This is the text of the speech Sir George made on the Third Reading of the School Transport Bill
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): As the only Opposition Back Bencher who served on the Standing Committee, perhaps I can share a few comments as the Bill approaches the terminus.
I endorse the comments made by the Minister and by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban). The Bill has been positive and consensual and the Front Benchers have made some high quality performances; I am delighted that one such contribution has been recognised this afternoon. As the Minister said, some of the initiatives in the Bill build on a policy base that predates this Administration.
It was unfortunate that the timetable motion did not allow us to discuss the Government amendments. On Report, we discussed only Opposition amendments that were not carried, so we did not reach the one group of amendments that changed the Bill. Perhaps the business managers will reflect on the allocation of time, because with two statements, we had half a day for Report. With another hour, we might have been able to get through all the groups of amendments.
That leads me to my second point. It would be churlish of me not to thank the Government for picking up the amendment that I moved in Committee, which then became Government amendment No. 5. I was slightly surprised to see my Back-Bench amendment trumped by the Secretary of State, who suddenly changed it into a Government amendment by adding his name to it. The Bill is more deregulatory now that the Government have accepted that amendment and complemented it with their own. Local authorities that are on the margin of deciding whether to become a pilot authority may decide to do so because they know that if it goes wrong they can disengage quite quickly instead of having to get the approval of the Secretary of State.
My third point concerns increased seat belt use, which I touched on in Committee. At the moment, a parent who drives his or her child to school knows that they will be secure in their seat because they have to wear a seat belt, but if they entrust their child to a coach it may not have seat belts. Given the increasing concern about safety, that consideration may influence the parent. Paragraph 25 of the prospectus says that the Government
"expect schemes to include measures that will improve safety, particularly in reducing overcrowding and increasing seatbelt use."
I very much hope that pilot authorities will enter into contracts with bus companies that have seat belts fitted to their coaches so that parents can be confident that they are the safest available.
That brings me to my final point. The journey to school is much more complicated than it was 30 or 40 years ago, when most of the children in an area would have gone to local schools that all began at, say, 9 o'clock. As we move more towards parental choice, there will be a wider spectrum of schools to which parents may send their children, and they may not be the local ones. Moreover, we are moving towards a regime of wraparound schools that open earlier and close later, so they do not all start at the same time of the morning. I hope that there will be sufficient flexibility in the school travel schemes mentioned in the prospectus to cope with the more variable geometries of school journeys than have traditionally applied.
A few days ago, I spoke to people from a company that provides buses for school journeys, and the one thing that they wanted was variable school opening times. They said that they could provide a much better ideal if all the schools did not start at 9 o'clock; they could quote more competitive prices and make better use of their vehicles if school times were staggered. That needs to be put into the equation.
The Bill is part of a broader picture of addressing issues of traffic congestion, and to that extent I welcome it. It is slightly unfortunate that we were not able to hear a little more about the eligibility rules. The Minister explained why those were not available before the Bill leaves this House, and we will follow that with great interest.
I hope that where local authorities enter into pilot schemes they will use safer coaches, bear in mind what I said about the variable geometry of the school journey and not enter into contracts that are so inflexible that the parental choice that Members on both sides of the House support cannot be enforced.