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
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.”

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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.

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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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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.

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Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

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Andrew Lewer Portrait Andrew Lewer [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - -

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 and Training (Welfare of Children) Bill

(Report stage)
Christopher Chope Excerpts
Friday 12th March 2021

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Education
Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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I beg to move amendment 1, page 3, line 3, leave out from “force” to end of subsection and insert “on 1 October 2021”.

This amendment will incorporate into the Bill the guidance for policy makers issued in August 2010 that there should be two common commencement dates each year, one of which is 1st October, for the introduction of changes to regulations affecting businesses.

Amendment 1 is a short amendment, supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Shipley (Philip Davies), but it has a deeper purpose, which is set out in the explanatory statement. It means that the regulations under the Bill would come into effect on 1 October 2021.

In thinking about all this, it occurred to me that over the years we have lost sight of an important deregulatory policy of the Government, introduced, I think, in 2010: that, to reduce the burdens on business, regulations passed by this House should only be implemented on two implementation dates each year. One was, I think, 1 April and the other was 1 October. The idea behind that was that people in business should not have to keep an eye on when another regulation was going to be implemented or when those regulations that had been passed would be commenced. I thought it would be useful to try to tease out from the Government what their thinking is.

This Bill, in particular, contains an enormous amount of regulatory burden affecting the providers of important apprenticeships and training for youngsters. I do not disagree with the substance or the idea of what it is doing, but we must not underestimate the fact that what we are talking about is creating an additional burden. It would be better, in my view, to say that instead of its coming into force at the end of two months beginning on the day on which it is passed, it should come into force on 1 October and we could then re-adopt the practice that was begun, that there should only be two days each year when we commence these regulations.

That is quite a short point, and it will not be made any stronger by repetition, but I hope it will be taken seriously by the Government. I imagine the Minister, having received notice of this amendment, will be able to give me a definitive response from the deregulation unit, or whatever the equivalent body now is that deals with these matters on behalf of the Government and tries to ensure that this is a business-friendly Government.

Years ago, I was on a deregulation taskforce that made many different regulations. I wish this suggestion had been one of the ones that came out of our particular taskforce. It was not, but I think it was a sensible suggestion, so I am trying to use the vehicle of a Friday private Member’s Bill day and the opportunity of the Report stage of this Bill to ventilate the matter and try to engage the Government in a dialogue about it.

Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy (City of Durham) (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will be speaking against the amendment, and I will keep my remarks brief out of consideration for my colleagues whose Bills follow my own.

The intervention by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) is not, in my opinion, needed for several reasons. First, the guidance he refers to in the amendment was intended to give time for businesses to prepare for costs associated with changes in legislation or for any significant changes in their practices. As this Bill does not result in any increased costs for education providers or any significant burden for business, I would argue that this extra time is not needed.

Secondly, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that many designated safeguarding leads in further education are aware of the potential change in legislation, so again, I do not believe that further time is needed for providers to prepare for the change in law. Finally, as the Bill relates to education and aims at simplifying the safeguarding process for providers of post-16 education, it would make more sense for this legislation to come into effect for the start of the academic year in September. In fact, a change in legislation mid-term would arguably be more burdensome to business.

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Gillian Keegan Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Gillian Keegan)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) for his interest in this Bill and for raising his concerns on behalf of businesses and training providers. However, I do believe the amendment he has put forward is unnecessary. This Bill does not place any new or additional burdens or costs on education and training providers. It is a technical change to put all Government-funded providers of post-16 education and training on the same statutory footing.

As I made clear in Committee, all children in post-16 education or training are currently protected by safeguarding arrangements. If a provider is already properly discharging its safeguarding responsibility, the change in this Bill will make no practical difference to it. It is not anticipated that this will add burdens or costs to businesses and training providers. As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, safeguarding duties on providers can come from a variety of sources. This Bill simplifies a situation that is more complex than it needs to be.

