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Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill

Volume 811: debated on Friday 16 April 2021


Relevant document: 37th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee

Clause 1: Guidance about the costs of school uniforms: England

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 15, at end insert—

“(4A) The Secretary of State must lay the guidance and any revised guidance before Parliament, and when he or she has done so he or she may bring the guidance or revised guidance into operation by order.(4B) A statutory instrument containing an order made under subsection (4A) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”

My Lords, my amendment would ensure simply that the statutory guidelines could be scrutinised by Parliament in the lowest form of scrutiny we have: namely, the negative procedure. My amendment could not be more simple or reasonable. It says simply that the Secretary of State must lay the guidance before Parliament and may bring it in by the negative procedure. That procedure, as we all know, allows the guidance to take immediate effect, but would permit parties in Parliament, if so minded, to debate it. Just as with the thousands of other SIs which pass through here every year, there would probably be no debate, no objection and no vote—but at least our excellent Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee would get a chance to have a look at the regulations. That is all my amendment seeks.

I criticised the Bill at Second Reading on these grounds, and also because we had not seen a draft of the guidance that we were being asked blindly to rubber-stamp. Well, I am able to give some mild praise to the Minister before I start on some mild criticism. The department has now published the draft guidance, which is very helpful for all of us. I appreciate that it may change and that more people and organisations may have input into it, but this House has usually demanded, and rightly so, to see any draft guidance or draft regulations that we are being asked to take on trust.

For the avoidance of any doubt, I thoroughly approve of the Bill and am not opposed to it. Indeed, if there was an opportunity to have the other place deal with our amendments before the end of this Session, I would push this amendment to a vote, and I would put down another amendment insisting that all schools create, either by themselves or through parents or a charitable trust, a system for used and second-hand uniforms. As a soldier in a Highland regiment, the only bit of new kit I had, out of scores of items, was boots and socks. Everything else was used, cleaned, repaired, refurbished and reissued—and by God we were proud to wear it. The only thing I rejected was second-hand long johns—I assure noble Lords that they do not want to wear second-hand long johns from a Scottish soldier.

When I spoke at Second Reading, I said that I was speaking in a personal capacity and not as the chair of the Delegated Powers Committee. Since then, the committee has met and published a report on the Bill, and it has identified, in its usual and meticulous way, the inappropriate delegated powers in the Bill that my amendment seeks to address. I can tell the Committee that I had no part in those decisions or discussions. I was absent when the Delegated Powers Committee approved the report, so I have not influenced its decision. However, I am informed that the committee wholeheartedly approved of the line that I took at Second Reading: namely, that the guidance should be subject to some simple parliamentary scrutiny.

Since Second Reading, the department has produced a delegated powers memorandum, and I am grateful for that. It should have been done in the first place, but the Department for Education is not unique in that failing—not by a long shot. The department makes four justifications for the guidance not being subject to the negative resolution procedure. First, it says that the guidance will be drafted after consultation with parents, schools and stakeholders, and taking into account comments made by parliamentarians as the Bill progresses through Parliament. But the Delegated Powers Committee says, “That is all very jolly good, but there is no justification for the finished guidance not then being scrutinised by Parliament if Parliament wishes to do so”.

Secondly, the memorandum states:

“The Department produces a large amount of detailed and technical statutory guidance to support schools and the wider education sector”,

and, since that has not been subject to parliamentary scrutiny in the past, the new guidance is simply consistent with past procedure. The memorandum uses the phrase:

“Parliament has already determined that guidance should not be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny.”

Has Parliament actually determined that? Correct me if I am wrong, but did Parliament ever make a decision in principle that it would not scrutinise any guidance from the DoE? Is it not the case that guidance has already been issued, and Parliament has been unable to challenge it—unlike as we are able to do today? It is more an act of omission than a deliberate act of commission not to scrutinise guidance from the department. In any case, as the Delegated Powers Committee report points out, what was done in the past is irrelevant: each Bill should be considered on its own merits, and this Bill deals with nothing other than statutory guidance.

Thirdly, the department’s memorandum says:

“The statutory guidance is not equivalent to … Education Codes of Practice”,

which are

“broad and extremely detailed texts which … have many aspects which are controversial and may require debate and amendment.”

It says that this is a “very limited document”. Well, the Delegated Powers Committee says that the fact that the guidance may or may not resemble a code of practice does not mean that parliamentary scrutiny of it should be ruled out. The Bill is concerned exclusively with a certain type of guidance, yet Parliament has been asked to sanction the production of guidance that will never be required even to be laid before Parliament.

It may be a limited document, but it is far from non-controversial. We have all seen the excellent briefing from the Schoolwear Association, and it strikes me that there will be strong arguments made by different parties about branded items and single supplements. Indeed, there were quite firm and differing views expressed at Second Reading in this House on branding and single suppliers—indeed, seeing the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, in his place, about the fact of having a uniform in the first place. While we may all instinctively think that multiple suppliers will deliver cheaper items, that may not necessarily be the case, and I can envisage legal challenges arising from various quarters. I simply say that it cannot be right that the courts will end up interpreting legal guidance that Parliament will never have seen.

Fourthly, the department says that the guidance will be published in such a manner that it will be accessible to all who need to see it. I should ruddy well hope so, but that has nothing to do with letting parliamentarians have a look at it, even in the most minor of parliamentary procedures, before it is published. If an entire Bill can be dedicated to the cost aspects of school uniforms, the resulting guidance is important enough to be subject to a parliamentary procedure.

