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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that the suggestion from the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) that better-off children who are denied access to free school transport will tend to use private transport does not stand up to examination, because the marginal cost is likely to be less than the charge for school transport?
In recent years, one of my main campaigns in this House has concerned overcrowding in the school transport system. I have mentioned the overcrowding on service buses rather than school contract buses, which the law protects against overcrowding. Because of the three-for-two rule, service buses currently allow excessive overcrowding. That is a particular problem in my area, especially in a community called Llandogo in the beautiful Wye valley. The prospectus states that no authority can enter into an arrangement that exploits the three-for-two concession, and I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm that this afternoon.
Mr. Edwards: I have waited a long time for that assurance. I am mightily relieved, and I am sure that the young people of Llandogo are too. It was a pleasure to be a member of the Committee, in which hon. Members from both sides of the House made excellent contributions. With some reservation, I will support the Bill tonight, but I hope that the protection for those in rural communities, those on low incomes and those with SEN will continue.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con):
As the only Opposition Back Bencher who served on the Standing Committee, perhaps I can share a few comments as the Bill approaches the terminus.
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I endorse the comments made by the Minister and by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban). The Bill has been positive and consensual and the Front Benchers have made some high quality performances; I am delighted that one such contribution has been recognised this afternoon. As the Minister said, some of the initiatives in the Bill build on a policy base that predates this Administration.
It was unfortunate that the timetable motion did not allow us to discuss the Government amendments. On Report, we discussed only Opposition amendments that were not carried, so we did not reach the one group of amendments that changed the Bill. Perhaps the business managers will reflect on the allocation of time, because with two statements, we had half a day for Report. With another hour, we might have been able to get through all the groups of amendments.
That leads me to my second point. It would be churlish of me not to thank the Government for picking up the amendment that I moved in Committee, which then became Government amendment No. 5. I was slightly surprised to see my Back-Bench amendment trumped by the Secretary of State, who suddenly changed it into a Government amendment by adding his name to it. The Bill is more deregulatory now that the Government have accepted that amendment and complemented it with their own. Local authorities that are on the margin of deciding whether to become a pilot authority may decide to do so because they know that if it goes wrong they can disengage quite quickly instead of having to get the approval of the Secretary of State.
My third point concerns increased seat belt use, which I touched on in Committee. At the moment, a parent who drives his or her child to school knows that they will be secure in their seat because they have to wear a seat belt, but if they entrust their child to a coach it may not have seat belts. Given the increasing concern about safety, that consideration may influence the parent. Paragraph 25 of the prospectus says that the Government
That brings me to my final point. The journey to school is much more complicated than it was 30 or 40 years ago, when most of the children in an area would have gone to local schools that all began at, say, 9 o'clock. As we move more towards parental choice, there will be a wider spectrum of schools to which parents may send their children, and they may not be the local ones. Moreover, we are moving towards a regime of wraparound schools that open earlier and close later, so they do not all start at the same time of the morning. I hope that there will be sufficient flexibility in the school travel schemes mentioned in the prospectus to cope with the more variable geometries of school journeys than have traditionally applied.
A few days ago, I spoke to people from a company that provides buses for school journeys, and the one thing that they wanted was variable school opening times. They said that they could provide a much better
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deal if all the schools did not start at 9 o'clock; they could quote more competitive prices and make better use of their vehicles if school times were staggered. That needs to be put into the equation.
The Bill is part of a broader picture of addressing issues of traffic congestion, and to that extent I welcome it. It is slightly unfortunate that we were not able to hear a little more about the eligibility rules. The Minister explained why those were not available before the Bill leaves this House, and we will follow that with great interest.
I hope that where local authorities enter into pilot schemes they will use safer coaches, bear in mind what I said about the variable geometry of the school journey and not enter into contracts that are so inflexible that the parental choice that Members on both sides of the House support cannot be enforced.
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder if the Secretary of State for Defence has contacted your office to try to put the record straight on something that he said in his statement this afternoon. He said in reply to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) that the reason why Scottish regimentshe gave the example of the Royal Highland Fusiliershad been named in a different way from Welsh and English regiments was that that was something that they had asked for. It has become clear this afternoon that the Colonel of the Royal Welch Fusiliers did indeed ask for his regiment to be named in the same way as the Royal Highland Fusiliers. I hope that the Secretary of State for Defence will try to correct the record and let you know that that will be the case.
Roger Casale: The School Transport Bill has itself been a vehicle for advancing the cause of children with special educational needs. I should like to express my appreciation to the Government and to the Minister for the significant changes that have been made in the interests of those children during the passage of the Bill in Committee and on Report. Those changes will be extremely welcome to the Special Educational Consortium and to my constituents, Mary Powell, Carrie Vibert and Pamela Wilson, who are themselves parents of children with special educational needs and raised these matters with me three or four years ago. It is therefore an important moment. Many of the changes enjoy cross-party support.
We should remind ourselves that we have several things on Third Reading that we did not have on Second Reading. We have a prospectus that explicitly states that local authorities must provide confirmation that drivers and escorts have to undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks before they can be employed by local authorities to provide that service to school. The prospectus encourages local authorities to insist on disability awareness training for drivers and escorts. Lack of such training has often placed children with special
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educational needs in especially vulnerable positions The prospectus emphasises consultation with all stakeholders, including groups such as the one that Mary Powell and her colleagues set up in Merton. After all, they are in the best position to assess the way in which the service needs to be tailored to meet their needs.
I am delighted that it was decided on Report to include specific reference to the prospectus in the Bill. The prospectus is valuable only if it can be monitored and steps can be taken to force local authorities to implement the proposals if things start to go wrong. The Bill now provides for greater accountability through a more direct line. I believe that my constituents and those who work in special educational needs will be encouraged by that.
We still have some way to go. I look forward to the day when many of the provisions are rolled out nationally, when special educational needs children are fully protected and when their parents do not suffer some of the nightmares that my constituents have had to face. They can be encouraged that their concerns have been heard. The Government deserve credit but hon. Members of other parties have supported the changes to the provisions on special educational needs.
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