The Bill, as currently drafted, will come into force two months after it is passed. Amendment 1 would add several months to that period, going beyond the start of the academic year, as the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) said. I do not think it is in the spirit of clarity and simplification that has characterised the cross-party support of this Bill, and I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch to withdraw his amendment.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
- Hansard - -

Unfortunately, I do not seem to have achieved my purpose, which was to try to draw out a response from the Government the issue of having two separate days each year when regulations are implemented to reduce the burden on business. The promoter of the Bill, the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), and the Minister have said in response, “Well, not me, guv”—this legislation does not impose any fresh burdens, and therefore the point I was making in my amendment and the remarks I made in addressing the amendment are really of no relevance. I think that is really the point that my hon. Friend the Minister is making. I shall have to explore other ways of developing the idea that we should reintroduce the practice that was first introduced in 2010 of having a maximum of two days each year when we introduce regulatory burdens on business, and hopefully many more days when we deregulate. I am grateful to those who have participated in this short debate for explaining that the Bill is not in the least burdensome and that everyone is absolutely hunky-dory about it so we should be content. In those circumstances, I seek leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Third Reading

Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy (City of Durham) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

While technical, this Bill is relatively simple. I am conscious that a number of hon. Members are keen to ensure that their Bills are also heard, so I will keep my remarks as brief as possible, especially as the contents have been well covered in previous stages.

Legal safeguarding duties do not apply to independent providers in the same way as they do for those educated at school or in sixth form or further education colleges. The Education and Training (Welfare of Children) Bill aims to ensure that all young people are protected by the same safeguarding duties in the law, irrespective of the education or training provider that they choose.

The Bill contains two substantive clauses. Clause 1 amends the Education Act 2002 to extend the existing safeguarding duties that apply to further education colleges, schools and sixth forms to post-16 academies. As more sixth forms convert to academies, the requirement for this change becomes more pressing. Clause 1 also brings independent learning providers and specialist post-16 institutions into scope by imposing direct responsibilities on the Secretary of State for Education, requiring them to include the safeguarding duties as a condition of any agreement with those institutions. The Bill would also compel providers to have regard to any guidance on safeguarding issued by the Secretary of State such as the document “Keeping children safe in education”.

Clause 2 will amend the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 to ensure that apprenticeship providers, as well as those who assist with the training or education of T-level students that is funded under the Act, must follow those safeguarding duties, while having regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State. Again, the duty is on the Secretary of State to include those requirements in agreements, while the duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children at the institution falls on the provider.

I introduced the Bill because in the City of Durham I am privileged to represent a constituency that contains a number of top-class further education providers in both academic and vocational subjects. There is the leading further education college, New College Durham, one of the first education providers to offer T-levels, as well as the excellent Houghall college, part of East Durham college, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris). We also have a number of brilliant sixth forms as well as a number of independent providers. I place on the record my gratitude to the staff, students and family members who have put so much effort into ensuring that there has been as little disruption as possible to education during the pandemic.

While I welcome the diversity training and education courses available to my constituents, I do not welcome the potential for variation in safeguarding requirements. As a parent, I know how important it is to be secure in the knowledge that children are kept safe in education. For many, further education is a new experience, full of different challenges for young people and their families. Between further education colleges, sixth-form academies and independent providers, there are a variety of options for how young people are educated, which can be confusing for parents. We could debate in the House all day how education should be provided, but I think we all agree that every child and young person, regardless of their background or education provider, should be subject to the same safeguarding requirements as their peers. By closing this loophole, we can help protect young people while giving parents the reassurance and peace of mind they deserve when it comes to their child’s education.

However, this Bill is about more than protecting young people and reassuring parents; it is also practical for education and training providers. Currently, the system for post-16 academies, independent providers and specialist institutions is somewhat complex and inconsistent. By extending legal safeguarding duties to cover all publicly funded providers of post-16 education, safeguarding requirements for institutions will be simplified, making the whole process easier for educators. The Bill will also benefit providers to which these duties already apply by ensuring that there is a level playing field when it comes to safeguarding requirements, meaning that schools, colleges and sixth forms will operate on the same terms as the independent sector.

This is a good, simple Bill aimed at addressing an anomaly in safeguarding legislation that we all recognise must be fixed, and it does so in a way that benefits providers, parents and young people. I hope that we can continue the fantastic cross-party work so far on the Bill, to help me close this anomaly in law.

