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Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I thank the Minister for his reply, but I cannot honestly say that I am that satisfied by it. He said that it cannot be right that parents have the right to choose any school that they wish. I understand the logic of his argument, but it cannot be right that choice is available to parents whose incomes are sufficient for them to pay for transport but that it is not available to those who cannot afford it.
The Minister has told me that a "suitable" school is the nearest maintained school, provided that a child does not have special educational needs. It seems absurd for the Government to pretend that they are offering the choice agenda to all parents and then to withdraw it from those who cannot afford to pay for transport facilities to a school that they would like their children to attend.
Lord Triesman: Perhaps I may respond briefly to the noble Baroness. It is clear that local education authorities frequently propose area-wide concessionary schemes to facilitate transport to schools of parental preference. They have precisely understood the problem. That is the question that we are asking them to address because they understand the needs of their area and they are finding the right answers to it.
Alongside that, my fundamental point is straightforward. If every child should be paid for in all circumstances, which would be the consequence of the amendment, that should be the matter that is being put to us.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I do not know that that is the consequence of the amendment. It is the logical consequence of the agenda that the Government are setting themselves. I do not feel that that is an adequate answer. The Minister has not answered the apparent contradiction between the words in the prospectus and
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those in the Explanatory Notes; they seem to be in direct contradiction to each other. For the moment, I shall look hard at what he said and what was said on Amendment No. 9 and see whether I can make any sense of it at all. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"(3) The policy to be set out under sub-paragraph (1) shall include details of concessionary fares including, but not limited to, the following categories
(a) a child who is part of a family with two or more siblings,
(b) a child who is not treated as a protected child under paragraph 7(1) below, but whose family income is less than the average family income for the scheme's authority area, and
(c) a child whose current transport costs are covered by a discretionary fare scheme.
(4) Where a concessionary fare scheme is not in place to cover a child in any of the categories in sub-paragraph (3) above, a statement shall be included in the policy explaining why such arrangements have not been made."
The noble Lord said: We are covering much of the same territorythis amendment is similar to one that we debated a short time ago. It is designed to provide clarity about concessionary fares in documents produced by the scheme authority.
Amendment No. 17 effectively attempts to introduce safeguards for large families, who may not be able to shoulder the burden of transportation charges for their children, as we have discussed already. The number of children in a family should be taken into account when developing the charges for a transport scheme. An example is families who have a child at university as well as one in primary and one in secondary school. Should they have to pay the full charges for the school transportation, given that they are already paying a contribution towards the child at university? Families with two or more children in primary or secondary school should perhaps be charged a concessionary fare for the transportation of their children.
The amendment also maintains the standards for children whose transportation costs are currently covered by a discretionary fare scheme. The introduction of a new transport scheme should not affect any arrangements already made for the transportation of a pupil. When we have wanted to do something difficult in introducing a new scheme, it has often been done for new entrants into a school rather than affecting young people and their existing costs.
We need to ensure that when authorities introduce a schemeparticularly when the scheme is under consultationthey make their concessionary policies clear to families in the area. We have said it beforeeverything should be transparent. That goes back to the explanation of the scheme to parents.
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This is a moment to mention one thing that I have not yet mentioned today; I would not necessarily expect an immediate answer. At the moment, local authorities are funded in the revenue support grant for the transport that they are obliged to provide. With the likely removal of the mileage limits for children, how will the revenue support grant affect local authorities? One would not expect it to be affected for some years until the schemes are worked through.
Lord Triesman: I expect that it is the last one today. The amendment is complex and I shall cover the ground by dealing with it in three parts. Let me start with the general position in relation to concessionary fares for children and young people. Secondly, I want to talk about the proposals for charges. Finally, I shall deal with the three categories of child listed in the amendment.
The first point to make is that concessionary fare schemes stem from transport rather than education legislation. Outside London, and in Wales, the passenger transport executivesPTEsand local authorities have discretionary powers under Section 93 of the Transport Act 1985 to offer concessionary travel for young people in full-time education. There is a range of provision for schoolchildren and young people which usually covers journeys in general and not just the home-to-school journey. In some cases, concessions cover travel by train, metro, tram and ferry as well as by bus.
