Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee.
Guidance about the costs of school uniforms: England
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 3, page 1, line 9, leave out
“the Secretary of State considers”
and insert “are”
This amendment will introduce an objective test of relevance in place of a subjective test.
Amendment 4, page 1, line 10, at end insert
“including price, quality, design, place of manufacture and country of origin.”
This amendment will ensure that these aspects bearing upon costs are addressed in any guidance.
Amendment 1, page 1, line 10, at end insert—
‘(2A) But guidance issued under this section must include guidance on—
(a) ensuring there is an adequate market for second-hand uniform where that uniform is provided new by a single supplier, and
(b) establishing a hardship fund for the parents or guardians who struggle to meet the cost of providing uniform for their children.”
Amendment 5, page 1, line 10, at end insert—
‘(2A) Any guidance issued under this section must include advice on ways of minimising the payment of Value Added Tax as a component of the cost of school uniforms.”
Amendment 6, page 1, line 11, leave out “must” and insert “may”
This amendment will enable the appropriate authority to exercise its discretion as to whether or not to have regard to the guidance.
Amendment 7, page 1, line 12, leave out “developing and”
This amendment will restrict the guidance to policy implementation.
Amendment 8, page 1, line 12, after “developing”, insert “, publishing”
This amendment will require appropriate authorities to have regard to publishing requirements in the guidance about costs of school uniforms.
Amendment 9, page 1, line 14, leave out “from time to time” and insert
“, no sooner than five years after the first guidance is issued under this section,”
This amendment will ensure that any guidance remains in place for at least five years.
Amendment 10, page 1, line 18, leave out paragraph (b)
This amendment would exclude an alternative-provision Academy from the provisions of the Bill.
Amendment 11, page 1, line 21, leave out paragraph (d)
This amendment would exclude a non-maintained special school from the provisions of the Bill.
Amendment 12, page 2, line 1, leave out paragraph (e)
This amendment would exclude a pupil referral unit from the provisions of the Bill.
Amendment 13, page 2, line 3, leave out from “school” to “the proprietor” in line 4
This amendment is consequential on Amendments 10 and 11.
Amendment 14, page 2, line 6, leave out paragraph (c)
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 12.
Amendment 15, page 2, line 6, at end insert—
‘(7) Before issuing any guidance under this section, the Secretary of State must consult the National Governors Association, the Parent Teacher Association UK and representatives of the different categories of relevant school.”
Amendment 16, in clause 2, page 2, line 9, leave out “two” and insert “six”
This amendment will ensure that any guidance under this Act will not apply to the 2021/22 academic year.
My opening remarks will, as ever, be brief. First, let me say how wonderful it is that we have Friday sittings back, and I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, and to the Leader of the House for having facilitated that. I understand that Her Majesty’s official Opposition were keen that we abandon Friday sittings, so I hope they have now realised that there is a virtue in this, not least because some of the Bills on today’s Order Paper are being promoted by Opposition Members. Let us welcome that and put it on the record.
I wish to speak to the amendments standing in my name and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Shipley (Philip Davies), and to amendment 1, which stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough. The essence of this Bill is something that everybody in the House supports; after all, who wants the cost of school uniforms to be higher than it needs to be? I support the idea that we should have good-quality school uniforms at a competitive price, available throughout schools in England. That is the purpose of the Bill, and the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) and I are ad idem on that.
The hon. Gentleman will probably therefore agree with my amendment 2, which is designed to put an end date on what appears to be the Government’s prevarication in getting on with the job. They were first talking about introducing statutory guidance on the cost of school uniform many years ago—back in 2015, if I recall correctly. Since then, not must progress has been made and we are now relying on the hon. Gentleman’s Bill. Again, I congratulate him on having brought it before the House.
The purpose of this amendment is to try to ensure that we get on with it, which is why the amendment proposes that the Secretary of State “must” issue guidance
“within six months of this Act coming into force”.
It is a pity that we have not had the draft guidance already. It was exactly one year ago tomorrow that the Bill was debated on Second Reading, and almost six months after that it had its Committee stage. A further six months on from that, so one year after it was first debated, the Government are still saying that they are intent on bringing forward statutory guidance but have not yet produced even a draft. When this issue was raised in Committee, the Minister for School Standards said that it was his intention to get on with it and that he would be consulting people as soon as possible about it. I interpreted that to mean he would be getting on with consulting on the draft statutory guidance, as that is often the norm in this House. While the House is considering—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am going to re-emphasise my frustration, which I am sure is shared by the promoter of the Bill, about the fact that we have not yet seen the draft guidance. Once the draft guidance is produced, it will need to be the subject of consultation, and the Minister has committed to doing that, with the various stakeholders.
The guidance needs to be produced within six months of the Act coming into force. My right hon. Friend the Minister said in Committee that he did not want to be tied down to a particular date because he thought that would be too constraining. I can understand that, but unfortunately the worst fears that lay behind the questions put to him now seem to be being realised. We assumed that getting on and producing the guidance was a top priority of my right hon. Friend’s Department. In Committee, he referred to some of the key ingredients that he expected to be in the draft guidance—namely, exactly the same provisions as are in the current non-statutory guidance, which was last issued in 2013. It does not seem as though an exacting demand was being placed on him by the Committee or, indeed, that he was placing one on the shoulders of his officials, so it is disappointing that that has not yet happened. It is therefore important to put in the Bill an end date or a timescale within which the guidance must be issued. That is the purport of amendment 2.
I hope it will be convenient for Members if, instead of going through all the amendments one by one in the order in which they appear on the amendment paper, I jump ahead and go straight to amendment 5, which goes to the heart of one of the issues that I raised on Second Reading a year ago, for which I got a lot of support from the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and others.
Amendment 5 says:
“Any guidance issued under this section must include advice on ways of minimising the payment of Value Added Tax as a component of the cost of school uniforms.”
The issue of VAT is solely within the remit of the Government, and VAT is adding 20% to the cost of a heck of a lot of school uniforms. Although we are going to issue guidance to governing bodies, which we say is very important, on the price and quality of school uniforms, the Government have the ability to reduce, at a stroke, the cost of school uniforms by 20% for all those people adversely affected by the current VAT rules. That would not have been possible before we were liberated as a legislature by our leaving the European Union.
I introduced a private Member’s Bill—I cannot remember whether it was in this Session or the previous one—to reduce value added tax. Although it was a financial Bill, I was delighted that, because it would have reduced the burden of taxation, it was within scope for private Members’ legislation. I would have tabled an amendment to this Bill along similar lines, had that been in scope, but unfortunately it would not have been, because it has a very narrow title about guidance to schools. Had the scope of this Bill been slightly wider, I would have tabled an amendment that would have removed VAT from all specific school uniforms, and I am sure that it would have received almost unanimous support in the House. As I cannot do that, I have engendered this debate by saying that included in the guidance should be a reference from the Minister to how schools and governing bodies can minimise the impact of VAT.
I will refer briefly to a BBC reality check. I do not know whether you look at these things, Mr Speaker, but this is a very helpful one. It asks:
“Why is VAT charged on school uniform?”
It goes on to say:
“For older children—or those who are taller than average—”
I will come on to the issue of waist size in a minute—
“school uniforms, as well as all other clothing and shoes, attract the full standard VAT rate of 20%. Reality Check explores why these families are paying more and why successive governments haven’t acted.”
Very helpfully, it sets out what the current rules are and gives us this reminder:
“Clothing and shoes for young children have been charged a zero rate of VAT since the introduction of the tax on 1 April 1973. The problem is that there is no definition of the term ‘young children’ in VAT law. Instead, the VAT relief is based on the maximum size an average child will be on their 14th birthday. So clothes for older children, as well as many children under the age of 14 who are larger than average, are taxed at 20%. And this includes school uniform.”
Very helpfully—I do not know whether the hon. Member for Weaver Vale is familiar with this—Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs sets out maximum measurements for VAT zero-rated clothing. I will not go through the whole list, but let me pick out one, which is the height of boys in inches. The maximum height for a boy is 64 inches before the uniform or the clothes that that child is wearing become subject to VAT and lose the zero-rated exemption. Do you know, Mr Speaker, what the average height of a boy on his 14th birthday currently is in the United Kingdom? It is 64.6 inches. In other words, it is just over 5 feet 4½ inches. That is the average, which means that many average 14-year-olds, and by implication those of 12 and 13 and some of 11, are already having school uniforms purchased by their parents that are subject to value-added tax. That is not acceptable. It does not fit in with the Government’s policy, which is to reduce the burden of the cost of school uniforms on families, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will use our new freedoms to take forward proposals to remove value added tax on school uniforms.
The reality check asks another pertinent question:
“Why doesn’t the Government cut the rate?”
“The policy would be very popular with parents, and it has been considered in the past, but it has never been taken up. Way back in 1980”—
a long time ago, Mr Speaker—
“HM Customs & Excise considered the possibility of scrapping VAT on school uniforms, but concluded that the zero rate, aimed at children, would be exploited by adults in the larger sizes.”
We can see now that it is a burden not just on larger adults, but on children of average height. It goes on to say:
“After all, the uniform in a great number of secondary schools includes plain trousers, skirts and shirts—items that adults could wear too. There were proposals that elements of school uniform clearly identified as being from a particular school, by a logo for example, could be made exempt from VAT.”
That is my purpose in raising this; it could link two particular elements of the school uniform affordability policy.
One of the complaints made is that if a large number of items in a school uniform incorporate the particular badge or logo into the design, that adds to the costs of that item or uniform. I understand that, but obviously if the value added tax rules were changed to exempt from value added tax any school uniform that had such logos or insignia on it, the cost of those items would be reduced by 20%. That is not a new idea. This idea was raised and by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) back in 1997, when he proposed that such a policy could be policed by the production of a school identification card or that the uniform could be ordered through the school. Interestingly, the Labour Government in place at the time did not support that. Since then, other Members of Parliament have taken up the cause, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). When he was a Minister at the Department for Exiting the European Union, he basically said, “Be patient. Once we left have, we will have the freedom to deal with this”; and hopefully we will.
Now that we have left the European Union, we are no longer constrained by its restrictions on what we can do. If, prior to leaving, the Government had wanted to add all school uniform to the list of goods that are taxed at 0%, they would have needed the agreement of all other European Union countries. That would have been impossible, as we found out when we tried to remove the value added tax on personal items for the use of women. Now that we have left, that restriction has gone.
The line from the Treasury is always that value added tax is a broad-based tax that contributes an enormous amount to the Revenue. The last time I discussed this with a Treasury Minister, he said that in Ministers’ inboxes, they have about 50 or 70 different propositions as to reductions that should be made on value added tax. I point out that the difference between value added tax on school uniforms and general value added tax is that the Government’s avowed policy is to reduce the cost of school uniforms, and it is now within their power to remove the VAT. The leakage to which I made a reference—non-uniform items being bought up by adults who should be paying the value added tax—could be addressed through the combination of changing the rules and enabling those specific uniforms to be allowed to be exempt from VAT, as long as they had a specific design unique to that school, such as a prominent badge.
It may be helpful to the Government to be reminded that it is currently possible to get around the rules for people aged up to 14, irrespective of their size and waist measurement, by making it clear that the uniform is exclusively for the use of under-14s. This is the type of advice that I have in mind that the Government should be producing in the revised statutory guidance. The zero rate applies to organisations such as Beavers or Brownies for the clothing items that form the uniform, regardless of the size, as long as those organisations cater exclusively for the under-14s. It would, for example, be possible for a school to specify that uniform—
Sir Christopher, I hate to interrupt. I recognise the theme, but I think we can both say that Beavers would never be of an adult size. We are not comparing like with like, because there is an age where children go to the next stage in Brownies and Guides—it is the same with Scouts and the Cubs movement—so they cannot be of a size where that would be applicable. As you rightly say, that is applicable to school uniforms that are of an adult size. We would agree—you are absolutely right—that the theme is about the size that uniform comes in, but I worry about trying to compare with something that could never happen.
I understand the point that you are making, Mr Speaker. I am drawing attention to this because it actually does happen at the moment. As long as their uniforms are for those up to the age of 14, Beavers and Brownies are able to provide those uniforms free of value added tax, irrespective of the size—
I must not have explained it correctly. I think that at the age of seven, eight or nine, children cannot continue, and they go to the next stage within the branch of the organisation. It is a bit like infant school, junior school and high school. That is all I am trying to say. We are getting bogged down in something that would not be applicable.
My final line of defence is that this is taken from the BBC’s reality check, and it sounds as though that needs to be revised in the light of your helpful and constructive comments, Mr Speaker.
The final point I want to make on this aspect is that there was recently a survey—it was highlighted in The Guardian, of all newspapers, but the reference I have is from the Press Association—that showed the waistline spread of UK children. I will not go into the whole detail of it, but the survey found that back in 2011, an average 11-year-old girl was 148.78 cm tall compared with 146.03 cm in 1978—an increase of 2.75 cm over that time—but her waistline was 70.2 cm on average, compared with 59.96 cm in 1978. We are talking about an average 11-year-old girl, and the average has probably gone up since 2011, but the limit beyond which the waistline of a garment is subject to VAT is only 69 cm, which shows that the current VAT limit for the waistline measurement of a piece of clothing is well below the average waistline of an 11-year-old girl. That is another example of the way in which the current VAT rules have introduced a sort of stealth tax upon parents who are trying to pay for school uniform.
This amendment is designed to ensure that these issues are addressed by the Minister when he puts out statutory guidance, with advice included in that guidance to schools on how to get around it. Obviously that advice to schools might change if the Government were to accept my advice—and, I am sure, the advice of the whole House—and intervene now to take away the burden of value added tax on school uniforms, thereby reducing the price of school uniforms for everybody affected. I put that in at the beginning of my remarks because I thought it was sensible to set it in context. Obviously, we want to maximise the quality and minimise the price. Everything that follows in relation to this guidance and this Bill is in a sense subordinate to the point I have made, because the issue of VAT is solely within the control of the Government, and I think if the Government acted on it, that would be very popular.