I am glad that the memorandum does not seek to make the point, which was made at Second Reading, that the guidance cannot be approved by regulations because it would have to be amended regularly. The department has kindly confirmed, in a Written Answer to me, that the current guidance has not been amended once since 2013, so there is no justification for resisting parliamentary scrutiny on the grounds that the guidance would have to be constantly amended and brought before Parliament.

Finally, I will make one observation—or rather, a political guess. I think the House will want to see more and more of our homegrown regulations and guidance. Until 31 December 2020, the Government could bounce through thousands of regulations implementing EU law and we all knew that it was pointless challenging them, since we had to implement them verbatim. All that has changed. I suspect that the whole voracious judicial review industry is waiting to challenge every regulation made by Ministers, because the Government will no longer have the watertight excuse of saying, “No point taking us to court, my learned friend. It’s not us, guv, it’s the EU”.

As we make our own laws, so this House will want to challenge more of our own laws. The debate on this little Bill and guidance is just a taster of what I foresee, and what I welcome, happening in Parliament when this House is back in full physical mode and our 850 Members are looking for things to do. However, that is a more philosophical debate for another day.

I end with the conclusions of the Delegated Powers Committee report:

“The fundamental problem with the Bill is that the statutory guidance affords the maximum of discretion to the Government with no opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny. Accordingly, we recommend that the guidance should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, with the negative procedure being appropriate in this instance.”

I look forward to my noble friend the Minister’s response and I beg to move.

My Lords, when a balloon has the air let out of it, it appears to be merely a piece of useless rubber. I have a view about what I call the “Chope approach” to Private Members’ Bills—Christopher Chope, as Members will know, has familiarised himself with just about every piece of private Members’ legislation going through the House of Commons in order to filibuster or find a way of blocking it. I really hope that the mover of the amendment will respect the fact that this is a very small but important Bill in terms of what happens in real life, out in the school communities that our children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces attend.

I hope that this afternoon we will lay aside this amendment, which is designed to block the Bill if it is pressed; the mover acknowledged that himself, of course. He also talked about the Scottish long johns. My grandchildren’s school—Windmill Hill in the north of Sheffield—has a little scheme along similar lines. We were talking only this morning about how important that approach is in helping to ensure that nothing is wasted and that no one feels as though they are disqualified from being able to present themselves effectively because of their income. That is what, in essence, this Bill and the guidance are all about.

It has taken 50 years to get to this point, it has to be said. So often, the issue of school uniforms was about class and the quality of the school you went to. It was about grammar schools versus secondary schools; the grammar schools took pride in their uniform and their distinguishing features, and others often felt resentful. Times have moved on—thank God—but I recall that, over 40 years ago, we should have learned in my party about how disastrous referenda can be when you hold them with the distinct intention of ensuring that, if you are defeated, you will carry on regardless.

In Sheffield at the end of the 1970s, just before I became the city council’s leader, it decided, because of the enormous cost of school uniforms, the class nature of what was taking place and the fact that poor people were struggling to keep up, that school uniforms should be abolished and put it to a referendum of all parents. The parents were in fact a couple of decades ahead of the city council and voted to keep school uniforms and to develop them in the schools that did not have them. The city council, in its arrogance at the time, decided that it would, on political grounds, do away with school uniforms whatever the vote. We learned a lot from that. I certainly learned that if you are going to ask people their opinion, you respect it.

This afternoon, we are respecting the desire of schools, whether they are local authority schools, multi-academy trust schools, or individual free-standing trust schools, to display the pride of parents and pupils in the school they go to and the quality of the education they receive, so that they can go forward in life not embarrassed at having been unable to afford the uniform, but proud to have been able to adopt it.

The Bill is very simple: in its small way, it allows that possibility by ensuring that the old-style disqualification of competition, availability and access is set aside. I cannot see how anyone, from any political party, could possibly oppose it.

My Lords, I am minded to support the spirit of this amendment for the straightforward reason put forward by your Lordships’ Delegated Powers Committee. It says that if an entire Bill can be dedicated to the cost aspects of school uniforms, the resulting guidance should be subject to parliamentary procedure. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, I do not want to see this amendment pressed, as it would prevent the passing of this important Bill.

I am grateful to the Minister for ensuring that the House had the chance to review the draft statutory guidance in advance of today, but I would welcome clarification of a number of points in it. First, we know that branded items add cost and reduce choice of suppliers, and I welcome the reference in the draft guidance to branded items being “kept to a minimum”. But can she clarify what constitutes “minimum”? Is it a number or a proportion of the total number of items required, or does it mean something else?

The draft guidance is vague on financial support, the provision of support being apparently optional. Does she not agree that all parents in need should have access to school uniform grants and that schools have a duty to promote these funds? Will the Government commit to central provision of the funding required for school uniform grants?

At Second Reading, I asked whether the guidance would include the requirement for parents to be consulted on any changes to uniform specifications. The draft we have seen is relatively soft on this. At 25d, it says that schools

“should consult with parents and pupils on cost issues”,

and that the Government

“encourage schools to consult with parents and pupils on other aspects of their uniform when making significant changes to their policy”.

What is the rationale for the wording difference here? Why does it not use the stronger “should” or even “must” for policy changes, as well as cost issues?

On that occasion, I also asked the Minister to

“use her powers to ensure that schools are prevented from sending home or excluding children who fail to comply with uniform policies”.—[Official Report, 19/3/21; col. 553.]