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Wes Streeting Portrait Wes Streeting
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to speak in support of this Bill on Third Reading. As the Minister will know from the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) in Committee, the Bill has the Opposition’s wholehearted support. Of course, there are very few responsibilities as important as safeguarding and protecting the welfare of children and young people. The Bill, as we have heard, moves to level the playing field for all providers of publicly funded post-16 education and training.

All that is left for me to do is wish the Minister a very happy birthday this weekend, and I will also say something about my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy). She has been a Member of Parliament for barely 15 months. Many Members serve in this House with distinction for decades without ever managing to put their mark on the statute book in the way that she has. Her constituents ought to be very proud of their MP for how she has diligently and consistently represented their concerns and interests in these most challenging times. The passage of this Bill will be a meaningful step towards ensuring that all children and young people, wherever they are studying, learning or training, are safe, and I think that is something of which she and the people of Durham can be immensely proud.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
- Hansard - -

May I, too, wish the Minister a most enjoyable, productive and lazy weekend, bearing in mind that Sunday is also Mother’s Day?

I support the Bill. Obviously, it is desirable that we should maintain the highest standards of looking after our children when they are in the care of others, as they are when they go on training courses, whatever institution that happens to be in. I am lucky to have in my constituency some really good providers of specialist training for apprentices, which is now so popular and effective. I have visited those organisations and met the youngsters who have been through the process and then come back to instruct those currently in training, and it works extremely well. I am sure that the particular training academy that I have in mind will have no problem complying with the provisions of the Bill.

I had not really appreciated—and this has probably not been highlighted enough—that the Bill is arguably deregulatory. Perhaps it does not fit in with their current agenda, but if the Government are still interested in deregulation, they should be putting forward this Bill as an example of deregulation, simplifying the statute book and making it easier for those affected to know which regulations apply to them and which do not. That is just an observation of mine, based on having listened to today’s debate. I have no hesitation whatsoever in supporting those who believe that the Bill should receive its Third Reading.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) on her perseverance in moving this important Bill forward, particularly during these difficult times, when the pandemic has constrained our ability to debate and pass legislation. It has been a pleasure to be a co-sponsor of the Bill.

On Second Reading, almost exactly a year ago, drawing on my experience as a governor of Luton Sixth Form College, I made the point about how important the extension of the statutory safeguarding arrangements was to ensuring that all young people in post-16 education and training were protected by equitable safeguarding protocols. That is to ensure that they receive the support and have the best possible chance of succeeding in their studies and training. At that time, I particularly focused on the increasing level of mental health issues among our young people. I just want to reiterate the importance of that now more than ever, given the impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on our young people, who face such a difficult year and such disruption to their education.

Just yesterday, I picked up a poll by Network Rail and the charity Chasing the Stigma, which reported that 69% of 18 to 24-year-olds had said that the coronavirus crisis had had a negative impact on their mental health; that compares with just 28% of the over-65s. The impact on our young people’s mental health will continue over the coming months, particularly with regard to dealing with assessed grades in the absence of exams and any impact that may have on progression choices for our children and young people.

My final point is that it is hugely important that all providers of post-16 education and training, including private providers, have that statutory duty for the safeguarding of our young people. I support the Bill and hope to see it pass its Third Reading today.

Exams and Accountability 2021

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Thursday 3rd December 2020

(1 year ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Education
Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We continue to deliver ever more laptops every single week. More than 0.5 million laptops will be going out, and we continue to do everything we can do to support schools with laptop provision.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
- Hansard - -

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Christchurch on being given an accolade by The Sunday Times for being one of the best primary schools in the country? Will he tell us what criteria will be available to enable the public to judge primary schools next year, if there are no tests at key stage 1 and very few at key stage 2, bearing in mind that the key stage 1 tests are the test against which future progress is gauged?

Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I very much join my hon. Friend in congratulating St Joseph’s school in Christchurch on such an accolade. I am sure that he, the teachers, parents and, most importantly, pupils feel incredibly proud at receiving it.