Turning to the other amendments in the order in which they appear on the amendment paper, amendment 3 is:
“Clause 1, page 1, line 9, leave out ‘the Secretary of State considers’ and insert ‘are’”.
As it says in the Member’s explanatory statement:
“This amendment will introduce an objective test of relevance in place of a subjective test.”
Currently, the Bill says that the Secretary of State must issue guidance and that the
“‘costs aspects of school uniform policies’ means any aspects of school uniform policies that the Secretary of State considers relevant to the costs of school uniforms.”
The question I ask is: why should this Secretary of State solely be in the position to decide what is relevant to the costs of school uniforms? Why should that not be an objective test, so that any aspects of school uniform policies that are relevant to the costs of school uniforms would be included in this guidance? I think the example of value added tax is a good one, because the Secretary of State might decide that he did not regard value added tax as impinging on the issue of aspects of school uniform policies or costs, and thereby be able to exclude any reference to that, despite its relevance. That is why I have put in amendment 3, which would introduce an objective test, rather than a subjective test.
Amendment 4 would incorporate within the guidance criteria
“including price, quality, design, place of manufacture and country of origin.”
This is, in one sense, a highly topical issue because we know that there has been a lot of discussion in the context of the Trade Bill about whether our country should change its approach to international trade and whether Parliament should restrict the ability of the Government to enter into a trade deal with a country that is in the dock for genocide. I am not going to get into that debate, but the purpose of this amendment is to enable school governing bodies to take these issues into account when deciding on their school uniform policy.
We are talking about price, and I think that needs to be spelled out, but we also need to refer to issues of quality. That point was made very eloquently on Second Reading by, among others, as I recall, my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken). I think even the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) made the same point that we should be talking not just about price but about quality and design, as well as the place of manufacture and the country of origin.
Increasing numbers of people in this country do not wish to purchase goods whose origin is China. In particular, they do not wish to purchase goods comprising cotton, which may have been produced under slave labour conditions in particular parts of China. Obviously, those goods from China are often less expensive than goods sourced from elsewhere, even from places such as India or Bangladesh. Surely it should be open to a governing body to discuss the merits or otherwise of having a school uniform that is sourced from China, or from some other country with which that governing body thinks we should operate at arm’s length, rather than indulging its breaches of human rights.
That is why I have introduced those criteria, and I was delighted when my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough supported the amendment. He has an enormous amount of experience on this subject and, as you may know, Mr Speaker, he was chair of the committee that took over from Sir Anthony Steen and deals with international people trafficking. He has shared with me the fact that the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 3 December tries to promote the suppression of traffic in persons and the exploitation of others. The idea is to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery because, according to the UN, an estimated 40.3 million people are in modern-day slavery, including almost 25 million in forced labour and some 15.5 million in forced marriages.
Horrifically, there are 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every 1,000 people in the world, and one in four of those victims are children. This is an important issue, and it is relevant in the context of this debate because national and international companies supply school uniforms, and they need to know that it is open to governing bodies to inquire into the place of manufacture and country of origin of the school uniforms being sold. Some interesting data have been produced on this—I am trying to get to the nub of this issue. The garment industry turns over almost £3 trillion a year, yet garment workers, 80% of whom are women, work for poverty pay, earning as little as £15 a month. Human rights abuses are systemic throughout the industry. Poverty wages, long hours, forced overtime, unsafe working conditions and so on are all commonplace in the clothing industry, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough knows, it is an industry built on exploitation that grows as a result of a lack of transparency, and makes holding brands accountable very difficult.
So how do we do that? We can put pressure on the suppliers of school uniforms to ensure that their sources of supply are worthy of our support and schools’ support. You may remember, Mr Speaker, that a campaign group, Labour Behind the Label, was established to
“raise public awareness and promote collective action from consumers to push for change”
in the garment industry, because it wanted to ensure that companies took
“responsibility for workers’ rights throughout the entirety of their supply chains.”
The group works with trade unions worldwide and concentrates on protecting the human rights of garment workers.
Labour Behind the Label believes that
“no-one should live in poverty for the price of a cheap t-shirt. That a living wage is a basic human right, as is working without fear for your life.”
That is why, in 2019, it started a petition to challenge Trutex, one of the largest suppliers of school uniforms. This story actually has quite an encouraging conclusion, and it is possible that, if amendment 4 is accepted, we could have similarly successful outcomes based on pressure put on those who provide school uniforms.
Trutex is the United Kingdom’s largest specialist schoolwear brand. In 2019, its turnover was £27.5 million. It has supplied school uniforms across Britain for 150 years. It sells logoed uniforms and sportswear to thousands of schools, often operating exclusive contracts with schools and selling through individual retailers.
Labour Behind the Label said:
“Uniform monopolies…leave parents in an ethical bind, forced to buy from brands that lack transparency. Trutex’s website offers vague promises of a commitment to ethical production and assurances that its production sites are well managed and safe. Yet unlike many other brands who have published lists of where their factories are located, Trutex remain silent and provide absolutely no evidence that what they say is true.”
After collecting signatures for the petition to which I referred, it was able to establish that Trutex was working positively in some areas, which had not been recognised, but was doing a poor job of spelling out to others what it was doing.
The good news is that, in 2020, Trutex published a corporate sustainability report. That substantial document lists its suppliers around the globe and contains a list of 20 tier 1 suppliers, including in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the United Kingdom. Trutex has also joined the Ethical Trading Initiative as a foundation stage member and has accepted that organisation’s base code—a code of conduct based on key International Labour Organisation conventions. While membership of the Ethical Trading Initiative does not automatically mean that a member is ethical, or that it properly upholds labour rights, it is obviously a step in the right direction.
Because of that progress, the petition to which I referred has now been closed, but Labour Behind the Label continues to monitor Trutex and other uniform brands
“to make sure that parents and families have the right to know that their school uniforms are made in decent working conditions.”
Trutex responded to the concerns, and it should be congratulated on that. The strong message from that is that we should incorporate in the statutory guidance a reference to the ability of governing bodies to take into account the source of the school uniforms that they adopt for their school.
The Schoolwear Association represents all those involved in the supply of school-specific uniform, from direct retailers to school suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, suppliers, agents and schools. Established in 2006, the association has over 200 members, and between them they clothe three quarters of Britain’s schoolchildren, so obviously it is an important organisation. It promotes best practice across the UK schoolwear industry and is committed to ensuring that a long-term, robust and competitive market exists for the supply of schoolwear. Its code of practice sets out its aims and values, including ethical compliance to ensure that workers are treated fairly. It states:
“Members will operate to the highest reasonable standards of ethical compliance”.
Obviously, that commitment could be built upon if individual governing bodies wanted to do so.
However, it is not only direct school suppliers for which there is an issue of transparency; the larger suppliers may well be the most guilty of using slave labour, and it is also an issue for the large supermarket chains. That brings me to an issue that was discussed quite a lot on Second Reading and in Committee: alternative sources of school uniform. How is it that some generic items are so much cheaper when purchased from a supermarket? The supermarkets are now able to produce this clothing at significantly lower costs, but the purchaser is unable to be sure about the sourcing. If we allowed governing bodies to deal with this as part of the school uniform, then these items would be subject to the same safeguards to which I have referred.
A 2015 investigation by the Daily Mirror—not an organ I read regularly, I must admit—highlighted that two of Britain’s top stores, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, were selling school uniforms made by workers who were paid just 25p an hour. The large retailer Next was selling uniforms from a 6,000-worker factory in Bangladesh. It vowed to look at conditions after admitting that staff had to put in unacceptable overtime. Sometimes they were toiling—I think that is the right expression—for more than 70 hours a week, and for just £51 a month. That was significantly higher even than the country’s weekly legal limit of 60 hours. One mother working in one of those factories wanted parents in Britain to be aware of their poverty. She said:
“Look at the irony, I make school uniforms and can’t afford to send my daughter to school.”
It is an irony that should stop us in our tracks and make us realise how important it is to get the sourcing of school uniforms right.
The article described how most employees live in terrible conditions, with families in one room. The children often have to fend for themselves, and many leave school early so that they can find work to help the family. A 33-year-old stitcher said that his basic daily wage was equivalent to £1.97. Even with long overtime, he earned only £76 a month. He said:
“It’s a low wage. My elder son goes to school in his one uniform through the year.”
That is a significant contrast with what we are lucky enough to enjoy in this country. The man said that he could not afford to educate his other son.
Those sorts of organisations make garments for large supermarkets which are often incorporated in school uniforms. A clothes finisher with a fixed monthly salary of £56.77 said:
“We are often forced to work overtime to avoid the factory paying charges for late delivery. They make people work four to six hours of overtime a day.”
For each hour of overtime, they get 34p. That is why we need to take action and encourage others to take action by naming and shaming these suppliers and giving the power to school governing bodies, which incorporate an enormous amount of collective wisdom, to take action on these issues. I have not even mentioned the Uyghurs, not because I have overlooked them but because the point has been made sufficiently and others may want to go further into the issue in the debate.
I believe that price, quality, design, place of manufacture and country of origin should be in the guidance. In reference to quality and design, I noticed when I looked at the statutory guidance issued by the Welsh Government that it requires schools to produce school uniforms that do not need to be dry cleaned. It seems to me that a school blazer that does not need to be dry cleaned is probably incompatible with desirable design standards. Design is important so I disagree with that prescriptive Welsh statutory guidance which deals with not just whether garments have to be dry cleaned but other issues. I throw that out as an example, which brings me on, you will be delighted to know, Mr Speaker, to amendment 1.
Amendment 1 was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and I and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley have supported it. The essence of it is that the guidance should make provision to ensure that there is an adequate market for second-hand uniform where that uniform is provided new by a single supplier and to establish a hardship fund for parents or guardians who struggle to meet the cost of providing uniform for their children. This is an important point. We all agree about the virtues of school uniform and we want to ensure that there is a vibrant second-hand market in school uniform because that can bear down on the costs and significantly improve access. Apart from anything else, if there is a vibrant second-hand market, that can also incentivise the emphasis on quality of goods, because they will be able to last rather than going downhill very quickly. I cannot remember which hon. Member it was who referred in Committee and, I think, also on Second Reading to the fact that her son’s blazers lasted about a year each, but her daughter’s blazer, of a higher quality, lasted for about five years. I do not think that that was just because of the different treatment her children were giving to their clothes; it showed the quality of them, and obviously those that last longer are more able to be recycled.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough for bringing to my attention the fact that in September 2020, at the height of the covid pandemic, Hope Uniform Exchange started a pop-up store in Weston-super-Mare, which saw an average of 40 families a day picking up free or affordable second-hand school uniforms. At the time a parent was interviewed by the press about the challenges of keeping up with their rent, bills, job and the overall impact of covid, which had made money tighter for them. They said:
“It makes a huge difference for us because otherwise we would have not gone to the uniform store. We would have kept going all around all the charity shops and try to find what we need because the uniform store would have cost us about £70, which is quite a bit.”
Hope Uniform Exchange received about 200 bin bags of branded and non-branded uniforms from its donation points around the town, and that is just in one town. It asks parents to bring in clothes to swap or, if they did not have any, to offer a donation to the surplus.
This amendment would ensure that schools provide a second-hand uniforms shop where parents could buy affordable second-hand uniforms. It would ensure that, as I said earlier, the blazers could be reused or handed on to another child; not every family has a whole lot of siblings who can take the same blazer on successively as it goes down the age range.
In Committee, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale mentioned the situation of a parent who was concerned about purchasing a child’s uniform because the branding on the clothing might limit the ability of family and friends to use hand-me-downs. This amendment would also ensure that, where there is a single supplier, adequate markets for second-hand uniforms would be available. That would address the issue where a school uniform needs to have a logo, since there would still be availability of second-hand uniforms. I remember that, on that recent occasion when I was at school, we had an active second-hand uniform shop, of which my parents made great use, if I may say so.
Sustainability is crucial. We have seen some people anticipating the growth in size of their children by purchasing blazers three times the size they need, in the hope that it will last longer. This amendment is about trying to avoid those distortions through behavioural consequences in people because of the lack of affordable alternatives to the new uniform.
I refer also as an example to Uniform Exchange, which is based in Huddersfield. It operates across 182 schools in Kirklees and has collected and recycled thousands of donations of outgrown school uniforms and transformed them into new clothes, given for free to local children in need. The Prime Minister, no less, congratulated Ms Kate France on setting up the scheme and honoured her with a Points of Light award. The Prime Minister, no less, congratulated Ms Kate France on setting up the scheme and honoured her with a Points of Light award. He wrote to her, stating:
“By setting up the Uniform Exchange, you have collected an astonishing 100,000 items of school uniform to be saved from landfill. This is an achievement for the environment and also for the families you help with free uniform.”
Uniform Exchange is just one example of thousands of schemes in place to ensure that school uniforms are reused. Not only are they environmentally friendly, but they help tackle the costs, especially for struggling families. The amendment would ensure that every school had a second-hand uniform shop.
On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) said of the Bill:
“even if it passes, the hard reality is that school uniforms will still be an expense that some of our poorest in society fail to afford. While there is support for poor families, it is at the behest of local authorities”—[Official Report, 13 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 563.]