The draft statutory guidance has nothing to say on this. It refers back to the non-statutory guidance, which permits teachers to discipline pupils for breaching rules on uniform in line with their published behaviour policy, and it allows a head teacher or their delegate to ask a pupil to return home to remedy this breach. This entire section of the guidance is drafted according to the starting presumption that the breach is the fault of the pupil; it is seemingly blind to the idea that the pupil may not be wearing the right clothing because the family cannot afford it.

I believe that the most important priority is to have the child in the classroom, where they can be taught. It is what matters most to teachers and it is clearly best for the child, so I ask the Minister again to do everything in her power to ensure that children will not be excluded from school for failing to comply with uniform policy.

Finally, can the Minister confirm what, if any, engagement is still planned with parents on this draft guidance? Has a diverse range of schools been consulted, and will the Government commit to consulting on future iterations of the guidance? There are many theories about the purpose of school uniform, but we can all agree that the intention is to make life more affordable for parents and the learning environment a more equitable place for children. Those twin aims have always been important but, as we head out of the pandemic, they are more important than ever.

This Bill is needed now, and I imagine that achieving that aim rules out the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. Whether it is amended or not, I hope that the Minister does her level best in support of young people, as she always does, to ensure that the necessary time is committed by this House, so that the Bill has the best possible chance of reaching the statute book before the end of this Session.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. I thank my noble friend the Minister for issuing the guidance for us to look over before this debate.

This is a rather narrow and—in almost all cases—uncontroversial issue. It needs to be dealt with quickly, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, said; the sooner we can get this moving, the better. The sooner the guidance is issued, the better the position parents will be in to ensure that their children can comply with any requirements from this narrow Bill.

I sympathise in principle with the aims of my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s amendment. Having sat so often in recent months through legislation and statutory instruments that have gone through this House with so little scrutiny—and measures that have been introduced with no scrutiny—in principle I think it is important that the role of Parliament in scrutinising legislation be reasserted. We should make sure in coming years that the experience of the past months is not regularly repeated, but I cannot help but agree, I am afraid, with the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, that this Bill is not the right place to impose such a principle at this time.

It is urgent that we make sure that we do everything possible to get the Bill through before the end of this Session. The Government have issued a delegated powers memorandum, and I think my noble friend the Minister has been doing her utmost to make sure that we are moving this forward. Even if we were to accept this amendment and the negative procedure were applied, it is hardly likely that on its passage through Parliament—whether in debate or in the scrutiny committee—any meaningful change would be achieved.

I am delighted to see that the guidance emphasises the importance of keeping costs down for parents and keeping branded items to a minimum, which will also assist with costs. I have a few questions for my noble friend. The guidance mentions that schools should take a “mindful and considerate approach” to resolving problems where children are unable to comply with uniform requirements due to financial hardship rather than wilful non-compliance. Could my noble friend give some indication of what would constitute such a mindful and considerate approach?

I echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, on the dangers of excluding children or disciplining them with procedures when it will be very difficult for schools in many cases to differentiate between wilful non-compliance on behalf of the schoolchildren and non-compliance due to unaffordability for parents. Children who keep falling over or who have grown quickly and need new uniforms, rather than having just one set for the year, can often be a problem for parents.

Finally, in terms of a planned timetable, I encourage my noble friend to introduce this as speedily as possible, hopefully in time for the coming school year this September, and at least a clear implementation timing plan so that parents and schools can plan ahead and get the correct amounts of clothing for their children during the summer holidays and suppliers can bring in stock in preparation.

My Lords, I was a little taken aback by the reaction to my comments at Second Reading, both from this House and from outside. I seem to have unwittingly struck a nerve. The question that I simply leave your Lordships with is why every country on the continent, with the sole exception of Malta, can get along perfectly well without school uniforms —including, importantly, state schools—while we apparently cannot.

Having said that, school uniforms are currently the norm in this country, and I want to make it clear that what I said at Second Reading was in no way an attack on the Bill. I support it and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, on bringing it to this House. School uniforms have become expensive and it is important that costs are kept down in the fight against poverty. I would therefore be very glad if the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, did not press his albeit justifiable amendment to a vote. I am also glad that we have sight of the draft statutory guidance, as the Minister promised, and which the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, asked for.

I have two questions for the Minister, of which I have given her advance notice. First, from my own vantage point, can she reassure me that the Bill, or any steps that the Government thereby take, will not affect the right of all schools to which the draft statutory guidance refers to decide whether they will have a school uniform? I appreciate that the Government have a stated preference. Nevertheless, there is a reference in the draft guidance to schools that

“may not have a uniform policy or dress code”

in paragraph 11. Still, I would like to hear that reassurance directly from the Minister.

My second question revolves around the curious fact that there does not seem to be a definition of what a school uniform is. It is perhaps assumed that we know what one is, but the truth is that the composition of uniforms may vary from school to school, and that in itself will affect costs. The draft guidance is fairly detailed, so a definition is implied, but a related concern is the cost of additional sportswear. Here I very much understand the importance of uniform in the practical sense, for team identification and aesthetically, so when paragraph 25(e) asks that additional items should not be used for interschool competitions, that feels disingenuous to me. Here again the cost to parents needs to be kept down. Could the Minister say a few words about that?

I wish the Bill a speedy passage. It is important that it gets on to the statute book.

My Lords, I follow the remarks that have just been made in wishing the Bill to succeed and to move as quickly as possible to that end. A lot of people care about schools and school uniforms, and many of us may have noted the events in Pimlico of recent weeks.