In the shires, decisions on concessionary fares are made by unitary and district councils, whereas in the metropolitan areas it is the PTAs, through their PTEs, which cover the entire metropolitan area.
In London, children's fares are set by Transport for Londonguided by the Mayorand discounts are available for young people up to their 18th birthday. Children under 11 currently travel free and the Mayor intends to extend this to under 16s by September this year.
In the shire areas, discounted fares are often offered by private sector bus operators as a matter of commercial policy. There may be restrictions on use, usually non-availability during the morning peak. There is no local authority involvement in these arrangements.
I hope that that explanation has demonstrated that there is a great deal of variety in concessionary fare arrangements around the country. In many cases, they are either set on a commercial basis or else decided by transport authorities in a way that caters for transport in general rather than focusing on the school run.
Let us look at that in relation to charging. The Bill will allow local education authorities to make charges for school transport, but of course it then provides that where a child is a "protected child" travel must be free. Where a child is not a protected child, we anticipate that the LEAs will continue to charge pupils for whom they provide transport now, where there is no
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statutory requirement to do so, and to make small, affordable charges for transport provided to pupils who at present receive free school transport.
The prospectus requires LEAs to set out their charging policies, making it clear how many pupils will be charged, in what circumstances and how much. Charges must be affordable and pitched at a level that does not produce an increase in car journeys to school.
In England, pupils eligible for free school meals will be protected from charges provided that they attend their nearest suitable school. In Wales, the criteria for protection from charges will be set by the National Assembly for Wales in regulations. The Welsh Assembly government intend to lay regulations before the Assembly so that pupils eligible for free school meals and pupils whose parents are in receipt of working tax credit but with an annual income below the income tax threshold for child tax credit will be protected.
The prospectus asks scheme authorities to pay careful attention to the effect of charges on low income working families and large families and records that there is a particularly strong case for exempting the fourth or subsequent child of compulsory school age from charges, especially in low income families.
I turn to the three categories of children referred to in the amendment. With respect to children who are part of a family with two or more siblings, the amendment would require the LEAs to detail the effect of concessionary fares for these children. I presume that the amendment is intended to tease out whether there are arrangements for large families where three or more children are of compulsory school age, although this is not quite what it says.
It is highly unlikely that concessionary fares would differentiate between children in different size families as there is no mechanism to do this cost effectively. We do, through the prospectus, encourage LEAs to consider offering lower, or no, charges to families with four or more siblings attending school.
The second category of pupil referred to in the amendment is a child who is not "protected" but who is drawn from a family with below average family income for the authority's area. There are a number of difficulties with this proposition, which I will set out briefly.
Secondly, a family's needs depends to some extent on family size, as larger families need more income to sustain the same standard of living as smaller families and it seems unfair to penalise them through looking at average family income.
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Thirdly, average incomes vary greatly from place to place and the greatest concentrations of poverty are in inner city areas, although there are in some rural areas. However, generally speaking, most rural areas are relatively more affluent than the poorer inner city areas.
The last category mentioned was children whose current transport costs are covered by a discretionary fare scheme. I assume that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, is referring to children travelling to denominational schools, to schools which are within the statutory walking distances, or to other schools which are not the "nearest suitable" to which the LEA makes discretionary travel arrangements, about which I so irritated the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, a moment ago.
We can see that there are good arguments for including information about the charges they currently bear and what charges will be in future scheme applications and we will amend the prospectus to achieve this. I hope that that will meet what I have been asked to do in the amendment.
I hope that Members of the Committee will agree that given the number of bodies dealing with the concessionary fare schemes and the ability of commercial operators to change them from time to time without reference to anyone other than their own internal management, it would be impractical to do some of the things that are suggested.
Given that the prospectus, which will be placed on a statutory footing, contains a requirement for scheme applicants to spell out their charging schemes in detail, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment. We will certainly look at the revenue support grant issue and write as soon as possible on that.
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