That is why the second part of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough deals with the issue of financial help for purchasing school uniforms. Each school would have to have a hardship fund for school uniforms. That would mean that every family, however difficult their financial circumstances, would be able to dress their children in a school uniform like the uniforms of every other child in that school. That might be a very low cost for the school as a whole, but it would be immensely valuable to those children, who would then have a proper school uniform that fit them properly. It would also be perfectly consistent with a school’s having an exclusive uniform supplier. That, in itself, enables a school to establish a strong ethos around its logo, mottoes and so on.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister would very much encourage all this and say that it does not need to be put into the statutory guidance. But the perennial issue with guidance is what should and should not be put into it—I see my right hon. Friend nodding. That is why it is a bit frustrating that we are having this debate without actually having seen the draft statutory guidance; if we could actually see it, we would know the context and the extent to which any omission would be remedied by the amendments or whether what is in the amendments was already incorporated. It is important that we steer the Minister in the right direction, and I hope that amendment 1 does that.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker; you will be pleased to see the progress that I am making in dealing with this large group of amendments. I now turn to amendment 6, which would relieve schools of having to have regard to the statutory guidance and leave the issue to their discretion.
The essence of this is a chicken and egg thing—it depends what is in the statutory guidance. If the statutory guidance is perfectly bland and reasonable, I do not see any problem with requiring schools to have regard to it, but if it is unreasonable and unnecessarily demanding, it could ultimately be counterproductive. Hon. Members may recall that there is currently no requirement in law for a school to have a uniform policy. We have been talking about what should in a uniform policy if it exists, but if a school takes the view that the guidance is unreasonable and demanding, its best way of avoiding having to do anything set out in the guidance is not to have a uniform policy at all, and it is perfectly entitled to do that.
This is an interesting lacuna, and my right hon. Friend the Minister may wish to comment on it in his response. Why is there no requirement for a school to have a school uniform policy, and why is it that we are going to great lengths to introduce statutory guidance that could effectively, as I have said, be totally ignored? The reason behind the amendment is to ensure that there is a means by which some of the steam can be let out. Obviously, responsible school governing bodies will look at these issues and ask whether the guidance is sensible and whether they should follow it, and if so, how.
A lot will depend, again, on how much discretion the guidance gives. I referenced the Welsh statutory guidance, which I think now requires that there should not be more than one bespoke item with a badge or insignia on it. How ridiculous is that? Ironically, I do not know how the Government are now doing their counting, but at one stage they were counting a pair of gloves for personal protective equipment as two items, so I do not know whether that would leave a Welsh school that wanted to have the school colours on two socks in breach of the Welsh regulations. I make that point, in a sense reduced to absurdity, because that sort of prescriptive guidance would ultimately lead to school governing bodies saying, probably wisely, to parents that they will have a school uniform, but it will not be the subject of a policy, because if they have a policy they will fall foul of these unreasonable regulations that the Government have introduced. Method and thinking have gone into amendment 6.
Amendments 7 and 8 are, in a sense, alternatives. Amendment 7 would leave out “developing and” from clause 1, page 1, line 12, which would make that provision read:
“The appropriate authority of a relevant school must have regard to guidance issued under this section when implementing a school uniform policy for the school.”
It seems to me that that would be a simplification, because we would be talking about implementing a policy rather than developing one. The authority would be able to look at its policy to see whether it fitted in with the Government guidance before implementing it.
In a sense, the alternative is to keep the existing words—
“when developing and implementing a school uniform policy”—
and add in “publishing”, as in amendment 8. I tabled amendment 8 to re-emphasise the point that I was making in relation to the previous amendments, because there is no requirement for a school to publish a school uniform policy. In a sense, that would go as far as the Government could, because they are not changing the primary legislation to require a school to have a uniform policy. These measures would require a school to have regard whether it wanted to have a uniform policy. I would be interested to hear what the Minister thinks about that. As ever, I am trying to be helpful to the Government in their policy development.
Amendment 9 reads:
“Clause 1, page 1, line 14, leave out ‘from time to time’ and insert ‘, no sooner than five years after the first guidance is issued under this section,’.
The explanatory statement is:
“This amendment will ensure that any guidance remains in place for at least five years.”
This is crucial. The current non-statutory guidance has been in place since 2013. It is important that we should not have chopping and changing at short notice, which could make it expensive for schools to comply with any changes to statutory guidance. It is less significant if the guidance is not statutory, but we are talking about statutory guidance. Those involved in the manufacture and supply of school uniforms have made strong representations such that adequate notice should be given of any changes to the requirements. It should be a reasonable expectation that when the new guidance is issued, it is not going to be just for a year or two—that it is not going to keep chopping and changing, as the guidance has in relation to the covid-19 pandemic. The covid-19 pandemic is an emergency, whereas I do not think anybody could argue that the price and quality of school uniforms is an emergency.
The Government should be able to think ahead and say, “This is the guidance we are going to give and it will be in place for five years minimum.” That would enable schools to enter into contracts for supply, subject, in my view—I do not know whether this will be in the guidance—to proper competitive tendering and clear specification. If one goes out to tender and gets a supplier, one will probably get a much better price if one gives a reasonably lengthy contract period, rather than saying in the tender, “This may have to change after a year because the guidance might be changed on the whim of a change of Minister, Secretary of State or even Government.”
Amendment 9 is, then, designed to introduce some stability and predictability into the process on the basis that that will ultimately result in better value for money. I hope the Minister will be able to respond positively to that, and, even if he does not accept the amendment, at least give some sort of public undertaking as to the length of time for which he intends any guidance issued to be operative. This amendment makes it clear that my preference would be for a period of at least five years.
We now come to amendment 10, which is deregulatory. It is designed to ensure that the guidance does not apply to an alternative provision academy. I will also discuss here, if I may, amendment 11. Amendment 11 would exclude a non-maintained school from the provisions of the Bill. The reason I tabled those amendments is that, of all the issues that are faced by schools, particularly schools providing alternative provision, organising school uniforms should not be at the top of the list.
Amendment 12 proposes that we should also exclude pupil referral units. A pupil referral unit—certainly from my limited experience—comprises pupils who have been excluded or whose attendance has been suspended from a whole range of different schools. I would have thought that the idea of having a school uniform policy for those pupils would be superfluous to requirements. The hope must be that, when pupils go to a pupil referral unit, they will continue to wear the uniform belonging to the school from which they have been excluded in the hope that, as a result of the successful tutelage in the referral unit, they are able to return to the school from whence they came, so that they can rejoin their peer group in that school after they have learned better manners or whatever it was that caused them to be suspended in the first place.
I would be interested to know the Minister’s thinking about this. I understand that the Government wish to deal with these issues of costs in relation to academy schools and maintained schools, but do they really need to get involved in these other schools, as set out in clause 1(5)? My answer to that rhetorical question is that they do not need to get involved in all that. Indeed, there is probably something to be said for using the pupil premium income that local authorities have to deal with any issues to do with the clothing and shoes that those attending these particular schools have. These amendments try to reduce the already very considerable burdens. I take my hat off to all involved in teaching, running and managing alternative provision—academies, non-maintained special schools and pupil referral units—and we owe it to them not to add to their burdens through this legislation. I hope that the Minister agrees.
At the moment, there does not seem to be any discretion under the legislation, because “relevant school” means all those schools set out in proposed new subsection (5). Unless I am wrong about this, there does not seem to be any scope in this primary legislation to remove any of the requirements in that subsection. That is my concern, dealt with in amendments 11, 12 and 13. Amendments 13 and 14 are consequential on those, so I do not need to address them.
I am now getting, delightfully—from my point of view anyway—closer to the end of my remarks, because we are almost at the end of this large group of amendments. Amendment 15 would insert proposed new subsection (7):
“Before issuing any guidance under this section, the Secretary of State must consult the National Governors Association, the Parent Teacher Association UK and representatives of the different categories of relevant school.”
This might be described as a bit of a probing amendment, because the Minister has not so far shared with the House exactly what his plans are for consultation on this draft guidance, once it has been issued. As I said earlier, in Committee we got the impression that he was champing at the bit to really engage with—to use this ghastly expression—stakeholders without further ado. That does not seem to have happened, so we now have a danger that the national governors association, the parent teacher association and other representatives may find themselves left out of the loop, because the Government might suddenly say, “This is all incredibly urgent. We’ve got to get on with this”, and so on.
I hope that the Minister will be able to give some sort of undertaking—perhaps that is too strong a word—or expression of good intent to engage with this list of stakeholders, as well as with other stakeholders whom I have not specified in this amendment. This amendment is not meant to exclude other stakeholders, but just to make the point about, in my view, the absolute necessity that, before any guidance is issued, there should be proper consultation.
That brings me to amendment 16, which is the last of my amendments. I thought it would test the patience of the House if I put down too many more, so I confined the number of amendments to 15, and obviously, we had the extra one from my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough. We talk about burdens. This Bill will impact not just on headteachers, governing bodies and parents but on the providers of school uniforms, the designers of school uniforms, the procurers of school uniforms, suppliers of school uniforms, the retailers that are involved and the manufacturers. It is therefore important that there should be proper notice before any of the guidance comes into effect.
As we said earlier, tomorrow will be the first anniversary of the Bill’s Second Reading; I cannot remember whether you were in the Chair at that time, Madam Deputy Speaker. At that stage, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, like me, probably expected that his Bill would have been on the statute book and the statutory guidance in place long before now, so that it could take effect in the academic year 2021-22. For reasons beyond his control, my control and perhaps—I am being generous to my right hon. Friend—the Minister’s control as well, that scenario has not come about.
I thought it would be good, in the course of the debate, for my right hon. Friend to be able to put down a marker as to whether it is his intention that the Bill should still come into effect and become operative in terms of new guidance being applicable in time for the new school year starting next September. Actually, it will effectively start much sooner than that, because if there are going to be changes to school uniform, that uniform will need to be available in the shops in August, and school governing bodies will need to be able to make up policies in the light of any guidance prior to that.
I am inviting my right hon. Friend the Minister to say that, through no fault of anybody’s, time has now passed to such an extent that it would be unreasonable to expect this legislation to take effect, in terms of the statutory guidance being mandatory for school governing bodies, for the 2021-22 academic year. If he were able to give that assurance, it would allay a lot of concerns. I am not a school governor at the moment—I used to be an acting chairman of a school governing body in Wandsworth some time ago—but I am well aware of the burden and responsibility that people take on when they are running governing bodies. I do not think anybody could do anything other than give them the highest praise for the way in which they have been dealing with the consequences of this pandemic, so let us not burden them with having to respond to statutory guidance for implementation prior to this coming academic year.
The reason I make a bit of a meal of this is that my right hon. Friend the Minister said in Committee that it was still his intention that the Bill should come into effect in time for the next academic year. He said that on 15 or 16 September 2020, so I think it is reasonable that he should be able to give us an update six months later as to what his intentions are.
Having said all that, I hope from the tone and the content of what I have been saying that it is clear that I am very much enthusiastic about school uniforms. I want to see good-quality school uniforms at a price that people can afford. If this Bill contributes to facilitating that, all to the good. It has been a useful exercise, on Second Reading and in Committee, for people to have been reminded that there is almost unanimous cross-party support for the principle of school uniforms, and for the belief that school uniforms are a means of levelling up—to use that in vogue expression—and ensuring an improved ethos and even discipline in a school.
There are often schools that get into really hard times. When I was the leader of Wandsworth Borough Council, we had just been able to break free from the constraints of the Inner London Education Authority, and I can think of lots of schools in Wandsworth then of which the council was, frankly, quite ashamed. Now there are some brilliant schools in Wandsworth. I see that the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) is nodding enthusiastically. I am delighted to see her in her place. If she does not know, let me tell her that I was born in Putney many years ago. Indeed, my grandfather founded a prep school in Putney because he could not afford to educate his six children. I will not go into that, but I think it is relevant to this debate. That school had a very good uniform, which I remember from when I went to celebrate the school’s 75th anniversary. Sadly, it is no longer there, but it was in Carlton Drive—the hon. Lady may know about it. I am going to leave that there; I was going back to my happy memories of when I lived in the Putney constituency and was on Wandsworth Council.
The point that I am making is about the burden on governors, governing bodies and all those who have to deliver for parents and pupils across the country. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister, in responding to this, will accept that I am trying to get a proportionate response from the Government so that we minimise the unnecessary regulation and do not have the application of the law of unintended consequences, which I think is what is going to happen in Wales. I hope that we can in due course—later today, perhaps—congratulate the hon. Member for Weaver Vale on having steered this Bill through, even if none of the amendments to which I have spoken are accepted by the Government. There is a problem of which you are probably aware, Madam Deputy Speaker: however meritorious an amendment, the Government are always reluctant to accept it because of the “not invented here” syndrome.
Finally, let me revert to the point I was making about value added tax. For all that we are talking about, changing the rule on value added tax would deliver a bigger financial relief for parents and children up and down the country, including girls of average girth aged 11 and boys of average height aged 14 across the piece. This is the area on which we should now concentrate. I hope that when we come to the new Session, with the opportunity for fresh private Members’ Bills, the Government may even be prepared to sponsor a hand- out Bill to remove value added tax from all branded school uniforms.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope). I am only too pleased that, after his lengthy introduction and thorough examination of the Bill, we are not marking the second anniversary of its introduction.
First, I relay my sincere thanks to Mr Speaker, Madam Deputy Speaker and the team; the Leader of the House; the Minister, the Secretary of State and their Department; my Front-Bench colleagues, and all those who have campaigned over a number of years to ensure that the Bill reached this stage.
This is a short Bill, but it will make a significant difference to hundreds of thousands of children, families, carers and grandparents throughout our constituencies. I thank everyone across the House who has contributed to the Bill’s journey so far, whether or not they are a sponsor and regardless of their political affiliation. As the hon. Member for Christchurch acknowledged, the Bill has considerable cross-party support.