I strongly support school uniforms. They are effective social levellers, really do help a good ethos and encourage camaraderie. Any good school head ought to make sure that his school has a well-structured, managed regime for second-hand school uniforms. I note that I still have a blazer from my schooldays that was second-hand when I acquired it.

Clearly it is crucial to keep costs down for parents and to review regularly the suppliers and the terms and competitiveness thereof. We need to encourage the second-hand clothing market in school uniforms. As I have just said, heads ought to take a role in leading that. However, if a school wants to retain a school uniform structure in the long term, it needs to achieve success now.

I was a little surprised to get the Department for Education paper. I thought I had read about a “daft cost of school uniform guidance”, but the word was actually “draft”. That makes the point that this is all far too complicated, and involving statutory elements is questionable. If you give schools too much to do, they will tend not to do the important things. Yes, provide advice to parents about uniforms, especially second-hand ones, but this document virtually envisages civil servants managing children’s school uniforms in detail. That is way over the top and I hope that, in due course, the Bill can be thinned down.

My Lords, I applaud this Bill and wish it a speedy passage through the House. Hence, although I see some merit in the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, I hope he will withdraw it, because we cannot afford to slow the progress of the Bill. I simply cannot agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Flight, just said. I do not think that this is over-prescriptive; indeed, I fear that I do not find the guidance prescriptive enough, although I am grateful to the Minister that she has made it available to us in advance of today’s debate.

Quite simply, the issue is that, at the moment, school uniform is too expensive for many families to afford, and in most cases it could be cheaper. I absolutely applaud the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, about children being excluded because they do not have appropriate uniform, when very often—although not always—it may well be family circumstances rather than their own strong will which means that this is the case.

I was much struck by an email I received from a mother with two children, both at state schools. She told me that if they have a games lesson now, her son has to wear tracksuit trousers in order to travel to school, because changing is no longer permitted at the school. The tracksuit trousers are specified and cost £54. She says that they are poor quality; we all know that tracksuit trousers can be obtained for a great deal less. In total, her son’s uniform for games costs £345, and that is before the cost of a mouthguard, hockey stick, tennis racket and games bag is taken into account. Her daughter’s is slightly cheaper. The games uniform is £311 but, again, that is before equipment is taken into account. These are huge sums for families to be confronted with, and they effectively rule children out from taking part in many cases. Indeed, my correspondent points out that many children claim to have forgotten their games equipment when they actually did not have it in the first place.

This Bill is necessary, and its sentiments are correct. It has been a long time awaited; the Government committed to making guidance statutory in 2015. But this is only guidance, and the guidance suggests that there should be sole suppliers only after a competitive tender. I do not think that there should be sole suppliers for anything but the barest of items—perhaps a tie and a sew-on badge. When we applaud competition in other sectors, it seems crazy that we should allow schools to continue with a process which definitely disadvantages some because the obligatory school uniform is unnecessarily expensive. So I was disappointed to see that the guidance does not say that sole suppliers should be phased out for all but a tie and a sew-on badge at the most.

With that exception, I believe that the Bill is required, and I wish it a speedy process through the House.

My Lords, I support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Blencathra. I do so as a former member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which he chairs so ably.

I remain a firm supporter of the vision and commitment of all those who have worked to ensure that this legislation reaches the statute book before the end of this Session. Indeed, I would go further and call on the Government to hear the strong case made by many children’s organisations that there should be a Cabinet-level Minister for Children to oversee a children’s charter and introduce government legislation where appropriate, not least in support of the need for enhanced welfare measures to support children. Should that have been in place already, this Bill is an example of a legislative change that could have been better introduced by government.

As a result, my comments in support of my noble friend’s amendment are made more for the record than out of any desire to impede the important progress of this legislation, since this important Bill is better than no Bill. Should this amendment be pushed to a Division, thereby impeding the chances of the Bill reaching the statute book, I would not support it. Under no circumstances, I might add, do I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, is correct in his assessment that this is in any way a blocking amendment. It is certainly not. For my noble friend Lord Blencathra is right—I hope that the noble Lord agrees—that this House has a duty to consider the balance of powers between the legislature and the Executive. Far too frequently, as has been pointed out, we allow the Executive to take powers and resist parliamentary scrutiny. This is a textbook case.

Full front and central to this Bill is statutory guidance. Personally, I would urge the Government to include keeping branded items to a minimum, provide more parental choice, use enhanced online exchanges for second-hand uniform and address the monopolistic practices of certain single supplier agreements that impact cost-competitiveness; my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft just gave a good example of that. I would also urge the Government to provide financial support for struggling parents, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, emphasised.

However, even if all these laudable claims were included in the guidance, there is no strict legislative requirement on anyone to comply with it. The requirement “to have regard to”, as set out in paragraph 13 of the Explanatory Notes, does not impose any course of action on schools or appropriate authorities. No one has a legal requirement to comply with the guidance—just to “have regard” to it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, said, the Delegated Powers Committee made it clear:

“If an entire Bill can be dedicated to the cost aspects of school uniforms, the resulting guidance should be subject to a parliamentary procedure.”

That must be correct.

So we are giving the Government maximum discretion. Although I have absolute faith in my noble friend the Minister and her colleagues—I am very grateful to her, as I know the whole House is, for all the hard work that she has put into this issue—unfortunately, she cannot guarantee that a future Government would not ignore the calls made by, for example, the Children’s Society and issue revised guidance without ever coming back to this House. That would be the legal position under this Bill and would negate the objectives that so many of us have in support of it, as we set out at Second Reading.

