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Business of the House: Grand Committees

3.12 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, I beg to move the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I shall also speak to the other two Motions in my name.

The first Motion refers the report of the Economic Affairs Committee on Monetary and Fiscal Policy to a debate in the Moses Room. The second refers a statutory instrument for debate in the Moses Room. It is expected that both those items of business will be taken on Monday, 21 February. The third Motion applies a time limit of one and a half hours to the debate on any Unstarred Question referred to the Moses Room. These are all in line with the decision of the House on 10 November last year.

Moved, That the report of the Select Committee on Economic Affairs on Monetary and Fiscal Policy: Present Successes and Future Problems (3rd Report, Session 2003–04, HL Paper 176) be referred to a Grand Committee.—(Baroness Amos.)

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, I do not want to waste the time of the House but I think we are moving into difficult territory here when we talk about sending such things to a Grand Committee because, in fact, Grand Committee rules will not apply, particularly to the one where the time is being limited to an hour and a half. It is axiomatic in your Lordships' House that the Committee stage of a Bill, whether it takes place here or in Grand Committee, is open-ended and people can speak as often as they like and table amendments. I feel that the use of the phrase "to a Grand Committee" is not right. If we were to say that it should be taken "off the Floor of the House" or "in the Moses Room", or something along those lines, that might make more sense.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I thoroughly appreciate and understand the concerns raised. That is why, in my explanation, I talked about a debate in the Moses Room. I am very happy to take away this matter and discuss it with the Clerks, but I reassure the House that it is intended that procedures during debates in the Moses Room should be as close as possible to those on the Floor of the House.

Lord Peston: My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend about exactly the same point as was made by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. I was puzzled when I first saw the wording and so I spoke to my Clerk. I was assured of precisely what my noble friend has just said—that is, we have to use the expression "sit in a
 
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Grand Committee" as a term of art but it has no meaning other than that we have our normal debate, we do not speak for too long and we speak only once. So—harking back to the mythology aspect of an earlier Question—I am perfectly willing to accept as part of our mythology that we have to talk in this way but, speaking as the person who will introduce the first of those debates, I was assured that there was no problem and I do not believe that there is.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Child Trust Funds (Amendment) Regulations 2005

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I beg to move the second Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the draft regulations be referred to a Grand Committee.—(Baroness Amos.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Business of the House: Grand Committees

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I beg to move the third Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debate on any Unstarred Question taken in a Grand Committee shall be limited to one and a half hours.—(Baroness Amos.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Renewable Energy Bill [HL]

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Moved, That the order of commitment be discharged.—(Lord Redesdale.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

School Transport Bill

3.16 p.m.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to be able to introduce this measure, which takes forward an important part of central and local government's actions to encourage greener, safer and healthier ways for pupils to travel to school.

Perhaps I may start by sketching out some of the problems faced. Private car use on school runs has doubled in the past 20 years. The school run accounts for about one in five of all cars on the road in urban areas at the morning peak of 8.50 a.m. Increasing car
 
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use on schools runs contributes to congestion and pollution and has serious environmental and health implications.

Against that background, school transport legislation has remained largely unchanged for more than 60 years. Parents, pupils and local authorities all tell us that it is outdated. First, it was designed for a simpler world, where few people owned cars and long journeys on foot or by bicycle were common. It assumes that pupils will walk three miles to school if they are over the age of eight. It was designed for a world without choice where all children attended their nearest school, and it was designed for a world where cars did not clog up the school gates and the roads leading to them.

Parents, local authorities and our own research also suggest that current arrangements are inequitable. The rigid three-mile limit leads to real hardship, with free transport provided for pupils living one side of the three-mile limit and no assistance whatever for those living on the wrong side of that divide. DfES research also shows that families from lower income groups are more likely to have to pay than families from higher income groups. On average, these parents pay well over £7 per child per week.

Local authorities also tell us that the system is inefficient—that this simplistic but prescriptive framework severely restricts their ability to target resources according to local needs and priorities. In September 2003, the Local Government Association addressed these issues in its report Children on the move—accessing excellence. It recommended piloting more flexible arrangements to explore new ways of providing home-to-school transport. The LGA argued that current arrangements could no longer be justified in terms of equity, efficiency or need, and that one size will not fit all. Different solutions to the problems of the school run are required in different areas. It argued that, given sufficient flexibility, local government was best placed to address those issues.

Shortly after the LGA's report, the Government published Travelling to School: an action plan. This set out a series of measures to encourage more walking, cycling and bus use—measures that will increase health and bring environmental and safety benefits. One of these measures was a proposal to bring forward a Bill to update school transport legislation.