A number of the amendments are quite useful markers to ensure that the Bill has proper, almost line-by-line scrutiny. There are 16 amendments in total. Some, as the hon. Member acknowledged, go beyond the scope of the Bill, and some, I would argue, undermine the very essence of statutory authority.
Amendment 6, for example, refers to a discretionary approach. I say with respect that we have a discretionary approach at the moment, through voluntary guidance, which, as the hon. Member rightly referred to, was put in place in 2013. There are some good elements of that guidance, but voluntary is voluntary, and voluntary can be ignored at people’s discretion.
I need to move on. The hon. Member had a considerable opportunity. Lots of young people up and down the country have waited a considerable time for this legislation to come to fruition, and I hope that it does, so respectfully, I need to move on.
Some of the amendments have considerable merit for discussion. Amendment 1 refers to the market for second-hand goods. The hon. Member referred to a scheme in Weston-super-Mare and the uniform exchange scheme in Huddersfield. I know from discussions that I have had with the Minister that he is very keen on that, and I hope we can capture that in the draft statutory guidance. The amendment also mentions a hardship fund. Certainly, some schools operate such hardship funds, and again, I certainly hope we can capture that in the draft guidance.
The hon. Member for Christchurch has campaigned on the issue of VAT for a considerable number of years. While we were on different sides of the debate on Europe and Brexit, it is a reality that we have now left, and it is also reality that there is discretion on VAT. He already knows my opinion; it is on the record. I am sure that there will be opportunities in Parliament to take that campaign forward, and I will certainly endeavour to assist him in that process. It is a good idea, and it is the right thing to do in the broader mix. Of course, as he acknowledged, it goes beyond the scope of the Bill, but he mentioned that something may be in the draft statutory guidance. Certainly, those are discussions that we can have with the Minister. The hon. Gentleman has rightly put that point on the record, and so have I, as the Bill’s promoter.
This Bill is pro-school uniform, but pro-affordable school uniform. There are far too many children in hard-pressed families, and it is particularly pertinent now—given the national and international health pandemic and the economic consequences we are facing—that affordability is put centre stage in statute, and this Bill will do that. That is the fundamental aspect of it, and it is also about opening up competition, which I know the hon. Member for Christchurch and people across this House would agree with. For far too long, we have had single supplier relationships with schools or school communities and there has been no fair, open and transparent competition. This will help bring costs down for hard-pressed families, while maintaining quality and bringing into play other manufacturers, such as one in Northwich in my own constituency, that are excluded from the process at the moment.
I am going to bring my remarks to a conclusion. Mine have been very brief, because as I said at the beginning, children and families have waited long enough. The Children’s Society, the National Education Union, Members right across this House and the Minister are all keen to move things on, so I hope we can all do this with the House coming together and demonstrating that when we work together, we can achieve so much more. Thank you all.
I very much welcome this Bill, and I commend the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for proposing it. It provides the teeth of the good intentions contained in current school uniform guidance, it serves the interests of children and their families, and it is good for small businesses.
I am going to comment on the general thrust of the amendments being proposed, but I want to make some brief general remarks at this stage. Education is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, so my main interest in this Bill is on behalf of businesses, such as Border Embroideries in Greenlaw, that produce high-quality school uniforms for sale in England and across all of the United Kingdom. Scotland’s place in the UK means not only that firms in my constituency can sell into a large and lucrative market with no barriers, but that their elected representative has a voice in this place, which decides on the rules for that market.
School uniforms are important inside and outside the classroom. At school, they are a social leveller, eliminating the pressure to keep up with the latest fashion trends and helping to reduce peer pressure to look a certain way. At home too, research conducted by the Schoolwear Association has found that many pupils remain in uniform to complete their homework, creating a useful separation between learning and downtime. Just as football fans wear their team’s colours to a match, so school uniform fosters pride through shared identity. Uniform is cohesive, not exclusive. Well made, durable school uniform also delivers great value for money. Items can be passed down between family and friends or sold on second hand.
I attended a state comprehensive school on the west coast of Scotland, and I am sure Members across the House will be shocked to hear that, at Abbey Primary School and Kilwinning Academy in Ayrshire, I cannot recall being a particularly fashionable youngster. In fact, none of us, no matter our background, had to worry about meeting the latest trends or fashions. I know this was a relief and continues to be a relief for most parents. Having uniform standards from a young age is good preparation for the workplace, particularly for speaking in this place, may I suggest, Madam Deputy Speaker? I know that Mr Speaker and his deputies are very keen to maintain high standards of dress in this place, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) recently discovered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) spoke about quality and design, which was one of his main concerns in his amendments proposed today. In my own constituency, Border Embroideries has been involved in the production of school uniform for nearly 30 years. Billy Smillie and his wife Shirley Anne started their business using a single embroidery machine. Now it is one of the UK’s leading specialist school uniform suppliers, serving customers across the UK. Border Embroideries is a prime example of a business providing competitively priced products, providing jobs for local people and helping the community thrive. It has remained a family business, with Billy and Shirley Anne’s three children Aynsley, William and Ross all taking charge of different aspects of the business.
When I last visited their purpose-built factory in Greenlaw, I was impressed by the scale of the operations, and the range of different addresses to which shipments were being made. In 2020, Border Embroideries received a pivotal enterprise resilience fund grant from South of Scotland Enterprise. That enabled it to employ an additional 80 temporary staff, on top of the existing 80. Those extra staff worked night shifts to enable Border Embroideries to fulfil all incoming orders.
Border Embroideries is located in the Scottish borders, but it serves the whole UK. Roughly 25,000 items are delivered each week to the four corners of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is right to be concerned about the quality of garments and the working standards of those involved in producing them, but many local producers across the UK are producing high-quality school uniforms, and there are no concerns about how they are produced or the workforce standards.
I am grateful for that point, but I am not sure whether the amendment would address that concern. I do not know where all the materials come from, but having spoken to the company, I am confident that it is not only looking after its workforce but concerned about the quality and ethical production of its garments.
Border Embroideries is one of many Scottish businesses that sell their products across the UK, which remains by far Scotland’s largest and most important market—larger than the EU and the rest of the world combined. The amendments, and the Bill more generally, address the affordability of school uniforms, and I welcome what the Bill seeks to achieve. It serves the interests of children, their families and local businesses. Imposing a duty on the Secretary of State for Education to issue statutory guidance on the cost of school uniforms, to replace the current non-statutory guidance published by the Department for Education, will deliver real improvements for parents in England.
Scotland has no legislation to govern school uniform policy, which is entirely determined by individual schools. My colleagues in Holyrood are supportive of any measures to keep school uniforms affordable for parents, and I hope that Members of the Scottish Parliament will look at this Bill, and at the debates that have taken place so far, to see whether they can do anything to ensure affordability of school uniforms in Scotland.
While broadly supportive of the Bill, the Schoolwear Association, which has more than 200 members, has concerns about amendments on the issue of sole supply, where a single business is the only supplier of school uniforms to a school. Most businesses in the Schoolwear Association are small or medium-sized, and it is crucial for them to be the sole company fulfilling demand, as that allows them to build up suitable stock. Sole supply should never result in individual items being more expensive for parents, and competitive tendering should ensure good value for money. Instead of taking place at the point of sale to families, competition should occur at the point of supplier selection by schools.
The crux of the Bill, and the tension behind most of the amendments, is affordability. The Schoolwear Association has raised some important points that I believe are crucial to uphold the principle of affordability. Comments by the Minister in Committee highlighted the importance of transparent and competitive tendering processes, particularly where a sole supplier exists. Once again I congratulate the hon. Member for Weaver Vale on his success in bringing forward the Bill. It prioritises the interests of children and families, and recognises the importance of local businesses such as Border Embroideries in my constituency.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for bringing this Bill forward. My involvement with this issue began after I was deeply affected by the testimony of a group of mothers at an Education Committee evidence session: they told us how the increased costs and demands of school uniforms meant skipping meals to find the money.
I have tried, Madam Deputy Speaker—I honestly have—but I simply cannot comprehend or understand for the life of me why anyone would want to try to block this Bill to help families in need. Politics is not a game. But then I also cannot understand the level of self-importance of an individual who believes they have something of value to speak on for more than an hour and a half.
Uniform dress codes are no longer about just plain, straightforward uniform, but often involve a badge, sweatshirt and dark trousers, typically also consisting of shirts, ties, blazers, PE kits indoor and out—all branded and often available from only a single supplier. The Children’s Society report “The Wrong Blazer 2018” revealed that families, on average, have to find £340 per year for each child at secondary school. That represents an increase of 7% since 2015. Parents of primary school children spend on average £255. Parentkind’s 2019 annual survey of parents showed 76% of parents reporting that the cost of sending children to school is increasing and more than half are worried about meeting that cost.
I have spoken about this before, but in some areas within the city of Hull more than half the children live in poverty. New Government figures reveal that 18,515 children in Hull were living below the breadline in March 2019—and that is before the cost of housing was taken into account. The number has been rising year on year and is up from 15,629 in 2015. That is before we even look at the impact of covid-19.
One child in 20 has been sent home for wearing incorrect uniform as a result of being unable to afford the uniform specified by the school. In some cases, children miss school altogether because either they or their parents feel ashamed of the condition of the uniform that they could not afford.
The Education Policy Institute report found that disadvantaged pupils are already over 18 months of learning behind their peers by the time they finish GCSEs. In primary schools, that gap has increased for the first time since 2007: up from 9.2 months in 2018 to 9.3 months in 2019—again, before we even look at the impact of covid-19. If Conservative Members are serious about trying to close the attainment gap, surely they will be delighted to support the Bill.
I was a primary school teacher before becoming a Member of Parliament and I absolutely support schools having a uniform, but it needs to be practical and affordable. As a parent, I know that a school uniform makes life much easier in the morning when getting children up, dressed and ready for school. But some school policies insist that parents must buy clothing from specialist shops or suppliers rather than giving them the choice of buying items at cheaper stores such as supermarkets or high street chains.
I have taken action on this locally by working with the Methodist Church to set up RE: Uniform, which asked parents to donate unwanted uniform that was then redistributed to families who wanted it. We have held giveaway events, “click and collect” events and handed out hundreds of items of uniform.
I would like to put on the record my thanks to the Methodist Church for their support with RE: Uniform, and in particular to our Methodist district chair Leslie Newton, Reverend David Speirs, Susie Steel, Kevin Appleyard, Liane Kensett, Louise Zborowski and all the volunteers. All are making a difference where it counts for families and the community in Hull.
But this is just fighting fires. The time has come to protect the millions of families in England living in poverty from further unnecessary hardship by making the guidance on affordable uniforms a statutory duty. That was promised by the Government. In reply to a parliamentary written question on 31 July 2019, the schools Minister stated:
“The Department intend to put the school uniform guidance on a statutory footing when a suitable legislative opportunity arises.”
I urge hon. Members to stop the games, stop the self-importance and seize the opportunity to make life more affordable for parents in this country.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I assure you I will be speaking to the amendments. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), even though she does not yet seem to have grasped the purpose of the Report stage, which is to try to improve Bills. I am sure she will get the hang of that at some point. The purpose of this stage is that we table amendments to try to make Bills better.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on getting his Bill to this stage, which is no mean feat. In principle, the Bill proposes to place school uniform guidance on a statutory footing. Like all previous speakers, I am in favour of what he is seeking to achieve: having high-quality school uniform at an affordable price for parents. However, it is crucial that the Bill is implemented appropriately and that the right amount of time is given to schools and families for the guidance to be introduced, in order to avoid any unintended consequences. I worry, as I do with lots of Bills, that without some of these amendments unintended consequences may counter the purpose of the Bill, which is to protect families and children from mounting costs and exclusion from school life.
It is important to say that school uniform is a vital part of school life—it creates belonging, focus and discipline. In itself, it reduces the cost to parents, by ensuring that there is not an arms race in the latest trends being worn in schools. The Bill is based on findings by the Children’s Society estimating that the annual spend on compulsory schoolwear is £337. That figure is disputed; it is a study based on perception rather than on reality, and on a very small sample size of parents. It does not account for competing research that the Schoolwear Association has commissioned that finds that the annual spend on compulsory schoolwear items is nearer to £36. I thank the Schoolwear Association, with which I have met on multiple occasions during this Bill’s journey. It wishes to flag up concerns about sole suppliers, parents and students being put at a financial disadvantage, on the basis of questionable research.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) for the amendments. [Inaudible.] I hope the Government will agree to support some of these things. I was disappointed that the promoter of the Bill dealt with the amendments so rapidly and did not treat them with the courtesy with which they should have been dealt with. Unfortunately, I cannot take interventions remotely, but it seemed to me that the promoter said that he agreed with many of the amendments but would not accept them. That is a slightly bizarre approach on Report. If the promoter agrees that amendments would improve the Bill, one would think he would accept them and we could move on with a better version of the Bill. I am not sure why we are agreeing with the amendments but not supporting them and agreeing to adopt them. I hope the Minister will make a better fist of that and perhaps support these essential amendments.
Amendment 2 would ensure that the guidance being introduced by the Bill has to be issued within six months of the Act coming into force. The Bill will mean that schools should follow the guidance, but we have yet to see the guidance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said. Saying that this will be issued within six months will at least give some certainty as to when it can be expected, so that schools, suppliers, parents and students can plan for the change. Without this amendment they are left in limbo.
I understand from the answer to a parliamentary question that I asked back in January that:
“The Department’s existing guidance on cost considerations will form the basis for the new statutory guidance.”