We recognise that we have had to make some changes that we would not normally want to do, in order to facilitate the smooth functioning of schools. We will continue to publish data on schools, including attendance, so that parents are in the best possible position to make the best choice for their children in school.

Support for Children and Families: Covid-19

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Tuesday 20th October 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)
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I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for their patience during the security scare, but all has now been satisfactorily resolved. This is a one and a half hour debate; it will start now and finish at 25 minutes past 11. One Member has chosen to withdraw from the list as he will not be able to be here between 11 am and 11.25 am. If there are others in a similar position, they can notify the Chair accordingly.

Danny Kruger Portrait Danny Kruger (Devizes) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

1 Jan 2000, midnight

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for children and families during the covid-19 outbreak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for supporting the application for this debate. We have become used to hearing that the pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities that existed in our society, and that we need to build back better. I do not intend to change that script. I want to start with some observations about family life under covid-19 and draw some lessons for the future.

I was very much a witness to the inequalities under lockdown. I spent it with my family in Wiltshire during the beautiful spring and early summer, watching the barley slowly ripen, under skies clear of planes; cycling on roads clear of cars. It was an idyllic existence. However, every day my inbox would fill with emails from families in crisis. I used to work with children and families at risk in disadvantaged parts of London, and I have some sense as to what parents in overcrowded accommodation without enough money must have been through this year. For families who were already in trouble, financially or emotionally, the pandemic has been a disaster. Rates of domestic violence have soared, alcohol and substance abuse have increased, people’s mental health has suffered, and, of course, poverty has worsened.

Save the Children reports that 40% of families have become worse off, and 20% of families have made use of food banks. Personal debt has risen dramatically, and children are the principal victims here, especially children with disabilities, looked-after children, and all those who really rely on support outside the home—support which in many cases disappeared during lockdown, and will remain unavailable in areas under local lockdowns.

I acknowledge how much the measures put in place by the Government have helped many of these families: universal credit, the brainchild of the my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), has worked with incredible efficiency. It is a tribute to him and the current Ministers, and to the thousands of officials and jobcentre staff who manage that system. The £20 per week uplift has been a lifeline for countless families. Likewise the mortgage holidays, the protection against eviction, the furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme. The Government put a defensive ring around families’ homes and incomes and I pay tribute to them.

I want to pay tribute not only to the Government, but to the families themselves, or should I say “the family” as an institution. The resilience, capability and adaptability and the hidden resources of care and skill that families found in this crisis are extraordinary. The families are the single most important system for what we used to call social security. They have been the most effective defence against disaster for children and adults. They are the single greatest asset that we have as a country.

I mention this because it is right that we focus on these dreadful problems, but we also need to consider the conditions for success, to accentuate the positive, as Bing Crosby said, not just eliminate the negative. However, to eliminate the negative first, I have two simple principles to suggest to address the current crisis for families.

The first principle is that of greater support around the family through more investment in the social infrastructure of communities, especially civil society, especially through the family hubs that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and others have championed so assiduously and that are found in the Conservative manifesto. I would also like to see expansion of the help to claim and the flexible support fund. We are inching towards the vision my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has for what he called universal support: a package of help provided by charities and community groups alongside the cash provided by universal credit.

The second immediate step that we should be taking to eliminate the negative, in order to meet the needs of families in trouble right now, is to invest directly in them. I respect the arguments of those who want to maintain the £20 a week uplift for all UC claimants beyond next April, but I would point out that it would not only cost nearly £6 billion a year but that half of those claimants do not have children, and in my view we should focus on households with children, aka families.

Let me finish with some high-level thoughts on how to accentuate the positive and strengthen families from within over the long term, so that people are better insulated against whatever shocks and challenges the next decades will throw at us. Here, I have to challenge what I see as a malign alliance of left and right, or more specifically liberals on the left and the right, who are the dominant force in both our tribes. By the way, I exclude from my idea of “liberal” the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, a Liberal Democrat. Where is he? Not here—withdrawn. He is a sound conservative in my book, but he is not here to defend himself against my suggestion that he is not really a liberal but a good conservative.

