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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the Minister has sent a helpful letter on transport. It refers to the difficult dilemma facing local authorities to which the Minister referred at our previous meeting. The first paragraph of
In the top paragraph on the next page of the letter, the Minister says that she intends to provide learning partnerships with specific guidance on how they might tackle the provision of transport. Again, the issue will be money. It will not be will. The will almost everywhere, including among local authorities, is very much to do just that. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, is fundamental. If a person is assessed, and if the provision is made but the person cannot get to where he wants to go, the provision is worthless. The issue will be one of finance; and not of discussing this with learning partnerships or of having joint reviews with a single budget--the education maintenance allowance budget--and tacking on to that the whole issue of providing transport for disabled people.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am grateful to those noble Lords who have spoken for their support for the Government's response so far. There are points which I could make about the detail of the amendments, but instead I want to concentrate on the central issue: how best to provide transport for students with learning difficulties. The amendments suggest that responsibility should be transferred to the LSC. I believe that students' needs will be best served if the lead responsibility for post-16 student support remains with LEAs.
Secondly, LEAs are responsible for arranging transport for pupils under 16 and will remain so even if the amendment is accepted. We could then have something of a mess: buses being laid on for school pupils by one organisation and quite separate provision being made by another organisation for students attending a neighbouring sixth-form college.
Thirdly, local authorities are responsible for the overall transport arrangements for their area and they take account of the interplay between the needs of students, shoppers, commuters and so forth. To take out any one of those components and give it to another party does not make a great deal of sense. If either of these amendments were to be accepted, it is likely that a number of services currently provided by LEAs would cease to be viable.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked about additional funds. She suggested that EMAs are already oversubscribed and that more young people are applying for them than local authorities have been able to fund. Local authorities have not adequately been able to meet the demand. However, I can tell the noble Baroness that EMAs are new money. Additional funding of up to £40 week has been made available in these pilots. A great deal of resource is being put into this area.
In addition to these developments, I believe that further action in respect of both learning partnerships and the learning and skills council would bring about an important improvement in the situation for those people with learning difficulties who require transport. Learning partnerships bring together all the main local players, including colleges and LEAs. I expect them to plan jointly to make the best use of their combined resources for transport and I intend to provide learning partnerships with specific guidance on how they might tackle the provision of transport. Again, my officials will work with disability organisations to prepare this guidance for issue as quickly as possible. I hope that by disseminating and encouraging good practice we shall be able to create rather better local solutions than those which exist at present.
Noble Lords may already be aware that my officials have been working with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on research into the provision of transport for school pupils with special educational needs. In view of the success of this work, I think that it is now right to commission a similar study of transport provision for post-16 students. In due course, I hope that it will supplement the advice that we shall be giving to learning partnerships.
I recall from the debate in Committee that the noble Lords, Lord Rix and Lord Addington, were particularly concerned about the future provision of mobility training. In this respect, noble Lords will appreciate that we have taken care to ensure that the LSC will have sufficiently broad powers to make such provision, free from the uncertainty which has surrounded the FEFC's activities in this regard. As a result, the LSC will be able to use its broader powers to ensure that more people with learning difficulties are able to make use of currently available transport.
The LSC will be able to achieve more than the FEFC. For example, as a matter of course local LSCs will consult learning partnerships in drawing up their local plans. Where local LSCs identify gaps in transport provision, they will have the ability to commit resources to transport initiatives. Moreover, noble Lords will appreciate that the Government have substantially increased the resources for access funds, which will be made available by the LSCs to providers. The existing Access Funds Working Group provides an advisory forum for guidance on funding allocations, as well as covering wider strategic discussions about the use and purpose of these funds. The group is currently managed and chaired by the FEFC, but in the future this responsibility will shift to the LSC. I should very much welcome the participation of a representative of disability groups on the LSC's Access Funds Working Group, when it is established.
In conclusion, although I cannot accept these amendments, I strongly support the need to make more effective transport provision for people with learning difficulties. I hope that I have explained why I believe it would be a mistake to undermine the position of LEAs and that noble Lords will welcome the measures that I have outlined. I trust, therefore, that the noble Lord will not press the amendment.
Lord Addington: My Lords, I should like to begin by thanking all those who have supported these amendments. However, I feel a little uneasy about the Minister's answer because, basically, its says, "Best practice. We will talk more and there will be guidance". I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, cast a very long shadow over that earlier today when he talked about duties and guidance and about what happens when and where. I have the same rather chill feeling running down my spine. I feel that some will do it well, while some will not; and some will interpret it, while others will not.
We will end up with that eternal situation that seems to happen to everyone involved in the field--namely, of going back and battling it out with your local authority. In some cases, where there are articulate parents who know how to work through the various organisations, they will get the right deal. That is something that all those involved in the disability lobby are heartily sick of seeing.
However, I thank the Minister for going as far as she could. Indeed, one should always congratulate someone on any advance, even if it is small. But it was not exactly storming through the barricades, though it might be a new entrenchment position from which to batter away. Having said that, I thank the Minister for going as far as she did go and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.