In March 2004, the Government published a draft School Transport Bill for public consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny. The LGA welcomed the Bill, and we are grateful for its ongoing support and for the cross-party support for the Bill in local government more widely. Perhaps such support should not be surprising. The Government and the LGA are as one in the belief that local authorities are best placed to bring forward solutions tailored to their localities. The measures in the Bill are called for on a cross-party basis by the LGA. The Bill will give local authorities the opportunity to plan and implement school travel and transport arrangements best suited to their communities.

Furthermore, one of the principles underpinning the Bill is that it is voluntary in nature. Following local consultation, local education authorities can apply to
 
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become pilots, putting forward more innovative proposals, but there is no compulsion in the Bill or its accompanying prospectus. If local education authorities want to remain with the status quo for whatever reason, they will be able to do so.

Once the pilots start, if a scheme LEA wishes to withdraw from the new arrangements—because of changed circumstances or because the scheme is not working—it will be able to do so. Later on, if the pilots are successful, the travel scheme approach will be opened up to all local education authorities that want it. Again, there will be a voluntary approach and there will be no compulsion.

The Bill is essentially deregulatory in nature, and is about giving more choice and discretion to local government and to local communities. It will enable local education authorities to run school travel schemes tailored to the needs of their area. Schemes will support greener, safer, healthier journeys to school, and will replace existing legislation contained in Section 509 of the Education Act 1996.

Local education authorities that volunteer will make travel arrangements appropriate for their locality, for which they may charge affordable fares. Scheme authorities will be able to introduce a more equitable distribution of subsidies by removing the sharp divide between free and full-cost transport provision that currently exists. Let me make it clear that this is not a cost-cutting exercise. Fares will remain heavily subsidised, and the revenue generated will be reinvested in improvements to a local education authority's travel and transport arrangements. If applications to be a pilot fail to demonstrate this, they will not be approved.

We want schemes to address issues surrounding the extended school day and after-school activities; the wider 14 to 19 agenda; transport to denominational schools; and, in Wales, to English and Welsh medium schools. We also want pilot authorities to bring forward innovative proposals to address safety issues. We want LEAs to be innovative. We do not want to prescribe what they will include in their schemes, but that may be a theme that we may revert to during our debate on the Bill.

From our discussions with local authorities, we are aware of a number of emerging themes, for example, area-wide concessionary fare schemes enabling weekend and evening use of buses as well as school use; addressing inadequate public service provision through dedicated bus services; allowances to encourage more pupils to cycle; and using some of the revenue generated to increase the number of school crossing patrols and escorts for walking buses and for cycle training. In short, schemes will not have to focus exclusively on improvements to bus transport.

The Bill defines "protected children" as children from lower-income families who will receive free transport where they attend their nearest school. The Bill defines a national minimum level of protection, but, as we make clear in the prospectus, we want local authorities to put forward definitions suitable for their locality.
 
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The Bill maintains the existing definition of walking distance as a minimum guarantee. Beyond that distance, local education authorities will continue to have an obligation to provide transport. But we want local authorities to go beyond this minimum. We expect them to address the needs of all pupils in the scheme area: those living within and outside walking distance. That can be done in variety of ways.

Clause 2 allows for the travel scheme approach to be piloted in a limited number of local education authorities in England and Wales. All schemes will need the approval of the appropriate national authority; that is, the Secretary of State in England or the National Assembly in Wales. That will ensure that schemes consider the needs of all pupils and improve travel and transport arrangements.

I believe that there is a wide consensus that the Bill's piloting approach is the right way to proceed. It will allow a small number of authorities to test the new arrangements and will allow others to learn from the experience of the pilots.

The Bill also includes a power to repeal the Bill, if the travel scheme approach being piloted is not deemed to be a success. It could be used only after there has been sufficient time to evaluate schemes and we have reported to Parliament. The power to repeal lapses after the evaluation period.

If the scheme approach is successful, it will be open to all authorities that want to adopt it but, as I have already indicated, the approach will remain voluntary. If local authorities want to continue under their current arrangements, they can.

Much of the detail of how schemes might work is contained in the draft guidance to local education authorities, which is available to the House. The guidance covers the scheme's objectives; the local consultation exercises, which are so important; the integration of schemes with other forms of public transport; ensuring good quality and safe transport; any charging arrangements; addressing the needs of pupils with SEN or other disabilities; the application and approval process; and the evaluation and monitoring of schemes.

This is a short Bill, with cross-party support in local government. It will introduce flexibilities for scheme authorities to address urgent cross-cutting issues, such as health, the environment and safety. The Bill is voluntary in nature, both during the pilot phase and in the longer term. It will enable local government to innovate and to make arrangements that meet the needs of local communities in the 21st century. I warmly commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Filkin.)


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