That clearly provides some indication to schools to help them understand what it is that they can expect, but for the avoidance of doubt, this amendment would give absolute assurance to everybody concerned. It would give schools firm dates and sufficient time to review their school uniform policy as a result of the guidance. It would also enable parents to wait until a uniform needs replacing before buying a new one if required to by these guidelines, and it would hopefully avoid the entirely counterproductive effect of forcing parents to purchase a new uniform or uniforms in the near future only to find that a policy has been superseded by the new guidance. Given what the Bill is about, that would be an ironic, unintended consequence, so I think amendment 2 would be incredibly helpful in giving the certainty needed and in keeping down costs for parents.
Amendment 3 would introduce an objective test of relevance, in place of the subjective test, by amending the Bill to say that the
“‘costs aspects of school uniform policies’… are relevant to the costs of school uniforms.”
Again, this would give greater certainty by ensuring that different Secretaries of State could not just make new judgments on the situation willy-nilly, which could create untold issues for suppliers, parents and students and again could mean parents having to fork out more in uniform costs, rather than less. The change would mean that only factual considerations should be taken into account, not the prevailing fad of the day, as it were. If we are going to have guidance—on anything, for that matter; not just this—it should be based as far as possible on fact rather than fad or any prevailing opinion that any Minister may have at that particular time in order to justify its imposition. So again, I think amendment 3 would be helpful and would actually do what the promoter of the Bill rightly seeks—to keep down costs for parents.
Amendment 4 would ensure that the following aspects’ bearing on costs are addressed in any guidance: price, quality, design, place of manufacture and country of origin. As I have said, the figures on the costs of uniforms from the Children’s Society that inform the Bill have been disputed. The Schoolwear Association states that
“the average cost of compulsory items of secondary school uniform and sportswear is £101.19 per pupil when they start secondary school”,
which is considerably lower than the Children’s Society figure that I mentioned at the outset. Quality and affordability, which the hon. Member for Weaver Vale states to be the prime objective of the Bill, cannot be separated, in my opinion. Focusing on cost alone is only half the story. Quality has to play a huge part in this, and therefore schools should focus on value, rather than solely on cost. The better the quality of something, the longer life it is likely to have, and therefore the lower the overall cost to parents in the long run, although obviously it is not lost on us that a high up-front cost is difficult for many parents.
However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) said on Second Reading, someone who has to buy three pairs of trousers for £10 each, instead of one pair for £25 that will last three times as long, is not saving any money. It is therefore absolutely vital that price and quality go hand in hand in this regard. As for design, well-designed uniforms, and manufacturers and suppliers that prioritise durability, should be a big consideration. Many school suppliers already do both, in response to consumer preferences. It is absolutely vital that the design of the uniform is part of the guidance that is in place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch spoke at length about the importance of the place of manufacture of school uniforms, and he made some important points. Obviously, it is important that schools are able to make sure that their uniforms are ethically sourced. That may be a big part of the values a school adopts, and it would in many respects be perverse if a decision that they wish to take to ensure that their school uniform is ethically sourced was taken away from them because of a Government diktat. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind when he brings forward the guidance. My hon. Friend covered that particularly well in his remarks.
Country of origin, which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch also mentioned, is an interesting consideration and another balancing act that the amendment addresses. I am sure that we all want to support local businesses, so considering whether something can be produced in this country, rather than abroad, is certainly worthwhile. Uniform produced by a local supplier might end up being marginally more expensive, but reduced transport costs and a potentially easier and more convenient returns process are clearly factors that a school should be able to consider, rather than cost alone. Schools should take into account the wider cost of uniform, not just the headline cost.
There is also the wider issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch also mentioned, of the suppliers to the supplier. If the supplier of a component part is also in the United Kingdom, that has knock-on effects for transportation. If we can help to keep local jobs by not pricing them out of the market, it is our duty to do so. It would be a perverse outcome if, as a result of the Bill, we ended up with Government guidance that in effect priced good UK suppliers and manufacturers out of the market. Indeed, it would be outrageous if local businesses were to go bust because of regulation passed in this House without proper consideration.
Amendment 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, would require the guidance introduced by the Bill to include guidance on:
“(a) ensuring there is an adequate market for second-hand uniform where that uniform is provided new by a single supplier, and
(b) establishing a hardship fund for the parents or guardians who struggle to meet the cost of providing uniform for their children.”
Let me deal with each point in turn. Paragraph (a) relates to situations where uniform is provided new by a single supplier.
I should just say in passing that I think we should protect sole suppliers of school uniform. I have a school uniform supplier in Shipley, Whittakers Schoolwear, which provides a very good service to my constituents, and I certainly would not want anything in the Bill to be detrimental to its long-term interests or the way it looks after its customers.
Sole suppliers should be protected if that is a school’s preferred arrangement. I understand that two thirds of schools work with their uniform retailer on a sole supplier basis. A school having one supplier means that all children wear the same brand of clothing, which can mitigate teasing and bullying in cases where some children might otherwise wear cheaper alternatives. It can also eliminate the risk of different suppliers not having enough stock in the right sizes all year round, which is an important consideration. Supermarkets are rightly praised for selling school uniform items cheaply. Having spent 12 years working for Asda before becoming an MP, I bow to no one in my admiration for supermarkets, which have done an awful lot to make school uniform much more affordable for parents, for which I praise them more than anyone.
However, we must not forget that school uniform is very much a seasonal product for supermarkets—it is often available only at the start of the school year. A few months in, people might struggle to find items of school uniform they need in the supermarkets, because they will have moved on to the next seasonal product. Sole suppliers can ensure that all school uniform in all sizes is available all year round. I think that that point is not given enough consideration.
In answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled in January, in which I asked what assessment had been made of the value for money of sole supplier arrangements for school uniforms, the Minister said:
“The Department has not carried out an assessment of the value for money of sole supply arrangements. The Department publishes guidance for schools on school uniform. Our guidance is clear that when deciding how to source school uniform, the governing body should give highest priority to the consideration of cost and value for money for parents. The governing body should be able to demonstrate how best value has been achieved.”
Now, guidance alone will never be sufficient in ensuring that uniform is affordable to all, and for that reason, there should be a safety net. Second-hand uniforms have many benefits, not least when it comes to cost. During the Second Reading debate there was cross-party support for second-hand uniforms, which amendment 1 deals with.
The answer to my parliamentary question went on to say:
“The guidance also recommends that schools avoid single-supply contracts unless a regular competitive tendering process is run to secure best value for parents. The Department believes that this approach provides the right balance to secure open and transparent arrangements and good value for money.”
I understand that these regular competitive review mechanisms are in place in some schools. Some could be looked at, say, every three to five years, although that should be a matter for the school to decide. The provision of second-hand uniforms, whether that be through the single supplier themselves and officially a factor in the procurement process or through a school-run scheme, or even through families making use of good-quality uniforms with different children, is a sensible consideration for any uniform policy.
I would like to mention in passing Dawn Coleman, who is the founder of the Shipley area school uniform bank in my constituency. She has won volunteer of the year award for the work that she does in ensuring that second-hand uniform is available to parents. She runs its with other volunteers based at the Shipley Salvation Army. They provide a fantastic service to the local community, and I would certainly like to pass on my thanks for everything that they do. That goes to highlight how important it is that there is a thriving second-hand market for school uniforms, and it goes to show the demand for it, not just in my constituency. We have heard from other speakers about the demand in their areas for second-hand uniforms. So amendment 1 is really important.
I understand that the Schoolwear Association has already provided the Department with draft tender documents that it drew up to support schools and its members to ensure that this process is relevant and not too onerous. The Department for Education passed it to its procurement specialists and did not have any comments.
Subsection (2A)(b) of the amendment deals with hardship funds as an additional assistance for parents or guardians who struggle to meet the cost of providing uniform for their children. Many schools have for many years operated their own systems and initiatives to support low-income families, including second-hand sales. They have also helped with discounts for multi-sibling families, because obviously uniform is a big cost for many such families. Initiatives such as these must be protected and promoted by the Government to avoid overregulation, which would mean that suppliers were the only option.
To support parents, the association makes the case for the Government to mandate schools to offer hardship support to parents who need it. School uniform must be affordable for parents, and I know that the Schoolwear Association members already offer several cost-saving initiatives to struggling families, including the hardship funds that are the subject of this part of the amendment. They also help with swap shops and payment plans, which must be a great relief to parents who need that support as well.
For example, I also understand that one supplier—Stevensons, I believe—which works with schools on a contract of sole supply arrangement, offers support through the donation of gift vouchers for parents in situations of hardship. Those are provided annually direct to the school, allowing the school to recognise situations of poverty and support those families who are in need. Stevensons also supports local charities, which often procure uniform for low-income families, and supplies the uniform to those charities at heavily discounted prices. There are a range of measures already being taken, and amendment 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, is incredibly helpful in ensuring that we keep to the purpose of the Bill, which is to make school uniform as affordable as possible.
Amendment 5 would mean that any guidance issued must include advice on ways of minimising the payment of VAT as a component of the cost of school uniforms. I wholeheartedly support the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch in that regard, and I was delighted that the hon. Member for Weaver Vale appeared to agree with them. Leaving the EU has provided the perfect opportunity to revisit the VAT policy for school uniforms, and such a review received cross-party support on Second Reading.
On compulsory items such as school wear, VAT should be minimised. Taking VAT off branded uniform items is an entirely logical and sensible approach since, quite clearly, these items will only ever be worn by schoolchildren. There is currently a 20% VAT charge on uniforms for children over the age of 14 or approximately the size of a 14-year-old. That seems to be a relic from the days when many children left school at the age of 14, which has not been updated since. There is no logical justification for 14 being the age at which VAT should start to be charged on uniform—or clothes, for that matter. That is senseless, and the Government need to update it urgently.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch pointed out, it is worse than that, because it is based on sizes, and out-of-date sizes at that. The parents of even average children under the age of 14 have to pay VAT, but, if someone has a particularly tall child, for example, they will be paying VAT at a much earlier age.
That is completely unjustifiable, as my hon. Friend said, because the sizes have not been updated, while the sizes of children have been changing rapidly in recent years. It is a stealth tax that must be addressed. The VAT imposed on secondary school uniforms, in particular, coincides with a time when parents see not only a jump in the amount of items required by schools, so that they have more items to buy and an increased outlay, but the double whammy of VAT added on to that.
I understand that this policy has not been reviewed since it was introduced in 1973, and by anybody’s standards it urgently needs a fresh look. Amendment 5 would force the Government’s hand to do that. As my hon. Friend touched on, as far back as 1980, Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, as it was then, considered the possibility of scrapping VAT on school uniforms, but concluded that the zero rate aimed at children would be exploited by adults in the larger sizes.
But that is a nonsense when it comes to school uniform, because why on earth would any adult want to purchase and wander round the streets in branded school uniform? Of course they would not—it is a complete and utter nonsense. Even if the Government did not want to go the whole hog on children’s clothing generally, which could be used by smaller adults, that is no basis at all for continuing VAT on branded school uniform.
I hope the Minister will address this in his remarks. Accepting this amendment would go a long way to reassuring parents that this stealth tax will come to an end. Now that we are free from the shackles of the EU, scrapping VAT on all school uniform items would be a perfect Brexit dividend for parents, and I hope the Government will take this very seriously indeed. Given that we are trying to cut the cost of school uniforms, this is the best way possible for many parents of kids at secondary schools.
Amendment 6 would enable the appropriate authority to exercise its discretion as to whether or not to have regard to the guidance. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale rather pooh-poohed it, but this is a key amendment. It would mean that schools maintained the right to assess and set their own uniform policy independently, without having to adhere to any centrally prescribed rules. The guidance would be there, but it would just be that—guidance. That must be better, especially if these rules are constantly subject to opinion rather than fact, which I mentioned earlier in support of amendment 3. If amendment 3 were adopted, it would reassure people, and maybe amendment 6 would not be so necessary.
I believe that schools should retain the ability to make decisions about what is the most appropriate approach to uniform for pupils in their care based on their local circumstances, which they certainly know better than Whitehall. One of the key purposes of the roll-out of academy schools was to enable schools to have more autonomy. As it says on the Government’s website:
“Academies have more control over how they do things, for example they do not have to follow the national curriculum and can set their own term times.”
For a school to have autonomy in the areas of the national curriculum and term times and yet to have every nook and cranny of school uniform policy forced upon it by a Minister seems highly contradictory to me and seems to fly in the face of the whole academy process.
As is the case with special educational needs schools, which I will discuss when I come to amendment 11, it should be for the school to decide whether there should even be a school uniform. I make no apology for the fact that I am a big fan of school uniforms and believe they provide many benefits. Many others agree with that, and it seems to have support across the House. They provide academic and behavioural benefits. Six in 10 school leaders believe that a school uniform helps to improve students’ educational outcomes, and nine in 10 teachers believe that it positively affects pupils’ behaviour. I hope that school uniforms will always be required by schools where appropriate, but it is important for them to distinguish their own policy to suit their specific school needs.
I have always been a believer in trusting the people who are on the frontline. They tend to know better than we do about virtually everything. I trust the teachers, headteachers and governors to be able to make a better decision for their schools than any Minister. Guidance should also not be so harsh as to restrict admissions to schools, and that important point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) on Second Reading.
Amendment 7 would restrict the guidance to policy implementation by leaving out “developing and” from subsection (3) of proposed new section 551A of the Education Act 1996:
“The appropriate authority of a relevant school must have regard to guidance issued under this section when developing and implementing a school uniform policy for the school.”
As I said, I believe that schools should retain the ability to make decisions about the appropriate approach for their school and their pupils, but schools should also have discretion in how they develop their school uniform policy. The amendment would mean that schools would not have to have regard to the uniform policy when developing it as well as implementing it. We should surely trust the headteachers and the governors to develop the policy in the way that they think is best for their school.