Anyway, liberals of left and right might disagree on the proper size and role of Government, but they agree that government and society in general should not try to influence family life. I think they are wrong and that government should seek to influence family life, because it does so anyway; it influences the choices that people make all the time. When it pretends to be neutral, its influence is no less real but is a lot less positive.

The policies that we have created in this country over many decades actively, although not intentionally, pull families apart. Our housing policy has created the smallest homes and our jobs market has created the longest commutes in Europe. We have childcare subsidies that only work for people if they put their kids into a nursery for most of the day, and we have a higher education system that makes young people study far from home for jobs that only exist in big cities. We have a social care system that only pays out to people if they put their parents into residential care or makes them sell the family home to pay for it. Most of all, we actively disincentivise family stability by penalising couples who live together. We pay couples more in benefits if they live apart. We tax people as individuals, which means we tax single-earner couples particularly hard, and then we compensate them in benefits. We then punish them for coming off benefits and moving into work with a very high effective marginal tax rate. I recognise that universal credit has greatly reduced that rate, but it remains too high. We have high taxes and high benefits, and we still leave families in poverty.

In contrast to the malign alliance of liberals who think that family life is no business of wider society and of the Government, I have a view of what good looks like. Before I cause alarm—I can sense the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) beginning to twitch—I should emphasise that I am not conjuring up the 1950s, with the nuclear family centred on the housewife. As David Brooks has written, the 1950s nuclear family, the single-earner household living literally detached from wider kin and community, was a brief and unsuccessful experiment only made tolerable by Valium. As Mary Harrington has argued, the trad wife—#tradwife, as it is trendily known in some conservative circles—is a historic anomaly. The really traditional wife was a trade wife; she was not just a domestic consumer, but a fully engaged player in the local economy. What I am getting at is that we need to recognise and support the economy of households and not just of individuals. You will know, Sir Christopher, that the economy of households is actually a tautology, because the etymology of our word “economy” is in fact the Greek world word for household—the oikos. The oikos was the smallest viable social unit, the foundation of society, and we need to strengthen it.

Yes, that means support for one-earner couples. I applaud the work of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies, and “A Manifesto To Strengthen Families”, led by the friend of many of us here, David Burrowes. They all call for an end to the couple penalty in the tax system. When Nigel Lawson introduced individual taxation in 1990, he always intended to let married couples share their combined personal allowances if one of them did not do paid work. Mrs Thatcher— possibly like the hon. Member for Walthamstow, who in so many ways she resembles—was not sympathetic to stay-at-home mothers.

We need to get this matter right, so that people who choose to work—unpaid—by looking after children or elderly relatives, or by helping in their community, are not penalised for doing so. My idea of what good looks like is both more old-fashioned than in the 1950s and more progressive; it is both medieval and modern, which I am sure Members will agree is what we should be aiming for in all things. Two parents where possible, multigenerational where possible, with both parents able to work from or close to home, in paid employment or self-employment, or caring for others without pay, and engaged in the local community. That is the vision that I think would command the support of the public. Middle-class families such as mine had a glimpse of that model during the lockdown, and I hope we can achieve it for everyone.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
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20 Oct 2020, midnight

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship Sir Christopher, as it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger). Unlike with Caesar, I do not come to bury him but to praise many of the things that he has to say—and just for the avoidance of doubt, I am not on Valium while doing it. He and I agree on much of what he has just said. We agree that it is actually about the support for families.

It is always interesting to hear the hon. Member’s perorations about etymological foundations. I come with a much more practical message this morning, because we know that our families are in crisis. The question is—and he and I would agree on this—what can we practically do, as communities and as the state, to support them? We know that supporting families reaps rewards, not just for those families, but for the entire communities that they live in.

I agree with what the hon. Member says about the couples’ penalty and not penalising people for how they live, but I would gently encourage him to look at the penalising that currently goes on for those families who find themselves in the most awful situation: where one family member dies, but, because the family have decided that they do not wish to use marriage as a basis for their relationship, their children are pushed into poverty because, under our legislation, those children are not entitled to the bereavement support payment. If he wants to not just talk the talk but walk the walk, I am sure he will join me in raising that with Ministers.

