This is the text of Sir George's speech on the 2nd Reading of the School Transport Bill.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who always makes constructive and thoughtful speeches, and has brought a rural and an urban perspective to bear on the matter.
I welcome the opportunity to clamber aboard our Second Reading debate and make a fairly short journey. Having served as Secretary of State for Transport, I am sympathetic to some of the strategic objectives mentioned by the present Secretary of State in his introduction to the Bill. A far-sighted transport strategy aims to iron out peaks and troughs to achieve better use of our road network. The school run has a dramatic impact on transport and is a conspicuous peak—particularly in the morning, although less so in the afternoon—so it makes sense to iron it out. There are good transport reasons as well as good educational reasons for looking at the problem.
The Secretary of State seemed to imply that nothing at all had been done in this field before 1997, but I recall working closely with my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on an initiative called "Safer routes to school". We worked with local educational authorities, transport companies and Sustrans to achieve some of the objectives behind the present Bill. We tried to work with the grain and understand why parents were cautious about allowing their children to walk, cycle or, in some cases, go to school by bus. We tried to persuade people to change, rather than hector them, and we used grants to underpin parts of the initiative. I remember visiting a school in Birmingham where bicycle sheds had been funded by a grant from central Government to promote cycling to school.
I also looked at the planning system. A popular school in Hampshire wanted to expand because parents wanted to send their children there, but the planning authorities were concerned about the traffic implications. Before consent was granted, there was a dialogue with the school, parents and teachers to see whether a transport plan would reduce the percentage of journeys made by car and thus prevent expansion from aggravating congestion in the neighbourhood. Lateral thinking is useful in minimising the problems caused by journeys to school.
Mr. Kidney : I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the good thinking that took place before 1997 has continued. Locally, for example, Weston road high school partnership for safe routes to school regularly sends me minutes of its meetings and achievements, and residents are very enthusiastic about that initiative. Nationally, the Government last week announced £10 million for safe routes for schools and the joining up of cycleways. All that good work still continues.
Sir George Young: I am delighted by the hon. Gentleman's consensual approach, and I am glad that some of the pioneering initiatives introduced by the Conservative Government have been built on. One's memory is never perfect, but I do not recall anyone in my Department saying, "Minister, you can't do this, because the law does not allow you to do so". That, however, is the implication behind the Bill.
I am very much in favour of the flexible and voluntary approach that underpins the Bill. I only wish that the same approach would infect other Government Departments in their relationships with local government. Local authorities, for example, have been told that they must have Cabinet government, and the planning system has been told how many houses it must provide. That dirigiste approach by some Departments sits uneasily with the more consensual and voluntary approach adopted by the team who have introduced the Bill. I am in favour of the pump-priming underpinning the Bill, which provides an incentive for people to participate in the pilots.
I am a keen cyclist and, indeed, I bicycled to the House this morning. I hope that the pilot authorities that promote cycling will make sure that cycle training is undertaken at schools and that children who bicycle to school are encouraged to wear a helmet.
There is one particular aspect that I thought the Secretary of State glossed over in his speech; the tension between parental choice of school and the transport imperative to make better use of the bus. The Select Committee on Education and Skills highlighted the evidence that he gave to the Select Committee on Transport, which was that the main aim of the Bill was to encourage people to attend their local neighbourhood school. The Committee felt that that interpretation sat somewhat uneasily with the Government's other policies on diversity of schools and parental preference, which would lengthen journeys. I am not quite sure how the Bill takes the trick of getting more people to take the school bus while promoting a much more complex network of journeys from home to school if parental choice is achieved. Perhaps the Minister can address that point.
Much of the debate has been about the principle of charging. If I were asked to die in the last ditch to defend the principle that children of all families, however well- off, should continue to go to school free, I am not sure that I would voluntarily so expire. None the less, a number of points have been raised in the debate that the Government need to answer. There are inevitably some bureaucratic problems associated with charging that simply do not exist if journeys are free. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) raised a legitimate concern about the not-so-well-off who might get caught. There is also the perverse incentive mentioned from the Liberal Democrat Benches, whereby introducing charging for a journey that is currently free might get somebody off the bus and into the car. Other points were made about how the introduction of charging may penalise those who live in rural areas.
There is another potential tension that I am not sure has been addressed. During the Labour party conference, a new vision was launched for our schools whereby they would operate not just from 9 o'clock to 3 o'clock, but from 8 o'clock to 6 o'clock, in order to accommodate those whose parents both work. I am not quite sure how that vision of the school sits with the imperative to get more children to go to school by bus. If school starts at 8 o'clock rather than 9 o'clock, will two buses make two journeys, or will the bus assist only the child who starts at 9 o'clock, rather than the one who starts at 8 o'clock? There are some tensions to which the Government have not responded as to how the objectives of the Bill can be reconciled with some of their other objectives.
I should like to make a final point about road safety and seat belts in particular. The Government's view is that it is ultimately for schools and local education authorities to ensure that vehicles are appropriate for the type of journey planned, including seeing whether they are fitted with seat belts. Some of my constituents in Shipton Bellinger are deeply concerned that the bus that takes their children to school has no seat belts. If those parents drive their children to school, they can ensure that they wear seat belts. If they send them on the bus, they cannot do so, because the bus has none.
I wonder whether the Government will have a dialogue with the authorities that take part in the pilots, and whether they will be encouraged to use newer and safer buses. I note that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), is nodding vigorously. Some of the buses are straight from Cliff Richard's "Summer Holiday" in the 1960s, and I hope that the pilot schemes will promote new buses that pollute less and are safer.
I understand the objectives behind the Bill and I hope that they will be achieved. I think that there are some unanswered questions. I am not volunteering to serve on the Standing Committee, but I hope that the questions that I have posed will be raised by colleagues when that Committee sits.