This House does not legislate for good will. We seek statutory responsibilities and accountability because we want to ensure that what is important always has to be tested and assessed by, and made accountable to, Parliament. That is why, even if he does not press this amendment to a vote, my noble friend Lord Blencathra is right.

My Lords, I hope I set out clearly at Second Reading the view of these Benches regarding the need for the Bill, and I have no intention of repeating what I said then. I would like just to recognise the valuable advice that the Children’s Society has continued to provide to myself and other noble Lords since Second Reading.

Since Second Reading we have also received the report by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of your Lordships’ House. At paragraph 3 the committee draws attention to the fact that the Bill’s Explanatory Notes at paragraph 13 say that the Bill

“sets out who has to comply with the guidance”,

yet paragraph 12 of the Department for Education’s memorandum to the committee states that the Bill does not impose any particular course of action in terms of compliance. Can the Minister offer clarification as to the at least apparent discrepancy between these two statements?

The draft guidance is welcome, not least paragraph 15, which reminds schools that they should keep branded items to a minimum—although it would have been useful to have an indication of what is meant by a minimum. The guidance also refers at paragraph 39 to local authorities and multi-academy trusts providing school clothing grants to help with the cost of uniforms for less well-off families. That will prove a decisive factor in the Government being able to deliver on their aim of ensuring that disadvantaged parents are not disproportionately affected by the cost of school uniforms. What assurances will the Minister provide to noble Lords that local authorities and multi-academy trusts will be provided with additional funding, ideally ring-fenced, to accompany the new guidance in this regard? Also, on the subject of single-supplier contracts, can the Minister explain how the draft guidance will guarantee transparency in the operation of such contracts, and in particular that there is genuine competitive tendering?

At Second Reading, the Minister said that she

“would like to be in a position to issue the guidance this autumn”.—[Official Report, 19/3/21; col. 559.]

Can she be more specific today? I have always regarded September as autumn, but with schools usually returning in the first week of that month, that would mean the guidance not taking effect in time for the new school year. Although that would be unfortunate, it may be unavoidable, but can the Minister confirm that it will be possible for the guidance to begin to take effect during 2021-22 school year?

In helpful discussions that I and my noble friend Lady Lister had with the Schoolwear Association, it made it clear that it is seeking a period of 18 to 24 months before the guidance is fully operational. I am not alone in regarding that as excessive. Does the Minister agree that a backstop of September 2022 would be appropriate so as to ensure that families who have been hardest hit financially by the pandemic need not carry the unnecessary burden of excessive school uniform costs beyond that point?

The reason we are here at all today is that the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, has submitted his amendment, which he moved, typically, in terms as trenchant as those he used at Second Reading. Although, as he explained, he played no part in the committee’s deliberations, his amendment very much encompasses the considered view of the Bill as set out by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. At Second Reading the noble Lord sought both the publication of the draft guidance during consideration of the Bill and that it should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. The first of those has been met but the second has not—hence his amendment.

At Second Reading the noble Lord said:

“If something is important enough to be made statutory, it is important enough for Parliament to scrutinise it”.—[Official Report, 19/3/21; col. 550.]

In principle, I cannot disagree with that at all, and I would prefer that it were applied in the case of the Bill. However, I am afraid that the noble Lord cannot dismiss concerns that, were his amendment to pass, it would delay the Bill. He has acknowledged that fact, and I was very pleased to hear that. I am afraid that the Government would neither make time available to allow the other place to consider and debate the amendment and return the Bill to your Lordships’ House in the 10 sitting days that remain before Prorogation, nor, perhaps more importantly, include a similar Bill of their own in the Queen’s Speech next month.

The reason I am clear on that last point is that, despite the November 2015 HM Treasury document entitled A Better Deal, which stated that

“The government will ensure that parents and carers get the best value deals on school uniforms in England”,

nothing has happened to bring that about. In the subsequent five and a half years I have seen three Prime Ministers and three Queen’s Speeches, but nothing has been done to bring forward provisions such as those in the Bill we are discussing today. So I have little faith in the Government expending any more effort than they are demonstrating with this Bill—merely giving it a fair wind at a time when they do not have what they regard as more important business to schedule.

However, the focus must be on the Bill and it is important that it becomes law. That is why I was relieved to hear the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, say that he does not intend to press his amendment. That will allow this important Bill to complete its journey to Royal Assent, and I, together with many young people and families, look forward to it coming fully into effect at the earliest possible date.

My Lords, first, I thank the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee for its detailed examination of the Bill. Both the committee and my noble friend Lord Blencathra have raised some noteworthy points about the importance of parliamentary scrutiny. I thank him for his mild praise and mild criticism of the response of the Department for Education.

Although the Government do not agree that the amendment tabled is the right approach in this instance, I reassure the Committee that the Government agree that guidance should not be used to circumvent scrutiny and should only be used where it is proportionate.

I welcome the approach that the honourable Member for Weaver Vale took when drafting this Bill. It is done in a straightforward and sensible way to ensure that our approach can be flexible to adapt to the sector’s needs. There is a great deal of support for this Bill, as noble Lords have outlined this afternoon, because of the importance of affordable school uniforms for families.