I come this morning to talk about the defensive ring that the hon. Member has already mentioned in terms of rising evictions and debt, and what we can do now that the defensive ring that he talks about is about to end, particularly when we know that we are about to face a tsunami of unemployment in this country.

It has become increasingly clear over the last couple of months that within the family, it is the mums that are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Before a child has even been born in this country in the last couple of months, we have had women who have gone to have scans on their own and found out their child would not live; they have had to give birth on their own and health visitors have been cancelled without anybody being told. As the hon. Member for Devizes mentioned, domestic violence has risen. Now, the evidence is before us that it is mums who are bearing the brunt of that approaching tsunami of unemployment. If, as the hon. Member says, he believes that both sides of the family should be able to work and come together as a family, I hope he will join me in calling for urgent action to tackle the reasons why it is mums who are much more likely to have been furloughed and are therefore much more likely to face redundancy. Indeed, the fantastic organisation, which I am sure he is a supporter of, Pregnant Then Screwed has seen a 450% increase in calls to their helpline during the pandemic. Little wonder.

The protections that many of us took for granted preventing women from being made redundant while pregnant have disintegrated in the past couple of months. We know that it is women who have been doing the working from home in both senses. While the hon. Member was cycling, I am sure that his wife was looking after their three children and trying to home school them. That is not an unusual experience.

The evidence that we have had shows that overwhelmingly it has been women who have been managing children in the home and trying to work from home. Their employers push them to be furloughed to be able to manage that situation, and then they find themselves at the front of the queue to be let go. That is why we know that during lockdown, for every hour of uninterrupted work done by mothers, fathers had three uninterrupted hours of work, according to the research. We know that it is particularly women who are suffering because our childcare and schooling facilities were closed.

What is worrying me now—and I hope that the Minister will tell us they have an action plan for this—is that two thirds of women who want to return to work cannot do so because there is not any childcare. It is a very simple equation: when you have to socially distance three-year-olds—my goodness, I would not wish that on anybody—then clearly there are fewer places, which means that fewer people can put their children into childcare and so an already broken system in this country is now clattering to a halt.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that mothers were 47% more likely that fathers to have permanently lost their job or quit during the pandemic, and are 14% more likely to have been furloughed. Pregnant Then Screwed research of 20,000 mothers show that 15% of them had either already been made redundant or expected to be made redundant. It is a generational rollback of mothers in the workplace and of workplaces being able to work for mothers.

We already know from data published on 15 September by the Office for National Statistics that the numbers of redundancies have increased by 45% this quarter. Of those affected by that increase, 79% were women. The high-level data that looks at men versus women does not capture the particular phenomenon we are seeing of the tsunami of unemployment coming towards mothers. It is particularly in the industries that mums work in that we have seen higher levels of redundancies and high levels of closures— hospitalities, retail jobs—and it does not take a rocket scientist to work out that it takes political will to recognise that mums are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. That is why it is so important that we keep that universal credit uplift: we already know that more and more families are falling into poverty.

If the hon. Member wants, as I do, mothers to be able to work and fathers to be able to work, and for them to balance family life as they choose, then we have to make it possible for them to do that. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that withdrawing that uplift would bring 700,000 more people—including 300,000 more children—into poverty. If parents cannot work because they cannot put their children into childcare, then we need to be able to support those families, or destitution will become even more widespread than it already is. Child poverty has already increased by 600,000 since this Government came to administration, meaning that 4.2 million children are living below the breadline. That was before covid hit.

There are some solutions. In the time left, I want to be clear about that. First and foremost, we need urgent investment in childcare in this country to keep those nurseries and maintained providers open that are desperately needed so that parents can get back to work if they choose, so that mums can make that choice. We need to keep that universal credit uplift. We also need to simplify the tax support we give to childcare. I agree with the hon. Member for Devizes that the state can play an active hand—not a dead hand—in helping it work. Frankly, the money is there. Last year, £664 million worth of tax-free childcare was not claimed, amounting to £1.7 billion over the last three years. Imagine if we could put that into childcare settings, and help get families back to being able to organise their lives the way they want. There is £64 million in the local authority schools budget. The money is there. The need is there. The poverty is there. The question is whether the political will is there. I venture that the hon. Member for Devizes and I share a common concern to make sure that the political will is there, and to do what our suffragette sisters and fathers would ask of us: deeds, not just words.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)
- Hansard - -

Before calling the next speaker, I will say that 13 other Members wish to be called and there are 52 minutes left. By my calculations, self-discipline of about four minutes per speech should enable everybody to get a hearing.

Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a privilege to serve under your tutelage, Sir Christopher. It is always a privilege. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger). Sometimes when I listen to what he says in his speeches, I often think that I could have written them. Perhaps I did, I do not know, but then I realise that he used to write speeches for me as well. In a sense, we are a little too heavily joined at the hip. I promise that I will not embarrass him any more on that basis.

I fundamentally agree with everything he said, particularly with regards to the challenges. In a sense, much of what the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), literally a neighbour of mine, says can be meshed together internally. There are ways through this, and I wish we could form some kind of common purpose in all of it rather than attacking each other. Too often, at the heart of these debates is not the question of left or right, but a big difference about whether people think we should intervene with Government or not.

To those assembled here, I make the point that we face real issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes mentioned the tax system. A good example of what happens when people get into government is that they immediately use the argument that we should not intervene because we show a bias towards one side. The UK has the worse tax system for families that wish to stay together. We have the worse system in Europe, particularly where a person in that family wishes to look after their children for a while. Every other major country in Europe has an allowance, and people can move their allowances across. In Germany, they have income-splitting which gives families an immediate balance, which is more expensive to be fair. But in France they have a marriage tax allowance form as well. We in the UK are alone in having not had one for a period, the Labour Government having taken it away. When I was in government, I sat arguing with the Chancellor—I did a lot of that when I was in government—about that very point. Finally, with the Prime Minister’s intervention, we reinstated the marriage tax allowance. However, it was done at such a measly and miserly level, and then hidden so deep in the documents, that nobody claimed it because they did not know it existed. The Government refused to let anybody know about it, until finally they told them about it. That is one of the problems we face with Government.

It is not a case of siding with one side or the other. If we get family life and the involvement of Government balanced, people will make their own choices; that is all I ever ask for. I know those choices will be, in the vast majority of cases, balanced, positive and constructive. Everyone out there, except for the exceptional minority, wants their family to be stable, and would prefer their children brought up with both parents looking after them all the way through their childhood. Government intervene in the wrong way and distort the nature of that decision, and then accuse everybody of asking them to intervene and take sides, but that is not the case.

I appreciate the comments about universal credit and, definitely, about universal support. Universal support, alongside universal credit, is critical in getting people help and assistance along the lines that the hon. Member for Walthamstow talked about. We should all be on the side of getting that rolled out.

Finally, on schools, we have a real problem at the moment. There is pressure on parents as a result of what is happening in our schools. Whole year groups are suddenly being sent home because one child is infected. That goes against all the evidence that children are not vectors to adults, but that it is the other way round. This situation is causing chaos in families up and down the land. There is a good organisation called UsforThem, which is made up of parents who are worried because they have had to leave work and go back home. That has caused real stress in families, and had a real effect on family break-up. It is also causing problems for children, more of whom need intervention and are now under protected schemes.

We need to think again about what in heaven’s name we are doing with our schools in relation to covid. The children are losing out massively, the parents are suffering dramatically, and if we do not get proper advice to schools, we will be buying ourselves a heap of problems down the road, in 10 years’ time. Schools are operating without clear advice on what they should do when children get covid, and they immediately send everybody home. That has to stop. We need to get a balanced view.

I end by saying that I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes’ speech. It was absolutely right; it is on the money. I will not repeat what he said, but I back every bit of it; I just wish we had longer to speak.

--- Later in debate ---
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is pleasure to speak in this debate. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) on putting forward the case very well and with a certain amount of humour, and I thank him for that. It is also nice to see the Minister in her place. She and I were born in the same town—in Omagh, in County Tyrone—so it is pleasing to see her elevated to that position. I will never reach the heights of Minister, of course, but she has, and well done to her. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting this debate and colleagues for raising the issue in the first place.

