A cross-party body voted to close a loophole denying those attending faith schools access to free transport, but refused to back similar proposals to strengthen the right to free travel to Welsh-medium schools.
The faith school vote in a cross-party committee was won with the backing of Labour AM Ann Jones, who said it put her in the “dreadful” position of having to choose between her conscience and party policy.
Her decision was applauded by Archbishop of Wales Barry Morgan.
A final vote on the Assembly Government’s plans for school travel is expected in the autumn. It could put the Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition in the uncomfortable position of opposing amendments in support of Welsh-language rights put forward by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
The amendment securing transport to faith schools was championed by Lib-Dem AM Kirsty Williams and Conservative AM Alun Cairns. They argued free travel should not be left to the discretion of local authorities.
Mr Cairns warned that at a time of tightening local government budgets councils may seek to make cutbacks.
Shortly before the vote, Labour’s Ms Jones said: “I’ve thought long and hard about this one and I think this is a matter of conscience. I’m quite upset that the Government can’t accept this amendment…
“You are right. It is a matter of social justice; it is a matter of equality. And this amendment, and the Government’s stance on this amendment has placed me in a dreadful situation.”
The Archbishop of Wales said: “I am delighted with the decision. It will enshrine in legislation the same privilege to learners in the faith sector without fear of discrimination. It will reassure parents that the Assembly values the contribution of faith communities in Wales to maintain education. I am pleased that Ann Jones recognises it for what it is: a matter of conscience and social justice and not a budgetary option.”
Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones had opposed the amendment, saying: “There is actually nothing in the Measure that reduces the powers of local authorities to support transport to schools on the basis of religious preference.”
He added: “If we were to legislate on the basis of an entitlement to have transport provided to a school that provides religious education which accords with the parental wish, we would also have to provide the same entitlement to those who did not want a faith-related education. And the problem is, once you have provided a duty, then the duty must be available to everybody.”
After the vote, Ms Williams said: “He was unable to adequately defend his reasoning and so the vote went against him – it’s as simple as that.” She added: “I am greatly disappointed that the amendment seeking to strengthen the travel provisions to Welsh-medium schools was voted down by the Government.”She said the obligation on local authorities to “promote access” to Welsh-medium education was too vague and did not guarantee safe, free transport.
Mr Cairns added: “We are not playing any more. We are writing laws and if we can’t offer absolute equal access to Welsh-medium parents as we are to English-medium pupils then I think we would have abdicated our responsibilities. The Assembly Government now faces two clear choices. Either they support our demand for those in Welsh- medium education to be given the same rights as those at English medium or faith schools, or they vote to reverse today’s decision on faith schools.”
A Welsh Assembly Government spokesman said: “We will now reflect on this matter before it returns to a debate during a full plenary session. To a greater or lesser extent, councils across Wales do provide such transport and we recently issued guidance encouraging them to continue using their discretion to provide transport to denominational schools.”