The amendment before the House would require the uniform guidance to be laid before Parliament with it only coming into force by an order subject to the negative resolution procedure. However, that process is better suited to a broader and more controversial set of provisions. The approach taken by the Bill is appropriate for this narrow and uncontroversial issue and standard practice for issuing statutory guidance to enable the Government to provide swift and helpful guidance to the sector.

On the points raised by my noble friend Lord Blencathra and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, this guidance will play a significant role for schools when they are determining their uniform policies. The Bill requires the appropriate authorities of relevant schools to have regard to the guidance when developing and implementing their uniform policies. This is standard legal wording used to describe the duty to follow statutory guidance. The crux of this phrasing is that schools must have a good reason if they wish to depart from this guidance and they cannot choose to ignore it. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the guidance requires the level of parliamentary scrutiny which my noble friend’s amendment would require. Indeed, the approach taken in the Bill is not inconsistent with our wider approach to statutory guidance.

I assure noble Lords that the Department for Education produces a large amount of detailed and technical statutory guidance to support schools and the wider education sector which is not subject to parliamentary scrutiny. No other piece of statutory guidance published under the provisions of the Education Act 1996 is subject to the level of scrutiny which my noble friend’s amendment would require. It is important that such guidance is responsive to the needs of the sector and can be updated rapidly to keep pace with events. There is nothing to prevent Parliament from scrutinising guidance at any time.

This Bill is simple and straightforward, as is often the case with Private Members’ Bill. However, it does not follow that, just because a Bill is small and deals exclusively with a certain type of guidance, that guidance should therefore be subject to parliamentary procedure. I do not believe that the subject matter of this Bill indicates that it requires additional scrutiny, as it is one which is narrow in scope and on a subject of broad consensus.

The Bill is clear that the guidance issued under it is specific and limited in scope. It relates to one element of a school uniform policy which needs to be addressed—namely, the cost. It is not the only piece of guidance which a school will consider when developing its uniform policy. It will be used in conjunction with other pieces of guidance, such as the current non-statutory guidance and the Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance. It is other documents which provide broader or more comprehensive guidance, such as codes of practice, which are often—but even then not always—subject to the negative procedure.

As has been exhibited this afternoon, there has been a remarkable amount of cross-party support for this Bill. The Government have welcomed the valuable and considered debate during the passage of the Bill so far, and we have been keen to take into account the views raised in Parliament in developing the statutory guidance. During debates on this Bill, there has been consensus about the key issues to be covered in the guidance: namely, the use of branded items; the role of single suppliers; and the overwhelming support for second-hand uniform. Even when there is a difference of opinion on the detail, it is understood across the House that these issues are key to meeting the aims of this Bill and ensuring that parents do not struggle to meet the costs of school uniforms.

I reassure the Committee, and especially my noble friend Lord Moynihan, that the Government have clearly set out our position on school uniform and the proposed content of the statutory guidance for the House during this legislative process and that this is a matter of public record. Furthermore, at Second Reading of this Bill, I committed to sharing a draft of the statutory guidance. On Tuesday, it was shared in the Libraries of both Houses so that Members could have sight of it—I double-checked that we have called it the “draft guidance” not the “daft guidance”.

I hope all noble Lords will agree with me when I say that the draft statutory guidance already takes into account the views which have been raised by all those involved in the debate so far. It provides a clear framework for schools which enables them to take decisions in the light of their local context and circumstances. I assure all noble Lords that we will continue to engage with parliamentarians and key stakeholders before we finalise the guidance, to ensure that it is as clear and helpful as possible. This of course includes talking to schools and parents, to ensure that the views of those affected by the guidance have been fully considered. As part of those discussions we will also explore the different measures that can practically be implemented, and we will use this feedback to inform the implementation timetable, which will then be included in the final statutory guidance. My noble friend Lord Moynihan will, I believe, have an opportunity on Monday to talk in more detail about the Children’s Minister issue at Oral Questions.

As I have previously stated, subject to Royal Assent and the completion of the aforementioned stakeholder engagement, I hope to be in a position to issue the guidance in Autumn 2021, at which point the department will ensure that all affected schools are aware of the new guidance. While schools will not be required to make sudden changes to their uniform policy for September 2021, we would expect them to start thinking about the changes that they may need to make once the guidance is issued, and potentially introduce some of the more straightforward measures quickly, such as clarifying in their published school uniform policy whether an item is optional or required, so that parents can begin to see some of the benefits quickly. I hope that this has clarified the position for the noble Lord, Lord Watson.

The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, asked for reassurance that the Bill will not affect a school’s right to decide whether they have a uniform. I can reassure him on that. It is for a school’s governing body or academy trust to decide whether there should be a school uniform policy at all and, if so, what it should be. This Bill will not change that, but, as the draft statutory guidance makes clear, a school should consider the cost implications if it decides not to have a uniform.

On the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, by “minimum” in the guidance, we mean the smallest number possible.

I would also like to reassure the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, on his point about the cost of additional uniform items. The draft statutory guidance is clear that, when designing a PE kit, for instance, we want schools to apply the same consideration to cost as they do for the rest of the uniform. Regarding extra-curricular activities, schools should avoid requiring parents to purchase additional uniform and instead use items which are already required as part of the PE kit or everyday classroom wear. No child should feel unable to participate fully in PE, or represent their class or school, because the required uniform is too expensive.

Many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Altmann, raised the issue of pupils not complying with a school’s uniform policy. Let me be clear that this is a matter to be resolved by the school. We expect schools to ensure that parents and pupils are aware of the school uniform expectations and the sanctions that will be imposed for persistently failing to comply with the school uniform policy. School leaders are best placed to determine whether non-compliance is likely to be as a result of financial hardship and to resolve the issue in a way that is supportive of the affected families and does not deny the pupil an education on the grounds that they are not wearing the correct school uniform. As I have outlined, the PE kit is covered by the statutory guidance.