Amendment 8 would require appropriate authorities to have regard to publishing requirements in the guidance about the costs of school uniform. Requirements could be published to ensure transparency over costing and the sourcing of uniforms. By publishing a school uniform policy, following the introduction of new guidance, schools can perhaps benefit by learning from other schools’ school uniform strategy. One problem with a centralised approach that is too prescriptive is that it knocks out anything new that might emerge from schools—good, innovative ideas that other schools might want to follow. We should not be trying to knock out any kind of school innovation in this area. Again, it is really important that we do not become too prescriptive in this area.
Amendment 9 would ensure that any guidance remains in place for at least five years. Again, this is very important, as a definitive minimum period for the guidance to be in place will help schools plan their uniform policy and avoid any unexpected sudden changes. A longer period for the guidance to be in place would allow the Department to measure the efficacy of the new guidance, which will hopefully lead to a more accurate assessment of the success of school uniform policy and better inform future policy decisions. It will also protect against the introduction of more guidance against the will of both schools and local uniform retailers.
This minimum period will prevent the guidance falling victim to the various opinions of different Secretaries of State, as opposed to facts and research, which again brings us back to the purpose of amendment 3. The point is that suppliers need certainty if they are to produce a sufficient stock of school uniform for people when it is required. The amendment means that they would not be left with having to destroy huge quantities of uniform at huge cost at the whim of a new Minister coming along wanting to impose their particular ideas on everybody.
The important point about this, coming back to the whole purpose of the Bill, is that if the suppliers do not have this certainty, they will, when they come to bid for the tender for the school uniform, put up the price. If they think that they might be left with a load of stock that they cannot get rid of, by definition, they will have to put their prices up. Amendment 9, therefore, is critical in making sure that suppliers have no reason not to give the best possible price for schools when they are bidding for the school uniform contract. Again, I hope that the Government will look very closely at this matter to make sure that there is period of time—I think five years is an absolute minimum—that the guidance remains in place, and it should remain in place for at least that length of time.
Amendment 10 would exclude an alternative-provision academy from the provisions of the Bill. I mentioned earlier about why academies should be given freedoms. Amendment 11 would exclude a non-maintained special school from the provisions of the Bill. Schools that provide for children with special educational needs often do not have a school uniform. The Good Schools Guide explains that for children with special needs, such as physical disabilities or sensory difficulties, traditional school uniforms are often not appropriate. Parents of children with special needs will often need to go further than their local uniform store to find appropriate uniform for their children. Government guidance on sourcing local affordable uniform might therefore be misinformed as to the nature of this particular market. This is a very important amendment, as it would be wrong to have statutory guidance that covers schools that do not normally have school uniforms for good reason. It could be said that the guidance would specifically exempt them from it. If they had to have regard to the guidance when it was never going to apply to them, that would be a bureaucratic burden that they could do without. If it is clear that the guidance is not to apply to them, let us adopt the amendment and make it clear now. I hope that the Minister will confirm in due course whether my understanding of whether the guidance will apply to schools that provide for children with special educational needs is correct.
The Government may say, “We will look at this issue at the time,” but as someone who used to chair the all-party group on state boarding schools, I know all too well how the Department for Education often forgets about certain categories of schools when it introduces new policies and guidance. Amendment 11 would ensure that certain schools did not suffer from that tendency in respect of uniform policy. Even if the Government say they will make special provision for certain schools, in my experience with state boarding schools the Government often introduce things that apply to such schools, having not given them any consideration, and then have to make a hasty change afterwards.
Amendment 12 would exclude pupil referral units from the provisions of the Bill. Pupils at pupil referral units have specific challenges that vary significantly from those of other children in mainstream education. Such schools often concentrate on the social and emotional wellbeing of their students, rather than on their academic flourishing, as the extent of the personal challenges that students face can be enormously demanding and difficult. Claire Lillis, ex-headteacher of Ian Mikardo School in London, said:
“When you have kids who end up in a school like Ian Mikardo you have to do something more deep-rooted than focus on discipline and uniform.”
As I have mentioned, many agree that uniforms are a force for good because they instil a sense of discipline and belonging, but for schools at pupil referral units uniforms could be an issue in some instances, and such schools may refrain from enforcing strict uniform policies, where appropriate, in case it is counterproductive. I believe that it should be for the school to decide for itself and that a Government Minister should not try to impose something against its wishes.
The enrolment turnover rate at pupil referral units might be high, so a school uniform policy will have to take that into account. The uniform is often more flexible at such schools, and parents might not be forced to buy a uniform when their child starts a new school. This puts pupil referral units in a position completely different from that of other schools. It would be helpful and give certainty to those schools if it was made clear in the Bill that they will be excluded from its provisions; otherwise, they will always be at the whim of a particular Government Minister, who may have their own ideas about this issue. Statutory guidance might mean that they will have to be a lot less flexible in their approach.
Amendments 13 and 14 are consequential on other amendments, so there is no need for me to talk about them. Amendment 15 would require the Secretary of State to
“consult the National Governors Association, the Parent Teacher Association UK and representatives of the different categories of relevant school.”
As I said at the start of my speech, we all want to ensure that parents who are struggling with costs, many of whom are reluctant to discuss the financial challenges of school uniforms as that can be a sensitive issue, are assisted wherever possible. If parents are not consulted, the guidance cannot properly reflect the needs and interests of the parents the Bill is ultimately trying to help. Governors will understand the needs of parents, as will parent teacher associations, so by including them as consultees we can hopefully provide valuable information and feedback.
If representatives of the different categories of schools are consulted, it would ensure that if special educational needs schools are included in the Bill yet the guidance should not really apply to them, they will be able to reaffirm that when they are consulted. It would be especially helpful to make sure that they are guaranteed consultees. The amendment would also ensure that any other categories of school have a voice in respect of the school uniform policy guidance. Hopefully, that would provide all kinds of different perspectives to make sure that the best and most appropriate guidance is adopted for each individual type of school.
Amendment 15 would mean that the Secretary of State should develop policy after in-depth consultation with the national governors association, the parent teacher association UK, representatives of the relevant categories of school and, ideally, industry players. Given the fact that uniform suppliers are largely high street, family businesses, which I am sure we all want to see flourish, it is vital that the Secretary of State engages with industry players when consulting on potential changes, which will ultimately take place at a local level. I am sure that this Minister and this Secretary of State would do that, but we have to future-proof the legislation for when we might not have Ministers who are as sensible as the current ones. That is why this amendment and the others are essential in doing just that. It is about protecting schools and others from the whim of a Secretary of State or a Schools Minister who are not as sensible as the ones that we have.
The final amendment—amendment 16—would mean that any guidance under this Act will not apply to the 2021-22 academic year. Again, it is absolutely vital that the guidance does not come into effect too quickly, or many parents may have already bought uniform for the start of the next academic year. Given everything that has been going on recently, with schools being closed and all the uncertainty surrounding covid, it would certainly be a kick in the teeth for anything to change too quickly that would add costs for families who have already been through so much, when this is part of a Bill that is designed to try to reduce the cost for families. I understand that uniform retailers, whose sales will have been impacted by the lockdown, are sitting on high stock levels, so to avoid wastage, they need sufficient time to sell their existing stock. I hope the Minister is aware of that and is not planning on doing something that would have the unintended consequences that I talked about regarding unnecessary cost.
In conclusion, as I just mentioned and as the Schoolwear Association, with its expertise on the subject, said, if the Bill is not implemented appropriately—these amendments go through a large range of areas where there could be unintended consequences—this could cause difficulties and undermine the whole basis of the Bill, which I think everybody in the House supports. As I said at the outset, I am particularly grateful to the Schoolwear Association for its assistance, as its membership includes over 250 small and medium-sized enterprises—principally local family businesses—based in high street locations that support their local communities. Together, they clothe over three quarters of UK schoolchildren, so their insight is invaluable when considering the Bill. Their major concerns are that relaxing uniform requirements risks creating greater inequality in schools; deregulating or removing branded items from school uniforms undermines consistency and uniformity, making it harder for schools to have an identity; and ending sole supplier arrangements would make it harder to guarantee uniform supply and potentially drive up costs for families.
I hope that people will see that these amendments are very sensible and are designed to protect the integrity of the Bill, not undermine it. I am very sorry that the Bill’s promoter decided that he would agree to the amendments but did not agree to implement them in the Bill. That is the whole point of legislation in this House. It seems perverse that he thinks they will be beneficial but is not going to adopt them. I therefore hope that the Minister will intervene in this, accept that these amendments would make the Bill better and say that the Government will agree to adopt them, so we can have a Bill that everybody can be confident will deliver the benefits that we all want to see.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on bringing this very important Bill to this stage. I have been encouraging parents in my constituency to tune in and watch the debate. If any are still listening and watching, I think there are a few busy parents who may think that they could have agreed this Bill, written the guidance and got it done and dusted by now.
I would like to speak to some of the amendments, especially those about the timing of the Bill. I will also make some general points raised by the amendments. The enormous costs of school uniforms are of huge concern to my constituents. Owing to covid-19, that is the case even more so now than a year ago when the Bill was first brought forward. More families are now struggling in my constituency and across the country. I know the cost of school uniform myself, as my eldest child started school in 2002 and my youngest is in school for another four years. That has been a lot of years of buying uniform.
In my constituency of Putney, there is an increased need for more affordable school uniforms as we approach the dreaded time in September when people know they have to face that bill. There are now 4,335 people claiming benefits in Putney. That is a 46% increase on only a year ago, and a lot of those people are families. Wandsworth food bank provided 5,770 emergency food supplies to needy families in Wandsworth last year; that is the highest ever number, representing a 78% increase over the last five years. The majority of those people are families who also face this school uniform bill. There is a crucial need to bring forward this legislation as urgently as possible, and that is why amendment 2 has some merit. However, it does not need to be an amendment; the Minister can clear the issue up by telling us the timetable for the Bill in his remarks, to which I look forward.
In the time that I have been paying so much for school uniforms for my own family, I have seen the creeping number and cost of additional items that need to be bought for the uniform. I have seen the inconsistency between schools and school uniform policies, and the incremental use of “my uniform costs more than yours” as a proxy for better school standards and to attract students to some academies. When my youngest child went into year 7 a few years ago, his uniform bill was an eye-watering £468. I then had to top it up with another £200. In that school, the blazer costs between £95 and £115, and it is true that VAT is a component part. I should also say that my 14-year-old is 6 feet tall. I encourage the Minister to take the issue up with the Chancellor, but I do not think it needs to be addressed through amendment 5.
The sums I have mentioned are unaffordable for many families. I support school uniform guidance to ensure that there are fewer branded items and fewer exclusive suppliers that do not put affordability at the top of the list; that good quality, own-brand supermarket choices can be made; and that clothes swaps are easy. These points are mentioned in the amendments, but they can be put into the guidance and legislation; it does not have to be through the amendments.
This Bill is for that mum, who, when I was looking around a local school at an open day, sat down in front of me, looked at the school uniform list, shook her head, said to her son, “We can’t go here” and had to leave the open day. These are the choices being faced by families, and that is why we urgently need to bring in this legislation. The Bill is also for the families that I took on trips in the summer of 2019—when we could go on trips. I sat down with them and talked to the mums, who said they had not been able to afford to go on any other trips with their children that summer because they knew about the bill that was coming up in September. They said they were eating less during the summer months and having to make all their choices according to the fact that that bill was coming up in September. We have seen how quickly the Government can act during this time of covid. I urge them to act fast on this.
Amendment 16, which would mean that the guidance cannot be brought in for the next school year, is contradictory to the amendments that say we should be putting schools in the driving seat and that this should be up to schools. Schools should be able to decide whether they can introduce part or all of the guidance in the next school year, and they should be able to do so from September, when those big bills are looming and more families are struggling.
The Bill is also for governors and parents. It will put them back in the driving seat, able to challenge the school uniform bill. I support the amendments about promoting this guidance, because it needs to be known about. I hope that the legislation will receive Royal Assent very quickly, but parents and governors need to know about the guidance so they understand the powers they will have.
To conclude, as we consider amendments to this crucial Bill, I would like some assurances from the Minister. When—I am sure it is a case of “when”—the Bill is passed, will the guidance be agreed very soon, and will it be promoted to staff, governors and parents? Will branded items be kept to a minimum, and will there be some indication of what constitutes “a minimum” so that it does not just creep up again? Will parents be given a choice of where to buy uniform? How will the guidance ensure the transparency of single supplier agreements and competitiveness of tendering?
Will there be financial support, such as school uniform grants, for struggling parents, and will it be promoted and properly funded? That is addressed in amendment 1, but it does not need to be in the Bill; it can be in the guidance. Finally, will the Minister give an assurance that schools should not send home or exclude children who fail to comply with uniform policies for financial reasons? I have welcomed the Government’s support for the Bill so far, and the support of organisations such as the Children’s Society and of colleagues across the House, but parents now urgently need to see that support turned into action.
As I outlined in my speech when the Bill was first introduced, it was clear from the cross-party support it attracted that many Members were keen to address the concern that families faced undue financial pressure when buying school uniforms. While there are differing opinions on how this issue should most effectively be addressed, it is important, at the stage the Bill is now at, that all efforts are put into ensuring that the guidance that will be put on a statutory footing works in the interests of all parties involved. My hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Shipley (Philip Davies) have tabled several amendments, which seek clarity on a number of important issues. I will speak particularly about amendments 4 and 16.
On amendment 4, a range of factors, alongside price, contribute to an effective school uniform policy, including quality, durability, sustainability and availability. It is important, therefore, that the guidance the Department formulates, if it is truly to seek to promote a fair and value-for-money approach to uniform, considers and balances all those considerations.
