hon. Members who represent rural constituencies, I have some concerns. Free school transport is vital to my constituency. Government guidelines and briefing documents have assured us that only 10 per cent. of pupils in England take advantage of free school transport; the figure is 20 per cent. in Wales. In my constituency, the figure is significantly greater. I have quoted the example of Monmouth comprehensive school, where about 50 per cent. of pupils arrive at school on free school transport, not only from Monmouthshire, but from Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. Free school transport is vital and I would not support any measure that threatened it. The Bill does not threaten free school transport, because that would depend on Monmouthshire becoming a pilot area and the current arrangements being changed.
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