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Lord Rix: In that case, I shall speak to Amendment No. 29. Members of the Committee will be aware that children with special educational needs and disabilities are among the main users of home to school transport services provided by local authorities, with 65 per cent of spending on school transport budgets. Therefore, this Bill is of particular concern to families of disabled children.
It is vital that proper consultation takes place before school travel schemes are introduced so that new arrangements can meet local needs effectively. I am grateful that the prospectus now makes it clear that scheme authorities need to ensure that they consult parents of disabled children. I recognise that it may be appropriate for the detail of the consultation process to be spelt out in the prospectus. However, putting the principle of consultation in the Bill would provide reassurance to families. It would also put beyond doubt that consultation is integral to the development of new school travel arrangements.
Although there is good practice, I am well aware that not all local authorities communicate with parents as well as they might. Setting up consultation mechanisms at the outset is more likely to ensure that a new culture of consultation continues subsequently. Parents are extremely worried that they will not be consulted before changes are made to the current provision of school transport for their children. Changing a disabled child's travel arrangements may have consequences for their safety, academic performance, behaviour at school and indeed their very access to education. It is vital that in piloting new arrangements, scheme authorities involve families. A duty to consult would provide much-needed reassurance.
On Amendment No. 33, I am seeking to safeguard the progress that has been made to safeguard and clarify the prospectus. I am concerned that provision for disabled children may be eroded in future, as there will doubtless be ongoing pressure on the Government to make revisions from a range of stakeholders. I welcome the fact that many of the concerns raised about the Bill in relation to disabled children have been addressed through the prospectus. In tabling the amendment, I am looking for assurance that when the Bill has been passed, any proposals to change the prospectus will be subject to full consultation in line with Cabinet Office regulations.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My name and that of my noble friend Lady Walmsley are attached to Amendment No. 36, which covers largely the same ground as the other amendments, except that we tabled it to apply after Clause 1 and, because the schedule intervenes between
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Clauses 1 and 2, it comes up somewhat later in the Bill. However, it is appropriate to speak to it with the other amendments, and it has been grouped with them, because it is all about consultation.
The list for consultation is contained already in the draft prospectus, where many of those listed in Amendments Nos. 2 and 36 are already listed. However, there are two significant additions. In Amendment No. 36, we ask that local councillorsdistrict councillors, minor authority councillors and principal authority councillorsbe included within the consultation. That is extremely important. I know that my husband, who is a county councillor, has been involved with the development of a transport scheme in Surrey and that he has played a seminal part in it, because he knows precisely where the schools are and what the transport problems are. Often, local councillors know that much better than do council officialswho in the case of Surrey are located in Kingston rather than in Guildford, where there has been some discussion of it operating.
The other addition that we make in our amendment comes in the form of the children themselves. Once again, it important to remember the voice of the child. Too frequently, we consult parents and assume that they are proxy for children. But, particularly when considering secondary school children but also with primary school children, the children themselves are very sensible when they are consulted. We believe it to be extremely important that children should be consulted.
We also have our names down to the two amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rix. My noble friend Lady Walmsley will be speaking later in the debate. We feel that it is extremely important that parents with children of special educational needs who currently receive transport help should be consulted in any proposed changes. Clearly, they are one of the categories that perhaps make most use of transport facilities. They need to know what is being proposed and their voices should be heard. We totally endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said.
Lord Berkeley: Amendment No. 8, in my name, is on a similar subject, which I shall speak to later. As the noble Lord, Lord Rix, mentioned the prospectus and, in particular, the section on children with special educational needs, can my noble friend help me with paragraph 32 of School Travel SchemesProspectus, which is very unclear. I am probably being thick, but I would be grateful if my noble friend could help. Paragraph 32 states:
"We will only approve schemes that protect pupils with SEN and/or disabilities from any charges additional to those that apply to children of the same age living in the same area who attend their neighbourhood school, if special arrangements have to be made to accommodate a child's disability or SEN".
Lord Filkin: I strongly agree in principle with the arguments made by all noble Lords that getting the
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consultation process right is the heart to making a good scheme. It does not mean that you get to a position where everyone agrees, but it is crucial that, before making decisions, there has been a very full engagement of all potential stakeholders, interest groups and those with views, whether they are directly affected or have interest in the issues. Of course, we will be using our powersif I can put it that wayto ensure that only schemes that have had proper consultation will be approved by the department.
