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Lord Hanningfield: The Minister did not mention parental choice at all. At the moment, transport is provided to the nearest appropriate school. I think that everyonecertainly those of us in oppositionwants to give more parental choice. The Government say that they want to as well. At the moment, that obviously involves charging people for parental choice, which I mentioned when I moved the amendment. Does the Minister have any comment on how parental choice will affect such a pilot scheme?
Lord Filkin: We will deal with parental choice throughout the amendments. The position on it would be no different in respect of a partial scheme than in respect of a total authority scheme. That is not a defining characteristic in terms of this aspect of partial or total schemes. Transport will continue to be provided to the nearest school, and the option is to cater for parental choice in pilots.
Lord Hanningfield: If local authorities are to pursue the pilots, they might want to begin to consider that parental choice be part of the scheme. I know that we shall deal with it in various parts of the Bill. The point that I made when I moved the amendment was that you could have a school with all the variationssome free transport, some use of a pilot scheme and some parental choice. Therefore, there would be a lot of different regimes in the same school. Does the Minister think that appropriate? It obviously could be part of such schemes.
Lord Filkin: The noble Lord is right that that could take place. It is one of the consequences of allowing authorities to run part-authority schemes. We do not expect that that will necessarily be the preference for most local authorities. For the reasons I gave, it would be wrong not to allow that option, particularly as it would be beneficial to some large authorities. I shall reflect on what he said, and if I can add some further clarification before Report, I shall be delighted to do so.
"( ) Prior to making a scheme, the scheme authority will consult with interested parties including, but not limited to
(a) the Schools Forum,
(c) teachers' organisations,
(d) representatives of special schools whose pupils might be affected by the scheme,
(e) parent governors of schools whose children will be affected,
(f) further education colleges,
(g) parents whose children are already in receipt of transport provided by the scheme authority,
(h) bus operators, and
(i) other organisations with an interest in the education of children in the scheme area.
( ) The scheme authority will publish the details of the proposed scheme and seek comments from interested parties, who will have 28 days from the date of publication of the scheme to comment.
( ) The scheme authority will submit to the appropriate national body a summary of the responses to the consultation together with the scheme authority's own response to the consultation."
The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 2 would require local authorities to consult admission bodies, representatives of denominational schools and a number of other bodies. It would prevent a scheme being made until those consultations had taken place. Amendment No. 6 would give the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales power to make regulations specifying the consultation process that local authorities should undertake before making a scheme application. The regulations would also provide a list of statutory consultees.
A full consultation process is vital to underpin any applications as part of the legislation. It is crucial that we achieve it, to ensure that the voice of the most vulnerable in society is heard. That is especially important as we are discussing changes to sensitive travel arrangements that could lead to additional costs being imposed on parents where children are classified as having special educational needs or attend denominational schools, for example. We must get the consultation right and, where possible, that should be reflected in the Bill.
Consultation is important because the measure will lead to significant change for many children who currently enjoy free school transport and it will impact on many children with special educational needs. There would be a huge impact on the institutions in local authority areas, such as denominational schools, special schools and schools in rural areas, with a number of people being affected.
If people feel that they could lose out as a consequence of the Bill, perhaps being charged for transport that has hitherto been free, it is important that they are consulted when the scheme is drawn up. The guidance currently available to local authorities is too brief, and that is why Amendment No. 6 fleshes out the consultation process. In its pre-legislative scrutiny report, the Select Committee on Education and Skills said:
Amendment No. 2 sets out the range of organisations that we wish to see consulted. The local admissions forum is the perfect body for a local authority to consult
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because it is already set up to talk about issues such as school funding, budgets and service contracts between schools and local authorities. It is the automatic and logical focus for consultation with schools in discussing and drafting the proposed schemes.
We must also ensure that representatives of denominational schools are consulted properly. It is important to recognise that there is concern within faith groups about this legislation. In later debates on other amendments, we shall talk about some of the aspects affecting denominational schools. Many such schools are concerned that charging for school transport will reduce the choice available to parents. We must ensure that they are happy and that they understand the schemes. They have concerns not only about the impact on their schools but about the impact of charging on some of the less affluent families in our communities.
Another group will also be affected. Around two-thirds of the existing school transport budget is spent on children with special educational needs. That is a very visible part of the budget, and some local education authorities might feel that costs could be squeezed out of it through introducing these schemes. We must ensure that schools with pupils who receive free transport because of their special educational needs are part of the consultation process. The people who draw up the scheme should fully understand the impact on children who attend such schools and think carefully about the distance that they travel.
Bus operators, too, will be affected by the Bill, particularly in areas where they currently operate schemes that a local authority might seek to take overthrough yellow buses, similar schemes or their own plans to provide transport for children. As many bus operators already provide transport to our schools, we must ensure that they play a part in any consultation processes.
The two new paragraphs proposed in Amendment No. 2 arise from my concern to ensure that scheme authorities carry out a proper consultation process and that time is taken over it. We suggest a period of 28 days in which people may comment. It is also important that, when a scheme comes forward to the Secretary of State for his approval, scheme authorities should have identified to him the local concerns. Before he approves the scheme, he should know what those concerns are and, more particularly, how the scheme authority has responded to them. Clearly a scheme that attracts from the local community widespread opposition which has not been fully responded to by the scheme authority is unlikely to be effective in achieving the Government's objectives.
I believe that the amendments are simple and sensible and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to them. They are about trying to ensure that the consultation process underpinning the scheme is thorough and full and that it will deliver the agreement of all the stakeholders interested in school transport. I beg to move.
Lord Rix: By some oversight, it seems that my Amendments Nos. 29 and 33 cover the same ground
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concerning appropriate consultation, although to a shorter extent. Do the Deputy Chairman of Committees and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, consider it appropriate that I group my amendments with those that we are currently discussing?
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