In response to comments, particularly from the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, about single supply arrangements, schools should be able to demonstrate that they have obtained the best value for money in their supply arrangements, but we do not intend to ban single supplier contracts. To ensure that there is competition and transparency, we want schools to regularly tender their school uniform contracts, and our draft statutory guidance is clear that exclusive single supplier arrangements should be avoided unless regular tendering competitions are run in which more than one supplier can compete for the contract. The period stated in the guidance is at least every five years. This approach will not diminish the value that sole suppliers can offer; often, they can ensure year-round supply, allowing the supplier to provide a full range of sizes and securing economies of scale.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that the draft statutory guidance provides information for schools on what they should consider when they are tendering their school uniform supply contracts. The department provides guidance on procurement for schools. In finalising the statutory guidance, we will continue to engage with stakeholders, as I have said, to ensure that the framework in the guidance supports competition and transparency in the operation of single supplier contracts.

The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, asked the interesting and most basic question about what a school uniform is. Most people understand that school uniform is the specific clothing that a school requires its pupils to wear, which is why it is important that now, under statutory guidance, it will have to be published on the school website so that parents will know to exactly what the school is referring.

In answer to a further question from the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, the Bill does not cover all aspects of school uniform. It covers only cost, so that is why the mandatory language of “should consult parents” is used in this guidance on costs and the language of encouragement is used for other aspects of uniform covered by the non-statutory guidance. There was a reason behind the change of language in the guidance.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, and others asked about school uniform grants. Rather than subsidising expensive uniform policies by providing uniform grants, which sometimes happens, we should focus on making school uniform affordable for all families by issuing statutory guidance. However, we would not want to prevent local authorities continuing to offer help with uniform costs in cases of financial hardship or schools offering support where they choose to do so.

It was encouraging to hear many noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Blencathra and Lord Flight and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, talk about the importance of second-hand uniform. It is encouraging to see the internet and a number of apps inspiring a market in second-hand clothing generally, including school uniform.

I thank my noble friend Lord Blencathra for meeting me and Nick Gibb, the Minister for School Standards. It was interesting to reflect on how we have arrived, after five years, at the brink of the end of a Session, and to hear of all the parliamentary sitting time that has been lost in the Commons and the Lords to the pandemic.

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions today. The Bill will help families across the country. I hope that my noble friend Lord Blencathra will not press this amendment to a vote in the light of the points I and many other noble Lords have made about the Bill’s importance to families.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for his amendment. It will be no surprise to him that I do not support it but, like many noble Lords, I have a lot of sympathy with the wider principle about parliamentary scrutiny to which it speaks. It is very important. However, for the reasons given by the Minister and others, I do not think this is the appropriate Bill with which to put a flag in the sand to ensure that that principle is achieved. The Minister gave various reasons for that, with which I agree.

When one reads the guidance, it is difficult to see it being turned into the language of statutory instruments. In the cause of accessibility, it is much better presented as guidance. That said, by tabling the amendment, the noble Lord has ensured that the draft guidance has been made available to Peers and parliamentarians generally and that we have had this debate today. That is to be welcomed; I welcome it and thank the noble Lord for ensuring that it happened. We have heard some very helpful comments on the draft guidance and a very full response from the Minister, which I found extremely helpful and look forward to reading more closely in Hansard.

I will pick up a few of the points—but not many because the Minister has so comprehensively gone through what has been said by noble Lords. On the question of non-compliance, I still wonder whether the guidance could go a bit further than she appears to be willing to consider. As a number of noble Lords pointed out, when talking about a “mindful and considerate” approach where non-compliance is due to questions of affordability—I know how difficult it would be in practice to determine whether that is the cause, but I refer to where it is known that that is the cause—the guidance could make clear that it is not appropriate, mindful or considerate to send the child home or, worse, exclude the child. Perhaps that could be looked at a bit more closely.

I very much welcome the fact that there will be further informal consultation, including with parents and schools themselves. I also welcome the fact that that will include looking at what can be done in the shorter term. My noble friend Lord Watson and others made the very important point that this will be difficult, as we explored at Second Reading, and no one expects schools and parents to change everything all at once—that would not be in anyone’s interests—but nor do we want a long delay. However, there are things that could be done in the interim, during the implementation period, and I welcome the fact that what could be possible will be explored with schools and parents. At present, the draft guidance just talks about giving parents “information”, which is always good, but it does not butter any parsnips. It could be things like schools reviewing the number of items that are currently badged—perhaps before this go into full implementation. On that question, I am not sure that a minimum number possible gets us any further than the current wording. Clearly, the Government will not give a number—I accept that—but perhaps they could be pushed a bit more on this.

The noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, raised an important question about what we mean by uniform. He might be reassured because the draft guidance does talk about

“all items of uniform or clothing parents will need to provide while the child is at the school.”

However, I took “uniform” in that context in the guidance to be broader—not necessarily what we think of as uniform but what children are required to wear or bring with them to school.

I very much welcome the support of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, for a Cabinet-level Minister for Children, and I hope that we can explore this further in your Lordships’ House over the coming weeks.