Amendments Nos. 2 and 36 list a range of individuals, bodies or groups of people that the local authority would need to consult formally before submitting its application to the relevant national body. Such a list would also result from the regulations envisaged by Amendment No. 6, which would give the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales powers to make regulations specifying the consultation process that local authorities must undertake before making an application.
The lists of consultees are essentially the same as that provided for in paragraph 14 of the prospectus accompanying the Bill. We also agree that there are a number of key consultees who must be included in the consultation process in every authority. School travel schemes must engage all local stakeholders, not least pupils and their parents, particularly parents of pupils who currently have transport provided by the local authority, for obvious reasons.
The stakeholders, which the noble Baroness lists in the amendment, are all significant and must have the opportunity to be involved in putting in place school travel scheme arrangements. We had envisaged dealing with consultation in a different way. Rather than placing a requirement for consultation in the Bill, we had envisaged using the prospectus.
The prospectus that accompanies the Bill includes paragraphs 14 to 16 on local consultation and provides an almost identical list of organisations to be consulted before scheme proposals are submitted. The list has been developed following public consultation and scrutiny in another place. I hope that the list of consultees is now fully comprehensive, but we remain receptive to further suggestions.
The list includes school governors, including governors of special schools where pupils in the authority are placed; teacher association representatives at local level; parents and prospective parents; the schools forum, which is intended to capture the voice of pupils; the admissions forum; bodies representing any denominations with schools in the area; transport operators; FE institutions; groups representing parents with children with SEN and/or disability; organisations with an interest in pupils safety; and any other partners with a material interest in school travel schemes, such as Transport for London and the passenger transport executives.
Furthermore, the prospectus spells out the minimum length of consultations, which should take place during term timeechoing our Education Bill debatesto ensure the maximum potential input from interested parties.
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The National Assembly will be responsible for issuing a prospectus in Wales. We will also emphasise the importance of LEAs conducting wide consultation. The prospectus has been placed on a statutory footing and is binding on scheme authorities. We will not approve pilots that have not had adequate consultation.
The second element of the new clause in Amendment No. 36 would make travel schemes part of local education development plan reviews. I remind the Committee that Sections 6 and 7 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, requiring authorities to prepare education development plans, were repealed by the Children Act 2004. In their place, we have the children and young people's plans, which will be a higher level and more strategic plan.
The prospectus also requires local authorities to produce annual reports for the appropriate national authority, which will be published, analysing the effect that schemes have had and an account of what has gone well and badly, the views of key partners and financial annexes detailing the economies of the schemes. I had hoped that the prospectus, which is on a statutory footing, would have allayed the concerns. Pilots will not occur without adequate consultation.
In response to questions from the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, we have made changes following our consultation, pre-legislative scrutiny and the passage of the Bill through another place and have arrived at a list that mirrors the amendment. We have had very productive discussion with the Special Educational Consortium to ensure that the voice of children with SEN and others is included. I have provided for 28 days in term-time, more than is requested in the amendment. Schools forums consist of children and therefore provide the opportunity for children's voices to be heard. I cannot believe that if any child wrote to the authority, the authority would not take them into consideration.
It is councillors who will decide what schemes go forward, at least in respect of the submitting authorities. The noble Baroness may have had in mind two-tier areas with district councils. Let me put it cautiously but clearly. I am highly persuaded by that argument but let me give it a little more thought. It seems to be an injustice not also to consult district councils, because they have interests in that respect.
Turning to the amendments of my noble friend Lord Rix, I again agree with the importance of the full consultation process, which must underpin applications. Also, key consultees must be included in the consultation process in every authority. School travel schemes must engage all local transport stakeholders.
I have already mentioned the list. I shall mention just part of it: the importance of consulting parents of children with special educational needs and of that being done during term-time. Strictly speaking, we do not think that my noble friend's amendment is necessary. The Cabinet Office is responsible for guidance on public consultation. Cabinet Office guidance is that public consultation would be expected wherever material changes to statutory guidance were proposed by the Secretary of State for England. Similar requirements apply to the Assembly Government for Wales.
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Having said all that, although I am absolutely clear that including the details of consultation obligations in statute would not be sensible because, undoubtedly, as the process develops, guidance will need to change, we will think about the need for further guidance and may even think of extra people who should be part of the process. I have listened seriously to the Committee's argument that it wants written in the Bill the principle of consultation, which goes to the heart of making good schemes.
Although I cannot now give a categoric commitment, the Committee will be able to read between my words and know that I will seriously consider whether I can say something more positive about that on Report. I hope that that wink and nudge is helpful to all who have spoken to the amendments.
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