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The noble Lord said: In a way, this amendment is similar. Again, it is a probing amendment tabled so that we can hear the Government's comment about it. We are concerned about the possible—abuse is not the right word—support to vulnerable groups of children as they travel to and from school. There have been cases in which disabled children have had problems of physical and other abuse during their transport to school. Often they are taken to school in taxis and that will continue to be the case when just one or two of them are going to a school. Those youngsters are often unable to communicate their experience to parents, teachers or carers, which means that problems may continue. There should be more—policing is not the right word—supervision. Those drivers and escorts have regular and unsupervised access to that specially vulnerable group of children. Although there are Criminal Records Bureau checks, they are not always enforceable as we would like, especially in the case of taxi drivers.

Moving to the second part of the amendment, appropriate disability awareness training for employees or volunteers who drive or escort pupils with special educational needs or disability would help to overcome some of the difficulties currently encountered. It is essential that escorts and drivers understand the particular disabilities of the children for whom they are responsible. A lack of awareness of disability among drivers and escorts can lead to the child's safety being put at risk. For example, children with autism often display challenging behaviour when they are frightened. It would therefore be good for their drivers and escorts to have some experience and training to help to support them.

Disability awareness training would help to equip the escort or driver with the right skills to manage pupils with disabilities or special educational needs and communicate more effectively with them. I beg to move.

Lord Filkin: CRB checks for drivers and escorts, and disability equality training are both issues already addressed by other legislation or good practice guidance. There is DfES and Welsh Assembly guidance on preventing unsuitable people from working with children. It is clear that applicants for positions that are excepted from the provision of the Rehabilitations of Offenders Act 1974 should be asked to declare any convictions, cautions or bind-overs which they have incurred, including any that would be regarded as "spent" under that Act in other circumstances.

In plain English, "spent" convictions are not spent for the purposes of people in particular positions where there is particular vulnerability. That includes any position in which the normal duties include caring for, training, supervising or being in sole charge of children under the age of 18 and would include taxi drivers or escorts in that position. In addition, taxi or private hire car drivers are already subject to enhanced criminal record checks when they apply for a licence and each time they renew it, in most parts of the country. That will also be the case in London by April 2006, which is before any scheme would be approved and in operation under this Bill.
 
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The guidance requires more than just CRB checks to be carried out before staff are recruited to work with children. In addition to the CRB process, the guidance says that potential employers should check an applicant's qualifications, references, including professional and character references, direct from the referee and including their most recent employer; and previous employment, including satisfactory explanations for employment gaps.

The second part of the amendment relates to the provision of disability equality training. That issue was debated in the other place and as a result we have amended the prospectus to state that it is good practice for those responsible for planning and managing school transport to have disability equality training. We have also set out what we think the training should include. The Special Educational Consortium provided the wording and believes that it is an excellent and effective addition.

There is a wide variety of different issues which escorts and drivers of children with disabilities need to have an understanding of, which can vary markedly from case to case. This can range from receiving training on the use of specialised equipment or administering medication, through to the wider issues addressed by disability equality training, which explores the concept of people being disabled by society's barriers and attitudes, highlighting the role of the organisations in the removal of those barriers and in the changing of attitudes.

I hope that with those clear assurances we will make these matters clear in the prospectus and remind authorities of their obligations that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.

Lord Hanningfield: I thank the Minister for that answer. In tabling our amendment, we were not quite so worried by the criminal side. We hope that there are now sufficient checks in place to double-check that. We were more concerned with the training side with regard to helping taxi drivers and even some bus drivers. They may need training to help the children that require the service. The Minister mentioned that the Government were going to strengthen the training in the prospectus. That is what is required: better training for people who act as drivers or escorts for these youngsters. I shall read his answer in Hansard. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 6 not moved.]

Lord Rix moved Amendment No. 7:

"( ) the school at which he is a registered pupil is within walking distance of his home but he is unable to walk to school in safety and reasonable comfort for a reason related to his disability or special educational needs."

The noble Lord said: In my Second Reading speech I called on the Government to ensure that the Bill would not exacerbate the difficulties that parents of disabled children and children with special educational needs have in accessing appropriate school transport for their sons and daughters. I thank the Minister for his
 
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constructive approach to working with myself and the Special Educational Consortium in seeking to provide reassurance for families of disabled children. I know that he shares my own commitment to improving outcomes for disabled children and children with SEN.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 4.55 to 5.6 p.m.]

Lord Rix: Amendment No. 7 is concerned with pupils with special educational needs and disabled pupils within walking distance of their school. I shall continue from where I left off, on the second page of my notes.

Many children with disabilities will go to a school within the statutory walking distance but will require additional assistance to get to school safely. Although there has not been a separate duty for LEAs to make special transport arrangements for disabled children in those circumstances, LEAs currently have to provide transport where it is "necessary" to facilitate attendance under Section 509 of the Education Act 1996.

Local authorities running school-travel schemes do not have any duties under Section 509, and instead their responsibilities are set out in the Bill. However, neither the Bill nor the prospectus clarifies the authority's responsibility to support disabled children who live within the walking distance of their school. In light of that omission, the Special Educational Consortium and I are concerned that such disabled children will have reduced entitlement to the support that they may need to travel to their school, should they live within two or three miles of it.

The matter needs to be cleared up. The amendment seeks not to extend provision for disabled children, but simply to ensure that current entitlements are not undermined. We need to provide clarity for all stakeholders and much-needed reassurance for families. I beg to move.

Baroness Walmsley: My name and that of my noble friend Lady Sharp are attached to the amendment, which we support. It is clear that the current arrangements that local authorities have in relation to children with SEN and disabilities are removed and repealed by the Bill. There is a general understanding that the application of the two or three-mile limit is generally inappropriate where a disabled child is unable to walk the distance independently.

I draw the Committee's attention to the fact that the Joint Committee on Human Rights questioned whether the continued reliance on walking distance as the trigger to the duty to provide school transport, without making any provision in relation to children with mobility difficulties who may not be able to walk the statutory distance in a reasonable time or at all, was in breach of Article 14 in conjunction with protocol 1 of Article 2. Protocol 1 provides the right to education, while Article 14 requires that the enjoyment of convention rights must be secured without discrimination. The new arrangements could discriminate against such children without objective and reasonable justification.
 
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The prospectus notes that concern in relation to ECHR and it states,

However, as the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said forcefully, the Bill does not make that requirement.

I understand that the DfES considers provision within the walking distance to be safeguarded by the Disability Discrimination Act and the ECHR. But that would have to be tested in court, so a family would have to go to judicial review. From my current experience, going to judicial review is very difficult. The fact is that the prospectus may change and develop in due course. So provision for disabled children must be laid out in the Bill. The entitlement must be very clear so as to reduce the likelihood of a series of disputes occurring. Where provision is withheld, there needs to be a straightforward route to recourse for parents, as in the Gateshead cases that I quoted in my Second Reading speech.

It is not reasonable to expect parents to police LEA policies or to ensure compatibility with ECHR and the Disability Discrimination Act. Parents of disabled children face challenges enough that other families do not have to cope with. It is unfair to expect them to have the capacity to monitor and to take part in all future consultations on the prospectus.

Before closing, I should like to add my confusion to that expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, about the meaning of some of the wording in the prospectus. Paragraph 32 states:

I am not sure what that means. Can the Minister clarify it? It seems to mean: if all children are to be charged, so will children with special needs. But, of course, in order to avoid such charges, able-bodied children can avoid going on the bus for which they might have to pay by walking, whereas disabled children cannot do that.


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