All Christopher Chope contributions to the Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Act 2021

Fri 12th March 2021
45 interactions (3,991 words)
Fri 13th March 2020
3 interactions (66 words)

Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill

(3rd reading)
Christopher Chope Excerpts
Friday 12th March 2021

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Education

Guidance about the costs of school uniforms: England

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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I beg to move amendment 2, page 1, line 5, after “must” insert

“within six months of this Act coming into force”

This amendment will ensure that the guidance has to be issued within a specific time.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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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.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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.]

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. An hon. Member should not walk in front of another Member who is speaking. Please, let us show courtesy to each other.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I am all in favour of that. Thank you, Mr Speaker. That is another example of why we need to get back to normal sittings in this Chamber, so that people become more familiar with the way we normally work.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I do not think we need to debate that.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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:

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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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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.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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—

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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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.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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:

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Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
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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.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury
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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.

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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.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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I am much reassured by my hon. Friend, but does that include the sources of the materials that are used in the manufacture of school uniforms?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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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.

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Nick Gibb Portrait The Minister for School Standards (Nick Gibb)
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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.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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.

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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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.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
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indicated assent.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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She is nodding her head, but of course we did not get that commitment.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
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indicated dissent.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
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indicated dissent.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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.

--- Later in debate ---
Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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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).

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I did not rise in my place to speak on Third Reading because I understood that, as I was on the call list, I would be called, but the Minister is after me on the call list.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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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.

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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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.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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?

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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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.

--- Later in debate ---
Andrew Lewer Portrait Andrew Lewer [V]
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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.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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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.

Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill

(2nd reading)
Christopher Chope Excerpts
Friday 13th March 2020

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Department for Education
Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury
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I thank the hon. Member for his intervention and indeed for his support. This Bill does cover the broad scope, as did the 2013 guidelines, so yes to his question.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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13 Mar 2020, 9:50 a.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he accept that one aspect of the cost of school uniforms is the value added tax, which is imposed on secondary school uniforms in particular? Does he agree that, now we are leaving the European Union, it is time for the Government to put their avowed intent into practice by removing VAT on school uniforms?

Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury
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13 Mar 2020, 9:51 a.m.

I thank the hon. Member for that question. I cannot quite believe this, but I am actually going to agree with him. As a remainer, yes, I really think that people should take control of this issue; and, yes, this is an opportunity which, of course, the manufacturers and retailers have lobbied for over a number of years. However, although I agree wholeheartedly that that should be an opportunity, it is beyond the scope of this Bill.

The requirement by some schools for a branded logo on everything needs to be curtailed, to allow parents the choice of where to buy more items of their uniforms from a wide range of competitive retailers, including from supermarkets and low-cost retailers. I am not against schools having their own identity, far from it, but why not limit the number of branded items to a maximum of two, or have a badge that can be sewn on to a generic shirt or blazer? This Bill is about being fair while being smart, and making a real difference to families who are struggling.

The past three Governments have publicly stated that they intend to legislate on this matter—most recently in 2019, prior to the general election, when the Secretary of State responded positively to the Sunday People campaign—but legislation has been noticeable by its absence in the most recent Queen’s Speech, and in every other one since 2015. After a number of meetings over the past few weeks, I have gained an encouraging amount of cross-party support, including from the Minister and his team, and I sincerely thank them for that.

In conclusion, this Bill is constructed in such a way that it will allow for a swift, effective passage through Parliament, and it has Government support. I look forward to reassurance from the Minister on how parents and schools will be engaged on the content of the guidance as part of this process. Most importantly, today, parliamentarians can help many families in their own constituencies and beyond by getting this done. They should do the right thing by making sure that school uniforms are affordable for all.