Over the last year, I have met many specialist school uniform suppliers, in my constituency and across the country, and it is clear that they understand and care about the price pressures their customers face. As a sector, they seek to address those through innovative business models that prioritise sustainability and ethical material sourcing, producing uniforms that are high-quality and long-lasting.
It is imperative that the way this specialised sector works is properly understood in formulating the guidance, so that those sustainable British SMEs are supported. That is why I take issue with the request that we have just heard to demand that different suppliers are available to parents. That is not how a large section of this sector works; nor, in fact, does it ensure value. That is a very important distinction.
Amendment 16 seeks to ensure that the Bill does not apply to the 2021-22 academic year. It is also important that, in the light of the covid-19 pandemic, the guidance is brought in gradually. That will give families, schools and schoolwear providers time to adjust, helping to avoid unnecessary and unintended expense.
If the guidance is brought in too quickly, many families will feel the need to purchase new uniform items before current ones are outgrown, and schools may feel the need to push out a rush for new tenders, having made agreements prior to the Bill being discussed or enacted that might have been drawn up in a different way from that now desired. The schoolwear providers, many of which are family-run businesses on our high streets in small towns and communities, will have to throw away high levels of stocked clothing that they have been unable to sell over the last year, as we have asked them to keep their doors shut during the pandemic.
We have had a very thorough debate on the amendments, which fall into two categories. The majority cover areas that really ought to be covered as part of the statutory guidance proposed in the Bill. I am sure that the Minister will have heard the contributions in that spirit and will take them into consideration when drawing up the Department’s statutory guidance.
Reasonable points have been made about the importance of consultation and the range of stakeholders who ought to be consulted, and the statutory guidance will be subject to consultation when such issues can be raised. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) highlighted, at least one amendment would go against the entire thrust of the Bill and undermine the importance of having any statutory guidance at all.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) mentioned the response of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale to the amendments, and the degree of sympathy that he has for them. We all know that the passage of a private Member’s Bill into statute is a rare occasion, and particularly when a Bill is brought forward from the Opposition Benches, an inevitable degree of compromise is necessary. In that spirit Her Majesty’s official Opposition have no desire to undermine the huge amount of work that has taken place to get the Bill to this stage. I congratulate all members of the Committee on their work in scrutinising the Bill, and I pay tribute to the Minister and his officials for their work. They put a great deal of time and consideration into these matters, not just on Second Reading and in Committee, but also in discussions with my hon. Friend.
Sitting Fridays can do one of two things. They can be an advertisement for the House of Commons at its best, where Members work on a cross-party basis to solve common problems of interest to our constituents, or they can be an advertisement for the worst of our politics—the game playing, the filibustering, and the attempts to prevent things that have an obvious common-sense value and widespread support from getting into statute. I hope that today will be an advertisement for the good, and for the House of Commons at its best. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale on his work. I am delighted to see him in his place, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on successfully stewarding the Bill to Report and, I hope, shortly on to Third Reading. School uniforms are an important part of establishing an ethos and common identity in a school. They are a shared endeavour and a sense of belonging. School uniforms help to remove the inequalities caused by differences in the prosperity or disadvantage of a pupil’s family, and they help to ensure that schools are disciplined and safe places for students, where it is good to be ambitious, and admirable to be conscientious and hardworking.
For some families, the cost of purchasing school uniforms for growing children can be a financial worry. In 2015, the Government commissioned a cost of school uniforms survey, which found that, after adjusting for inflation and excluding the PE kit, the average cost of a school uniform had decreased since 2007 to £213. While two thirds of parents were happy with the cost of a school uniform and PE kit, nearly one fifth reported that they had suffered financial hardship because of having to buy school uniforms for their children. The Bill, which the Government wholeheartedly support, is designed to ensure that the costs of schools uniforms are reasonable, and that schools secure the best value for parents.
Amendments 1, 3, 4, 5 and 8 relate to the content of the statutory guidance to be issued under the Bill. It is important that such issues are considered in the statutory guidance rather than in primary legislation, as suggested by the amendments. That approach maintains a level of flexibility and responsiveness, so that over time, statutory guidance on uniform costs can be amended and improved. I welcome the way that the hon. Member for Weaver Vale has constructed the Bill.
On amendment 1, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) that every school should ensure that second-hand school uniform is available for parents to acquire. It is, however, important for this to be a matter for statutory guidance, rather than primary legislation, so we can get the details right and schools have some flexibility about how to do this.
On amendment 5, as we know, families already benefit from a zero rate of VAT on clothing designed for children under 14 years old. This is already a significant cost to the Exchequer, costing £2 billion each year in lost revenue. Expanding this to include a wider size of school uniforms would not specifically target low-income families. HMRC already provides guidance on this matter in VAT notice 714. However, my hon. Friend is right to point out that, having left the European Union, we are now free to make these changes if we wish, and I am sure the Chancellor of Exchequer will have heard his comments.
On amendment 8, we want to see schools providing clear information to parents about their uniform policies, but we consider that this is a matter for the statutory guidance to enable us to ensure that these requirements are flexible and responsive, rather than placing a requirement to publish in the Bill. My hon. Friend raised the issue of schools that do not have a school uniform policy. The current non-statutory guidance says:
“The Department strongly encourages schools to have a uniform as it can play a valuable role in contributing to the ethos of a school and setting an appropriate tone.”
That is in the current non-statutory guidance, so I will take my hon. Friend’s point in his speech as an exhortation to include that sentence or something similar in the statutory guidance, which we continue to work on.
On amendment 6, the crux of the phrasing in the Bill—“must have regard to”—is that schools must comply with the guidance unless they have a good reason for departing from it. Put simply, it means that schools cannot ignore this guidance. This amendment would in effect mean that schools would be able to disregard the guidance whenever they wished, which is the opposite of the intention behind the principal tenet of the Bill.
On amendment 7, it is important that the principles that will be set out in the statutory guidance on the costs aspects of uniform are considered by schools when they are developing or changing their uniform policies so that they are embedded right from the start. This amendment would mean that schools would not have to have regard to key factors that Members have raised as being crucial to the cost of a uniform when developing such a policy. This would severely undermine the reasons for introducing statutory guidance, as it would in effect mean that the application of the guidance would be limited and unlikely to be effective in keeping costs down.
On amendment 9, the Government will want to update the guidance as and when necessary, and as circumstances require it. The Government want the new statutory guidance to have time to bed in once issued and would not want to be looking to make arbitrary or unnecessary changes, but placing arbitrary restrictions on the Government’s ability to make changes to the guidance, even if schools were to make it clear that revisions would be welcome, would prevent us from being responsive to the needs of parents and schools, and risk schools being required to have regard to guidance that was out of date.
Amendments 10 to 14 seek to disapply certain types of school from the Bill. There is no good reason to treat these schools differently. For example, not all special schools and alternative provision schools have a school uniform, and that is appropriate. However, for those that do, it is important that this Bill applies to them, as well as to mainstream schools, to ensure that they also consider value for money for parents when setting their policy.
On amendment 15, I do not consider it appropriate to list selected external bodies to be consulted in primary legislation, but as I said in Committee, I am committed to engaging with representatives of schools, parents and other interested parties as we draft the statutory guidance.
On amendment 2, we are progressing well with the changes to the draft statutory guidance. We will reflect on the comments made during this debate and the debates in Committee as the Bill progresses through this House as we draft the statutory guidance. That includes the comments made by all hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), as well as, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and other hon. Friends and hon. Members who have spoken in this debate.
What my right hon. Friend has said is delightfully vague. Why can he not be more specific? Who is controlling him? Surely he is in charge of his Department and can tell us when this statutory guidance will be issued—or perhaps even issued in draft. I am sure that Members in the other place would like to have a draft of the statutory guidance before them so that they can consider these issues. He has said that many of my amendments should be incorporated in the statutory guidance, so let us see the statutory guidance.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I said that I would reflect on the comments he has made in this debate. Of course, all comments made during the passage of this Bill will be taken into account as we consider the drafting of this statutory guidance. I will be consulting, as I have been, interested parties to this debate. What I do not want to do is delay the passage of the Bill through the other place while we wait for the statutory guidance to be finalised. It is important that we get the Bill on to the statute book before the Session ends. Given all that I have said in response to the amendments, I hope that my hon. Friend will not wish to press his amendments to a Division.
I thank all those people who have participated in this debate, where we have had a good discussion about the Bill. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), on the Opposition Front Bench, is agreeing with that, although he did not make any reference in his short speech to any of the points I have made in support of the amendments.
My right hon. Friend the Minister is basically saying, “We are entering upon a period of reflection.” Or at least he is. May I suggest, with the greatest of respect, that there has been a very long period in which to reflect already? The Government first signposted the intention to deal with this issue in a statutory way in 2015. It was then the subject of various commitments given in the run-up to the last general election. Then we had the Second Reading and Committee stage—that was in September. My right hon. Friend said that he did not think we should wait for the statutory guidance before making further progress. I do not know whether he misunderstood or misheard what I was saying. I was making a suggestion about the draft statutory guidance. Obviously, if he is consulting about statutory guidance, he must be consulting on a draft of it. If that is the case, why are Members of this House not able to see that draft? In particular, why is he going to deprive Members of the other place of being able to see it? The normal conduct of proceedings in this House is that when statutory guidance is under consideration, the Government will, if at all possible, present the House with a draft of it. My right hon. Friend seems, in his own charming way—I am not charmed by this or misled, because I can see what he is trying to do—to be avoiding a situation in which there can be any debate about the draft statutory guidance. The very reasonable questions put during this debate, including by my new friend the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), show that there is an importance of timing here; people need to have some certainty about the timing and intentions. Is the Minister planning for the statutory guidance to take effect in this coming academic year—yes or no? I may not like the answer he gives, but surely he can tell us what his intentions are, or is he still further reflecting upon it? How much more information does he need before he can reach a conclusion to his reflections?
The Minister grouped a whole lot of my amendments together. It is all very well for him to say that they relate to content and will be considered with the statutory guidance, but he is not prepared to stop teasing us about the timing and content of that statutory guidance. I am afraid that that makes me extremely disappointed, if not nervous, about what is being cooked up and will be sprung upon unsuspecting governors, parents and suppliers of school uniforms before we know what has happened. Perhaps we can come back to this on Third Reading, but the fact that the Minister is unwilling to expand at all upon those points is disappointing.
I also hoped the Minister would give an undertaking that, because of his commitment and the Government’s commitment to minimising the avoidable costs of school uniform, the Government would bring forward legislation to remove value added tax on school uniforms. That would be a really good move, and strong support for that proposition has emerged in this debate and on Second Reading. I hope that, as a result of that, when we get to the new Session of Parliament, someone who is successful in the private Members’ Bills ballot—perhaps with encouragement from the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), if he is unsuccessful on the second occasion in the ballot—will take up the cudgels of a short Bill to remove VAT from school uniforms. I think that that would be an extremely popular Bill. I have been in the House for some time, and I have never had the opportunity of taking forward a Bill that was successful in the ballot, but if I were to be successful in the ballot, that might well be at the top of my priority list, because I think it would make a difference. Frankly, it would make a much bigger difference than what will be contained in this statutory guidance.
I am going to be blunt: I am disappointed with the Minister’s response, and I will leave it at that. In terms of the other contributions made in the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) is somewhat of a national expert on this. He had a big feature in the Daily Express and perhaps other great organs, setting out his support for the Bill but also his concerns that we should not have unintended consequences flowing from it. His point about the need for availability, as well as durability, sustainability and ethical sourcing, was very well made. He also pointed out—again, the Minister did not respond to this—that, as a result of the covid nightmare, many suppliers of school uniforms have built up stocks that they will want to be able to use rather than have to put on the scrapheap. I am grateful for his contribution, and I am disappointed that the Minister did not specifically address it.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Putney for supporting my views on the VAT issue. As she rightly said, there would be no need for amendment 2 if the Minister made a commitment at the Dispatch Box.
She is now shaking her head to agree that we did not get that commitment from the Dispatch Box. I do not know—she almost tempts me to say that we should divide the House on amendment 2. Perhaps she would like to join me in being a Teller if that is the situation.
She is shaking her head again. Perhaps we can come back to that issue when we discuss this matter further on Third Reading.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) gave a typically erudite analysis of the Bill. I am grateful for his support for my amendments and the amendments from my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). It was an exemplary performance by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, because he did not engage in tedious repetition, or any repetition, but highlighted the gaps I had left in the arguments I was putting forward in support of my amendments. If I had been able to speak at greater length on those amendments, I would have wished to include in my remarks the additional comments that my hon. Friend incorporated.
The extra added value that my hon. Friend brought to the debate was his experience as the chair of the former all-party parliamentary group for state boarding schools, and in that capacity he brought some expertise to bear as to why it is ridiculous to include within these provisions the special schools to which he referred. He also made a point that I had omitted from my opening remarks about the gap in the evidence relating to the actual costs of school uniforms at the moment. He said that the Children’s Society’s estimates were based on questionable evidence. I am not sure whether, given the position we are at in relation to the Bill, that makes too much difference. The Children’s Society says that the costs are higher than the Government say. The Minister reminded us that the costs of school uniforms, excluding PE gear, had fallen between 2007 and 2015, which shows that it is a pretty competitive market.