What came over strongly to me is that, even though some agreed with the noble Lord’s amendment, there was absolute support for the Bill, including from the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, which I very much welcome. There was also a recognition that, if there is a vote, there is a real danger of holding the Bill up, and, because of the vagaries of the parliamentary timetable, we would probably lose it—my noble friend Lord Watson has spelt out what that could mean. As such, speed is of the essence in terms of getting this through and getting it into schools. Everyone has had briefings about just what this means for parents, who, particularly over the past year—even though children have not always been going to school, although this applies now that they are back in school—have been really suffering as a result of trying to meet the costs of what are sometimes very expensive uniforms.

We are agreed on the importance of the Bill. I thank everyone who has contributed, including the Minister, whom I also thank for having met with me a couple of times to discuss this. I hope that we have all correctly interpreted the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, in that I believe that he is not going to press this to a vote, and I thank him for that. I hope that he will confirm that now.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for doing as she typically does by responding in considered and detailed form to many of my questions and those of other noble Lords. I wonder whether she would elaborate on one point on school clothing grants; I mentioned that the guidance refers to it. Although she said the Government’s emphasis was on keeping down the price of uniforms themselves—I welcome that, of course—short of nationalising the Schoolwear Association and making it the single supplier for the whole country, I am not quite sure how the Government could achieve such an aim.

I am concerned that cash-strapped local authorities—and multi-academy trusts, which are also not exactly well off—will struggle to cope with the many responses from parents to schools in the wake of the Bill’s enactment, and with the highlighting of the availability of the grants. Will the Minister again consider providing additional resources to make sure that local authorities and MATs can meet the demands that come their way after the Bill is enacted? I am happy for her to write to me about this.

I will take the opportunity to write to the noble Lord. It is a matter for local authorities whether they choose to make grants available, but we are not proposing to introduce school uniform grants. As I have outlined many times to noble Lords, there has been an increase in general school funding over these three years to enable some schools that want to assist to do that. If the noble Lord requires any further details, I will write to him.

My Lords, naturally I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate on my amendment, especially to the Minister for her response. I first wish to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, for her kind words to me. I will take some of the credit—indeed, a lot of the credit —for forcing the Government to produce the statutory guidance and the memorandum before this debate, which I think we all found helpful.

I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, on being able to put firmly on the record what he thinks on this matter. He was done an enormous disservice in the press a couple of weeks ago, with gross misreporting of what he had said—indeed, what we had all said. I think the headline was, “All Peers call for complete abolition of school uniform and kids to go around scruffily dressed as from tomorrow”. They were appalling headlines. I congratulate the noble Earl on speaking again today.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Moynihan for putting on the record that we should pay attention to the comments of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which—this is nothing to do with me being chair; it is long before my time—has done tremendous service to this House in producing guidance on what it thinks is inappropriate delegation.

I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, who said the principle of my amendment is right. I think nearly everyone who spoke today agreed that the principle of my amendment is right; the only thing wrong with it is the timing. If we were to go ahead with it, it would sabotage the Bill. I made it clear that I have no intention of doing that.

I am therefore disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for whom I have tremendous respect, has inadvertently done me a disservice today in suggesting that my amendment seeks to block the Bill. All I have done is make four points—the same four points made by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. I remind the noble Lord of those wonderful days between 1997 and 2001 when he was in government and my late friend Eric Forth MP and I were in charge of sabotaging every Friday Bill that came up in the Commons, most often with the connivance of the Labour Whips behind the Chair, who were as appalled at some of these measures as we were. My friend Christopher Chope was just one of our protégés. As the football manager says, “The boy done good. He’s coming on well”—but he is not a patch on Eric and me in our prime. If I wanted to block this Bill, there would be 20 amendments on the Order Paper today and I would be filibustering until midnight, but that is not what I intend.

So I shall not detain the House long nor repeat all my earlier arguments, even though I believe that the arguments which I have advanced and those in the Delegated Powers Committee report are superior to the Government’s case. There is no right or wrong answer here; it is a matter of belief in how much scrutiny this Parliament should give to regulations, guidance or circulars from the Executive. I have no particular grievance with the department nor with my noble friend the Minister, who is an excellent Minister; there are far worse offenders as far as inappropriate delegations of ministerial power are concerned, and the Delegated Powers Committee, which I am privileged to chair, constantly draws attention to them.

In the past few years, we have seen extensive abuse of Henry VIII powers, now tacked on to every Bill ad nauseam. Bills use only negative and affirmative procedures, and never are they made or draft affirmatives; we see the test for the Minister making laws reduced from necessity to one of “appropriate”, or, in this Bill, whatever the Secretary of State considers “relevant”. We now see the extraordinary term “protocols” used instead of “regulations” to avoid parliamentary scrutiny, and skeleton Bills are a regular occurrence without any justification for them in the memorandum.

All departments have got into the habit of building in excessive delegated powers and attempting to stop Parliament having a look at them, even through the negative procedure. I am sorry that my noble friend the Minister drew the short straw today to take this general criticism of far too much of our legislation having inappropriate delegations. Having said that the statutory guidance should be introduced by order, this whole Bill is only about making statutory guidance, and it should be judged on its merit and not in comparison to masses of other education legislation.

In conclusion, while my amendment is absolutely right in principle and in practice, and should be passed, I am aware that there is only one argument against it: that this excellent Bill would fall if I went ahead with it. The House should not be in a position to face that unacceptable Hobson’s choice in future, but I beg leave to withdraw my amendment today.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed.

Clause 2 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported without amendment.

House adjourned at 4.13 pm.