Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Whitty: I am happy to discuss further these matters with the noble Baroness, and I am sure that the department will be happy to do so. I would hope that as strong a message as possible was going from the department and from Ministers in general to those local authorities which are dilatory in even the most elementary preparations for providing for pupils with special needs. In that sense, the Government's commitment is clear.

The Government's final position will depend on their overall assessment of the response to the Green Paper. It would not be the Government's intention to propose changes to this legislation until we have that overall package, taking into account all the concerns, which it is intended to produce very early into the autumn.

Therefore, discussion would allow her to feed in her views and other views into that process and sharpen up that process. But I do not believe that there would be a very different position on Report, following those discussions. Let us have a look at the matter to see whether there is anything on which we could reach agreement before the next stage. However, I should not

8 Jun 1998 : Column 836

like to mislead the noble Baroness, because our strategic objection to the amendment is that we wish to wait until the autumn to put together the total package.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth: I thank the noble Lord for that. I appreciate that it may not be possible to change the legislation. I understand that. However, I believe that a firmer message could be given to pave the way. I should be very grateful for further discussions with the department. With that, I shall beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 216A:

After Clause 87, insert the following new clause--

Effect of admission arrangements on school transport policy

(" . Each local education authority shall so order its school transport policy as to give practical effect to the admission arrangements of the maintained schools in its area.").

The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 241. These amendments are inconsistent and badly drafted. However, that does not matter because they are not for passing: they are for discussing. They cover two aspects of school transport policy. Perhaps I may deal first with Amendment No. 241. This refers back to the discussion we had on parental preference. As I said previously, one of the ways in which local authorities seek to curtail the use and the expression of "parental preference" is by limiting the school transport available to schools which parents might otherwise regard as alternatives. For example, if there are three good secondary schools in a county town, you can only get transport to one of them. That is all right if you are rich, have your own car and can zoom about on the school run that the Government say they wish to discourage. However, if you cannot afford that or your car is committed to work or other duties, you will be unable to take advantage of the parental preference which could easily be available if the local authority had the wish to provide it, together with a little imagination.

Amendment No. 216A touches on the rather more serious subject of school transport within the whole sphere of local admission arrangements. The current position is quite clear; namely, that transport policy is controlled by the LEA. That is an enormous strength. If you are in charge of the transport policy, you have a great ability to bend others to your will because you cannot easily indulge in admission polices that go against the school transport policy. Indeed, one can look back to counties which have denied their local grammar schools any form of transport in order to discourage children attending them. That is merely an expression and not--thank goodness--a common expression of the sort of power which control over the transport policy gives the local authority.

What I want to find out from the Minister is whether that is a power which will continue to be in the sole exercise of the local authority. Alternatively, will it become much more a part of the whole admissions

8 Jun 1998 : Column 837

procedure, with the local authority being under a duty to provide the transport that accords with the admissions authority to which it has been party? I beg to move.

Baroness Maddock: I am slightly disappointed with the noble Lord. I thought that I would be able to stand up and say how much I supported his intentions and, if these were his views, how surprised I was by his earlier intervention. However, I now understand that the noble Lord has slightly different views. He is more concerned with parental choice than actually trying to tie that up with anything environmental. Perhaps that is why he was so keen to attack me for wanting to be environmental earlier.

The noble Lord has a point but his reasons are very different from those I would support. We need to address the issue of how we can help people to get their children to school satisfactorily while not using cars so much. The proposed amendments would achieve that end, although I believe the noble Lord's prime aim is to secure choice. It is important for people to have choice, but the system sometimes works against people. Indeed, as the noble Lord said, sometimes it works very much against people who are trying to exercise choice.

I remember one case I had to deal with where a family moved into an area. The child could not go to the nearest school because it was full. The child had to go somewhere else. The parents had no means by which to get the child to school. There was no transport provided, and the parents were working. They managed, very imaginatively, to get around the difficulty, but we are talking about a real problem here.

I believe that we need to look at what has happened on the ground as regards admissions policies to see whether we can devise something that helps resolve some of the awkward situations that arise. However, as the noble Lord said, this is an amendment for discussion. He is right to say that some people's choice is severely limited because they cannot afford to get their children to school. The other advantage of school buses is that they result in fewer cars on the road. In that spirit, I am happy to contribute to this debate.


Lord Whitty: I am afraid that the Government cannot support the amendment. Quite apart from any technical deficiencies, we consider that this area should be left in general to local authorities' discretion. The proposals as they stand would involve considerable expense and impose a new and continuing burden on LEAs.

LEAs have considerable discretion in this area. They must provide free transport to the nearest suitable school for those pupils of compulsory school age if the school is beyond statutory walking distance. In all other cases, however, it is for LEAs to decide whether or not free transport is necessary. But the term "necessary" is not defined in law; LEAs must act reasonably in this matter. They should consider each application on its individual merits, taking into account all relevant factors, in particular a parent's wish for his child to attend a school of the religion or denomination to which the parent adheres.

8 Jun 1998 : Column 838

Even in cases where free transport is not necessary, LEAs may help by paying all or part of a pupil's travelling expenses. The cost of this already in England alone amounts to some £380 million a year which is a not insignificant sum. The noble Lord's proposals would add to that significantly. The courts have made it clear that LEAs do not have a blanket duty to provide free transport to a school other than the nearest suitable one, whatever the distance. However, the courts have also held that LEAs must take account of the reasons for a parent's preference, although the preference is not the sole consideration.

The Government are reluctant to take away LEAs' discretion in these matters--a discretion which has been upheld by the courts. The law quite rightly gives LEAs a pretty wide scope for discretion so that a transport policy can meet local and individual needs. It is, in our view, a matter for each LEA to decide whether and how it exercises these powers and provides school transport in its area. Moreover, the amendment would lead to substantial additional transport costs and would take away the discretion that we wish to keep at local level.

The noble Lord will no doubt be disappointed in that response to his probing amendment. Nevertheless that is the position to which the Government adhere, and it is right that I should express it in those fairly uncompromising terms. In view of that, I hope the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: It is late but I cannot let the matter go by. May we hope that once the transport White Paper has been published, its policies--which I hope will be good ones, if all the signals are correct--will be adopted not just by one ministry but by all ministries? The Minister quite rightly talked about costs. Anyone who has ever had anything to do with an education authority, particularly in a county area, is acutely aware of those costs. Nevertheless, we have to consider the £16 billion a year cost arising out of congestion on the roads. I hope that in the future a broader view will be taken of these costs in the context of an integrated transport policy. I do not expect the Minister to reply to that point as this is not his subject, but it is mine and I could not resist the temptation to make my point.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page