In so far as the Bill was justified on the basis of dubious material from the Children’s Society, I am disappointed, because to produce questionable evidence is to undermine the case. We know that there are people for whom the current cost of school uniforms are a significant burden, which is why there is so much support for the Bill, but it does not help anybody’s cause for the issue to be exaggerated and for the sums involved to be inflated. That is why it is all the more important—I am grateful to the Minister for saying that he is supportive of the idea—that we enable schools to be able to sell second-hand uniforms, thereby reducing the cost burden on pupils.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) said that one child in 20 is sent home—I am not sure whether she was talking about schools in general or one particular school in her constituency—for not wearing the right uniform, or any uniform. She wanted constraints placed on the ability of schools to enforce school uniform policies. There is no point in having a school uniform policy unless it is consistently enforced. Ultimately, the final sanction that a school has for a pupil who does not comply with the school uniform requirements is to send them home, in the hope that they will return the following day properly dressed and equipped. As Dicey said, there is no point in having a command without a sanction, and that applies in this case, and that is my response to what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) had to say.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) referred to the manufacturer and supplier in his constituency. Like many other colleagues who have detailed knowledge about the supply of school uniform, he praised the quality of the products and underlined the importance of a strongly competitive market that is easy for small and medium enterprises to enter and leave and in which they are able to flourish. Coherent and effective competitive tendering is one of the watchwords that I have supported in my time in the House. Years ago I campaigned successfully for the incorporation of CCT for local authority services.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale for introducing the Bill. I was disappointed that he felt inhibited about expressing his support for some of my ideas. I put that in the context of the shadow Minister’s comments that compromise is necessary and the Opposition do not always wish to undermine things. The hon. Gentleman may have been under pressure from his Front- Bench colleagues not to be more robust in his support for me. Having said all that, I appreciate his continued support for the campaign to remove VAT from school uniforms. As one campaign, which has taken a long time—we have talked about it going back to 2015—comes to a successful conclusion, we have today given added oxygen to that new campaign, which I hope will not take so long to reach a conclusion. It is good to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Friday 13 March 2020, a year ago tomorrow, turned out to be rather a lucky day for me: an opportunity to help thousands of children, parents and carers across our nation to bring down the cost of school uniforms by means of this Bill. The world around us was changing; it was 10 days before we entered the first lockdown, and I could not have imagined on that day that it would take a whole year to get to Second Reading, Committee, Report and now Third Reading—and hopefully beyond.
I thank everyone who has helped on this journey and ensured that today’s sitting happened. I am grateful for everybody’s efforts, and I know that families across England are, too. I know that because, despite the delay in getting to this stage and the many school closures that our children have had to endure, families have still been getting in touch with me, continuing to raise the impact that these costs have on them, and telling me how the Bill will affect them. It will really make a difference.
Of course, the Bill has become more important than ever since the last time we discussed it in the Chamber. The economic impact of this pandemic is hitting families hard. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, before the pandemic 17% of low-income families reported that they were finding things difficult financially. By December, that number had risen to 76%.
A parent’s choice of school for their child should not be based on their ability to afford the uniform, but I am afraid the evidence compiled by The Children’s Society, and demonstrated throughout the journey of the Bill, highlights that that is the case. That is simply not acceptable. Some hon. Members have disputed the figures provided by The Children’s Society, but they were real families’ experiences: 1,000 families were surveyed in 2020, and the average cost of a secondary uniform was £337. For primary schools, it was £315. That is their experience, although people can certainly dispute it.
A vital part of this guidance will be ensuring that choice and availability for parents are extended, while opening up competition to all uniform suppliers—an opportunity welcomed by many manufacturers up and down the country. If a family simply cannot afford to keep up with uniform costs, it is ultimately the child’s education that suffers.
We heard on Report from MPs across the political divide of cases where children have been sent home or punished where they have been unable to replace the required item of school uniform, or have faced bullying from other students. That indignity needs to stop. The practice of branding everything a child wears as part of a school uniform must be curtailed. Branded facemasks have now been added to branded socks, blazers, ties, skirts, caps, bags, coats and much more. I hope that the statutory guidance will minimise that.
All families should benefit from the Bill, and people should not miss out because of the type of school they attend. Thus, it is important in building the new guidance that it is there to benefit every school, not excluding schools of certain types. It is important that the guidance is issued as soon as possible, so that schools have time to adapt uniform policies before it comes into force. Picking up on a point made earlier on Report by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), I would hope that the guidance would be in place by 2021-22.
This campaign is not new; children, and The Children’s Society, have been campaigning since 2014 to make this happen. Today is a real chance to make it happen. Let us all work together—let us make it happen.
May I once again congratulate the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on progressing his private Member’s Bill to this stage? I look forward to continuing to work with him on this important issue. I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate, including my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), for Shipley (Philip Davies), for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) and for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer).
Well, that is an interesting point of order. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that the order of the call list is a matter for me. Yes, things are written down and these are unusual proceedings, but the order in which Members are called to speak is still a matter for the Chair. He will of course have his turn in due course.
I also thank the hon. Members for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy).
Uniform helps to promote the ethos of a school and set an appropriate tone. Moreover, by creating a common identity among pupils, a school uniform can act as a social leveller. The Bill will protect and reinforce that role.
I know that many Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, will want to know the intended contents of the statutory guidance, so I will take this opportunity to set out briefly our proposed approach to the key issues raised in the debate. In developing and implementing their school uniform policy, schools should consider the total cost of all items of uniform or clothing that parents will need to provide while the pupil is at the school.
On the question of branded items, the current non-statutory guidance states that compulsory branded items should be kept to a minimum. We plan to keep that approach in the statutory guidance and, additionally, specify that their use should be limited to low-cost or long-lasting items. We will provide guidance about ways to reap the benefits of a branded item while also keeping costs low. The Government believe that this approach will set a clear expectation on schools not to overuse branded items, while allowing schools to take sensible decisions in their own contexts.
On sole-supplier arrangements, schools should be able to demonstrate that they have obtained best value for money in their supply arrangements, but we do not intend to ban sole-supplier contracts. To ensure that there is competition and transparency, we want schools to tender their school uniform contracts regularly—at least every five years. To support schools to carry out good tenders, we will provide information on the key areas to consider when tendering their uniform contracts. The Bill will not punish good suppliers; far from it. Their emphasis on quality and value for money will be rewarded as standards across the industry increase due to competition.
I believe that second-hand uniform can play a valuable role in keeping costs reasonable for all parents, and I know that many Members share that view. I would like every school to ensure that arrangements are in place to make second-hand school uniform available for parents to acquire. I myself had a second-hand rugby shirt at school, and I can confirm that when I grew out of it, after a few years, it remained in the same pristine condition it had been in when my parents purchased it.
I will resist the temptation to comment on the Minister’s last point, but he has made an important statement about second-hand uniform. Will there be a requirement in the statutory guidance for schools to provide facilities for the sale and exchange of second-hand uniform?
The statutory guidance will of course refer to the importance of there being facilities for parents to be able to acquire second-hand uniform.
It is my intention to engage with representatives of schools, parents and other interested parties in drafting and finalising the statutory guidance. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and the hon. Member for Putney asked about the timing of the implementation of the guidance. We want schools to implement changes in a timely and considered manner to ensure that they work effectively, but we would want to make sure that in doing so parents do not incur additional costs from sudden uniform changes. We will therefore set out clearly in the statutory guidance when we expect schools to implement the requirements. I can commit that schools will not be required to make sudden changes to their uniform policy for September 2021.
The Bill will help many families throughout the country who may struggle to afford a school uniform, so the Government support it, and I urge all Members of the House to support its Third Reading.
We have had a great debate this morning and into this afternoon, and I am delighted that it looks as though the Bill will be passed and will hopefully continue its passage on to the statute book.
I strongly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on his leadership in bringing the Bill forward. I thank the Minister and his Department for their engagement with the Bill, and I am grateful for the engagement of so many others, particularly the Children’s Society, which has provided a strong bedrock of research that demonstrates why the Bill is needed and has engaged constructively throughout to make the Bill possible. The Schoolwear Association and school uniform manufacturers have also engaged constructively and made some important points about the value of domestic supply chains, of ethically produced and sourced products, and of good-quality, durable products. We should not lose sight of that.
School uniforms ought to be the great social leveller. Those of us who remember the struggles that our parents had affording uniforms when we grew up, and who looked ahead to non-uniform days with trepidation rather than rather than excitement because of the pressure of having the right trainers, the right clothes and the right brands, understand why school uniforms are so important from a social justice perspective. It is not just about the importance of a school’s ethos and identity—points made very well by the Minister.
Let us get the Bill passed and make progress, and let today be an advertisement to people right across the country about the good that this House and our politics can do when people come together in common cause.
In the first debate on this Bill, which was only a year ago but, for obvious reasons, feels like a lifetime ago, there was much discussion among many Members, ranging across not only their clearly lasting memories of school uniform but the practicalities, and a general view that uniforms play a significant and valued role in educational settings.
Many of us are proud of the schools that we attended, and this sense of school pride starts with a school’s uniform, which acts as an identifier but also as a leveller. That levelling factor seems to have resonated especially strongly with the Minister and throughout the discussions that have taken place on and offline, in all senses. A sense of collective identity is important in helping children to belong, but it also helps to suppress peer pressure in respect of what children wear while on school grounds, so that we do not end up with individuals being picked on for the brand of clothing they wear. At a time of increased pressure on young people’s mental health, for very obvious reasons, that represents an unnecessary worry.
All that is why sole supplier arrangements and schoolwear suppliers are a very welcome part of the landscape and should be protected for numerous reasons that relate to that important word: values. There are the school’s values and the disciplinary advantages of avoiding the “My black trousers are Gucci; yours are from Tesco’s” situation that comes from vaguer uniform requirements—which, ironically, are often championed by those seeking lower costs for parents. There are the values of supply chains and ethical sourcing—we have heard about China, but that applies to other places, too. And there is the starting point of the Bill: value for money. A well-made £20 pair of trousers that lasts three times as long as a £10 pair is better for parents’ pockets—my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) was good enough to quote me saying something similar in the debate a year ago.
Although it is late in the progress of the Bill to rake this up again, I will just mention the value for money of uniform, which was demonstrated very clearly by the very high-quality research published by the Schoolwear Association, which set right some other less well- based research that came up with much higher figures. There is also an element of the cultural value of the British education system, which is exemplified by the wearing of school uniforms—something that should be celebrated and is replicated by many schools across the world. I can think of many British overseas schools that take pride in the wearing of uniforms, which highlights the importance the British education system is given abroad.
I am grateful to the Minister for his acknowledgment on Second Reading that single supplier contracts are valuable in ensuring year-round supply of uniform, availability of the full range of sizes, and, with all items being of the same colour and design, uniformity among pupils. I will, however, be seeking assurances from the Minister that these contracts will be explicitly protected. He has touched on this already with his hints about the guidance. As he is aware, competition on the price of school uniform happens when those contracts go out to tender, and companies compete against one another to produce an attractive bid. My concern is that this process is misunderstood. If schools work with more than one retailer, this competition is lost. Sometimes the competitive element is the tender between the school and the supplier, not between the parent direct and the suppliers. That is not always sufficiently understood. Not understanding it can mean that purchasing power is damaged for retailers, which, in turn, raises prices for customers.
I did have some grave concerns about this Bill and the ramifications that could have arisen from it in its original form. I want to emphasise to the Government that they must match their rhetoric with the action that they take in terms of being a deregulating Government, cutting red tape and not over-centralising. As some Members know, I was far from convinced that the Bill fitted very well into that expressed ethos and, indeed, used it as an example of the opposite in other policy speeches and contexts. Furthermore, the ethos of a school and what it stands for must come chiefly through the school’s own culture and leadership and the attitudes of school leaders, teachers, governors and parents. Ideally, it should not be imposed from a great Whitehall height.
In conclusion, I am glad to say that the Minister has been forthcoming and helpful throughout this process—long though it has been. Throughout the course of discussions in Committee early last year, he listened to the concerns that I and other Members raised and I thank him for that. I especially thank him for what he said in this very debate just now. I am now of the opinion that, aside from that much wider philosophical over-regulatory point, some potentially damaging worries about the Bill have been either wholly allayed or diminished. That has been helped by the added reassurances that we have received today. I will continue to reference them as that guidance is consulted on to ensure that it does not lead to excessive micro-management.
It is a pleasure to speak on Third Reading. I am glad that the Minister was able to respond so quickly during his period of reflection. It was a period of reflection that lasted from the end of Report to the beginning of Third Reading. In those few moments of reflection, he was able, at a stroke, to satisfy some of the concerns that had been expressed on Report. Essentially, he has accepted, from what he said, my amendment 16. That means that schools will know that they will not be burdened by changes as a result of this Bill, which would impinge on their freedoms in the forthcoming school year starting this September. That was a very important statement and I appreciate the fact that my right hon. Friend made that today, so that the schools and their governing bodies and all the other people involved in this industry can act accordingly as a result. It was also implicit in what he said that the period of waiting, which has been going on since 2015, is now coming to an end and that people can prepare to implement this new statutory guidance. What he described as the intended content of that guidance is spot on and the schools should indeed consider the total costs of all items, including how long they will last and the quality to which they are produced. That should also apply to compulsory branded items.
As far as the sole supplier provisions are concerned, the Minister’s decision not to outlaw such agreements again accords with common sense. Contracts should be the subject of tender every five years—I think that seems a reasonable compromise, which fits in with commercial practice. He is not going to punish good suppliers, he will promote the benefits of second-hand uniform, and he is not going to go down the prescriptive route of the Welsh Labour Government, which I am sure will be a matter of great relief.
So there is a lot to celebrate. That is not a word I often use in the context of legislation that is supported by the Government, but there is a lot to celebrate in the Bill and the considered way in which it sounds as though the Minister will respond. I have just listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer), who is a great expert on this, and if his worst fears have been allayed, I am sure that the worst fears of lots of other people will likewise have been allayed by what is in the Bill. Let all the people who are going to benefit from the Bill move forward and I encourage them, as they appreciate what is happening in relation to the forthcoming statutory guidance, to pressurise their Members of Parliament to campaign on the issue of VAT on school uniforms.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.