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Lord Filkin: If the noble Lord, Lord Rix, is continuing to be helpful and is suggesting that this debate has just covered most of the issues in Amendment No. 18, and he wished it, post facto, to be grouped with it, I shall not resist him.
Lord Rix: I am grateful to the Minister. I have little more to say, except that we wish to see that providing support to enable disabled children to go to school can be expensive and we are concerned that future financial pressures may lead to the prospectus being watered down, making it more difficult for disabled children to access education. That is the point of Amendment No. 18, which I am happy to have tacked onto these.
Lord Filkin: Indeed. The Bill does not seek to introduce differential entitlement to home-to-school transport for children with SEN and it does not protect children with SEN from charges that a local education authority may wish to levy. But neither does it require participating LEAs to charge pupils with SEN for home-to-school transport. However, we are clear that pupils with SEN and/or disabilities must be protected from additional charges over and above their peers without additional needs.
At paragraph 32, the prospectus states that scheme applicants must describe how their proposals cater for pupils with SEN with and without statements, disabled pupils and pupils with medical conditions. Where a disabled child is unable to walk a statutory walking distance, the LEA will be under a duty to make transport arrangements for them. We know that there is a great deal of concern about the way in which charges affect families with pupils with SEN and/or
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disabilities. We will approve only schemes which will protect pupils with SEN and/or disabilities from any charges additional to those which 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 disabilities or SEN.
School transport arrangements cover transport provided as a result of a child's SEN and/or disability where a pupil cannot avail himself of transport provided for all pupils or make his way to school independently on foot or otherwise where that is the normal mode of travel for children resident in the neighbourhood.
Transport has to be provided in order to support education and the meeting of pupils' SEN which cannot be accommodated through transport available to other pupils living in the area. This would cover both specialised transport to local schools attended by pupils with SEN and specialised or non-specialised transport to schools further away than those attended by pupils resident in the area.
The intention of this paragraph is to ensure that parents of children with SEN and/or disabilities do not pay any charges additional to those paid by parents of pupils without SEN and/or disabilitiesfor example, where more expensive specialist transport is requiredor because they had to travel further to access suitable educational provision. That is the nub of it. When we give an exampleI shall not chance my arm and do so nowit will become explicitly clear. We will use real examples of real charges and signal that they cannot be charged more than the charge for their peers going to a local school when they are going, for the sake of argument, 15 miles.
To ensure that there was no charge to parents of pupils without SEN and/or disabilitiesfor example, because they were able to walk to schoolthere would be no charge to parents of a child with SEN and/or disabilities where transport arrangements are required by reason of that SEN or disability or because they had to travel further to access suitable educational provision. The prospectus accompanying the Bill is now on a statutory footing, as I have signalled on a number of occasions, and the guidance makes it clear that where pupils with mobility or other difficulties may need additional help, LEAs must consider whether their scheme discriminates against those pupils on ECHR and other grounds. It also requires LEAs to provide a thorough analysis of the impact. Furthermore, the DDA, as amended by the SEN legislation, also applies and I have covered that issue in speaking to other amendments. These functions would include providing school transport under Sections 509 or 509ZAA.
On the watering down point, the LEA would sign up to the prospectus in force at the time. Any changes would have to be approved by the Secretary of State. I apologise to Members of the Committee for wearying
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them with the length and complexity of the issue, but it may be possible that that is helpful when people read Hansard.
Lord Rix: I am grateful to other Members of the Committee for allowing me to hijack that part of the Minister's reply. I am grateful for his response and I am sure that the whole of the Special Educational Consortium will be, too.
Baroness Morris of Bolton: I, too, am grateful to the Minister for his reply. We are concerned that some children may have an entitlement to specialist support but who do not have a statement. However, I will read with interest the noble Lord's letter and what he has said today.
The Minister said that it is a complicated issue and it is. But precisely because of that, we need better and clear guidance to meet the real and understandable concerns of parents and children with SEN.
Lord Filkin: It is not merely that we should understand the issue but that parents should, too. That is a profound point and we need to reflect on it. As to my threatened letter, if there are further issues on which Members of the Committee require clarification, they should come straight back to me and we will try to provide it. It is important to get it as right and as clear as we can within the limits of where we can move.
This has been an interesting discussion, and I have learnt a lot. But for the people outside who are, as the Minister said, desperately concerned about these matters, although perhaps without cause, this is an opportunity to put their minds at rest. I would welcome a letteras short as the Minister feels that he can make it, including some case studies. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff): In calling Amendment No. 9, with which Amendment No. 12 is grouped, I make the point that if Amendment No. 12 were to be agreed it would pre-empt all the amendments from Amendment No. 13 to Amendment No. 18.
"A school travel scheme may not
(a) reduce the current entitlement of the parent of any child who attends primary school and who lives more than two miles from that school,
(b) reduce the current entitlement of the parent of any child who attends secondary school and who lives more than three miles from that school, or
Paragraphs (a) and (b) of my amendment relate to all children who live outside the current walking-to-school limits. Naturally, some of those children will be from families on low incomes, whose free transport will already be protected by the Bill. But there will be other families who mayand I say "may" advisedlybe able to afford to pay for their children's school transport, which they now get free. It must be said that all families are under financial pressure these days; it is an expensive business bringing up children and even those not on benefits struggle to manage. Indeed, they are always looking for ways in which to do things more cheaply. That is what worries me, unless we include the amendment in the Bill.
Here is why. Parents, especially those with several children, who receive a bill for school transport having previously received it for free, may well pile all the children into the car and drive them to school. Then, hey presto, the stated objective of the Bill has been defeated. Normally we on these Benches are in favour of targeting financial help at those most in need. Indeed, the Minister reminded me of that fact in his reply at Second Reading. But on occasion that principle must be put aside in favour of the greater principle of protecting the environment. If a little bit of help were given through the amendment to families who strictly speaking do not need it, so be it. It would be worth it if it achieved the aim, to which the Government are committed, of getting the children out of the cars and on to the buses, or their feet, or their bicycle.
Paragraph (c) of the amendment refers to children in special education who already have an existing entitlement to free transport. We have to be clear about the need to provide transport to those children strictly based on their needs and not on where they live. The additional cost of getting to a more distant but more suitable school must be covered, even if they have to pay the equivalent cost to the cost of getting to the nearest school, which their fully able peers would have to pay. That is because other benefits that they may receive are for other thingsfor example, disability living allowance. The free transport that they have had up to now is not covered by any other benefit. That is why we need to ensure now that all such children are provided with free transport to the best school that can serve their special needs. I heard welcome reassurances from the Minister on that point a little earlier.
As to those children who do not currently have free transport, the Minister assured mein reply to the very first question that I asked him in a pre-Bill meeting with the Minister and officialsthat money-saving is not the objective of the pilot schemes. One purpose of the pilots is to allow LEAs to redistribute in a different way the limited resources available to subsidised school transport. I would think that helping children with SEN or disabilities who currently pay some or all the cost would be a good way in which to
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redistribute those funds. If that was one of the objectives of one of the pilots submitted for approval to the department, how would the Government respond? Would they believe it to be an appropriate way in which to distribute the limited resources available? I beg to move.
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