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I shall read the Minister's comments with care, although we are still concerned about the cost to low-income households. We believe that the Bill sits uneasily with the Government's mantra of choice, not only for denominational schools but for specialist schools. If a child has a particular talent and gets into one of the specialist schools, why should they be disadvantaged just because they come from a poor family? Why should the only choice that they have be their nearest school?
Baroness Walmsley: I shall just make one comment, before I move to my amendment, on the little debate that we have just had about specialist schools and whether children should get free transport to the nearest specialist school if they have been selected on aptitude. I am aware that although specialist schools have that power, none of them uses it. If they are not going to give children free transport to such a school if they have been selected by aptitude and the school is further away than the nearest school offering the national curriculum, as all schools do, what is the point in having that power at all? I wonder whether the Minister could tell us whether the Government have any intention of removing the power to select on aptitude. No one seems to want it and no one is going to pay for it, so why bother to have it? It sends out the wrong message about those schools.
I want to make a comment on Amendment No. 9 before I withdraw it. I accept all that the Minister says about the status quo giving the minimum help to those who need it most. I accepted in my opening remarks that some help currently goes to some people who do not need it very much and would continue to receive it if my amendment was accepted. I also accept what he says about my amendment probably destroying the Bill in destroying the flexibility that local authorities are looking for in running the pilots. But I was hoping by moving the amendment to open up a debate about the balance between two objectives that the Government say that they want for the pilots. That is the balance between the objectives of environmental protection and appropriate financial support for those who need it.
I do not believe that we have had that debate, and I do not believe that we can, because this Bill is not the way to do it. What we really need is a bit of blue-sky thinking about public transportbut this Bill is not it. The countries where they have really succeeded in getting people on the bus have done so by making it free for everybody, including those people who do not need the money. I do not need the money to come here free on the bus to your Lordships' House, but because I am over 60 I have a "freedom pass". That has made me use the buses more, even though I could perfectly
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easily pay the fare. So I can tell you from personal experience that it does help to get people on to the buses. But that is a different debate for another day.
I shall make a point that I did not make in my opening remarks. When children first go to a school from which they are more than three miles away, the parents expect that they will go to the school for seven or eight years. They start off with free transport. That is an implicit contract with those parents, who plan their family budget on the basis of it when the child goes to the school at 11 or 12. The Government are planning to let local authorities change that contract.
I hope that the Government and the local authorities planning to do that will bear in mind the potential electoral consequences. More than that, I hope that they will bear in mind the potential consequences on the environment. People are only too willing to jump into the car if they think that it will save them money. People think about the cost of a car only when they put petrol in the tank. They forget that there are other costs in having a car, such as buying it in the first place, and having it serviced and insured. People do not think of that when they compare the cost of the bus fare with the cost of the petrol.
We are living in the real world. We have to bear in mind how people actually act, leaving aside sometimes the logic of how they act. Sometimes it is illogical. If you take all the costs of a car into account, it probably is cheaper to go on the bus, but people do not always see it that way. I was hoping to open up a debate about the balance between the two stated objectives of the Bill. We have not really had it, and I do not think that we can because the Bill is wrong in many ways. There are other ways in which we need to address the needs of the environment and poor families. However, in the mean time
Lord Filkin: I was troubled that the noble Baroness was ending on an almost iconoclastic note of saying that because the Bill does not effectively solve all the environmental problems it is not worth while. I know what she means in part; I take her point about reality and marginal costs of car use. It is open to local authorities if they wish and can afford itas Transport for London is doingto go further in terms of their transport schemes and bring in totally free transport of the sort from which she benefits. Perhaps I will benefit from it one day if I ever fill in the forms.
Within the realities of current resources, we do not believe that a system that locks a subsidy in to people by distance and does little to address some of the consequences of that is good enough. Local authorities should have the scope to see whether they can pilot innovative and better schemes. That is at the heart of the measure and why we are keen that it be implemented.
The noble Baroness said: This is a probing amendment. It is intended to air the issue of statutory walking distance. The current position is that free transport is provided for primary school children who have to walk more than two miles to school and secondary school children who have to walk more than three miles. I am sure that we will touch on the issues that face rural areas later in our proceedings. However, as was mentioned at Second Reading, in many urban areas congestion problems arise not from children travelling more than two or three miles to their primary or secondary school, but from children being taken by car to school where the distance from home is less than two or three miles. By sticking to the two-mile to three-mile limits, to what extent are we requiring scheme authorities to grasp the nettle of congestion in urban areas where journeys are short?
The noble Lord, Lord BerkeleyI am sorry that he is not in his placetalked of the law of unintended consequences when he moved an amendment earlier. At Second Reading, the Minister said that I was pretending that a consequence of the charge would be that people might get into their cars. Had I not been suffering from a temperature that daymy legs would not have got me to my feetI would have protested that I was not pretending. I have done a little of opinion polling of my own between Second Reading and today. I am not saying that YouGov, ICM or MORI would immediately dash to my door to ask me to join them. It is not necessarily a representative sample. I did not load it one way or the other. However, it slightly satisfied the frustrated psephologist in me.
I asked: "If the school is just down the road or if people start to charge for a journey that was normally free, what would you do?". The answer was: "We would probably just get in the car and take our children to school". Someone said, "It's fine, Trish, walking when the weather is nice". But most of the time where I live in Lancashire, it is pouring down, so it is much easier to get in the car to take your children to school.
The Audit Commission study on school transport found that more than 60 per cent of primary school children who live between one and two miles of their school travel by car and that about 30 per cent of secondary school pupils who live between two and three miles of school also travel by car. If LEAs were forced to provide free transport for pupils who live more than a mile from school, that might make them look more carefully at congestion in urban areas, to which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, also referred.
Coupled with the ability to charge, which we will debate later, it will give them some means of financing the schemes that meet the needs of pupils who live
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closer to their schools and of reducing the burden on our roads, which is particularly great at home time and when children go to school in the morning.
As the Bill is drafted, local authorities might not choose to address congestion in urban areas. This amendment probes the Government and presses them to encourage LEAs to tackle that problem. I beg to move.
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