Covid-19 has been incredibly difficult for so many people and so many families. I am feeling the effect of it myself this week, as I lost my mother-in-law to it. The effect on children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren is very real. Our children are aware of things that we would want to hide from them for their safety, and I know there is concern that this age group should be carefree. Hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen have referred to that, and I thank them for it. It saddens this grandfather to see so many children so uncertain and unable to do things that their normal lives saw them doing. Swimming lessons have been cancelled again. They can have no meals out with granny and granddad. There are no play dates with cousins. Little lives are disrupted, and that will have implications for their mental health.

I want to speak specifically on mental health, and others will probably do that as well. For some families who have already had their struggles, this isolation and removal from support can see irretrievable breakdowns. We need dedicated and focused support for children and families on this issue from the Government. I am proud that Northern Ireland pioneered the introduction of a nationally funded school-based counselling service over 10 years ago to support our vulnerable children and young people, and such a service has been adopted by the Scottish and Welsh Governments. It is important now that there is UK-wide provision of this critical early intervention.

Now more than ever, when we are isolating people in their individual circumstances, we need the support of well-funded initiatives to ensure that those individual circumstances are manageable. Some of the teachers I have spoken to in the last months have expressed fears that their children, to whom they give that little bit of extra support emotionally, as well as academically, are removed from them. That happens when schools do not operate as they should, and teachers are concerned that the gap is not being filled.

In Northern Ireland—I suspect it is the same on the mainland—we have rising numbers of those of school age with mental health issues. I welcome the NHS long-term plan commitment that, by 2023-4, at least an additional 345,000 children and young people aged up to 25 will be able to access support via the NHS. That is good, and I am convinced that it will serve a fifth to a quarter of schools and colleges in England by 2023. That is the start that must be made, and we welcome it as a good step forward.

However, we also need to consider the pandemic’s impact on the mental health of children and young people. We need to see more ambition; investing in school-based counselling services would help to serve the missing middle in terms of the support provided between child and adolescent mental health services and meeting the needs of the 75% to 80% of schools not supported under the new model. Mental health in the UK has worsened substantially as a result of the covid-19 pandemic—by 8.1% percent on average, and by much more for young adults and women, and those groups already had poor levels of mental health before covid-19.

A further survey—it is important to record this in Hansard—by Young Minds found that 80% of respondents agreed that the pandemic had made their mental health worse. Of those, 41% said that it had made their mental health much worse, up from 32% in the previous survey, in March. There are increased feelings of anxiety and isolation and a loss of coping mechanisms or motivation. Of 1,000 respondents who were accessing mental health support in the three months leading up to the crisis—including from the NHS and from school and university counsellors, private providers, charities and helplines—31% said they were no longer able to access the support they still needed.

I want to speak up for the people who need that support. Of those who have not been accessing support immediately because of the crisis, 40% said they had not looked for support but they were struggling with their mental health. That is the issue for children. Urgent steps must be taken to provide help to our families and to keep family units intact and—more importantly—happy, and support is needed for that to happen.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)
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20 Oct 2020, 12:02 a.m.

There are still six speakers and about 18 minutes, so three minutes each would be my recommendation. The next speaker is Jane Hunt.

Jane Hunt Portrait Jane Hunt (Loughborough) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

20 Oct 2020, 12:02 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and to have the honour to follow the wonderful hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger), the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for facilitating this important debate. I almost have to declare an interest in Congleton, as it is where I moved to as a child and grew up.

As colleagues have mentioned, the covid-19 outbreak has impacted on society in an unprecedented way. Indeed, I have had many conversations with constituents, who have raised concerns about the future for themselves and their families. They have shared their anxieties about being made redundant and the financial pressures that that entails and about their children’s mental health and wellbeing and the impact that missed schooling may have on their future potential. Parts of Loughborough are among the most deprived in the country, so it is clear that without intervention we run the very real risk of leaving those often vulnerable people behind, widening the disadvantage gap and placing an even greater burden on social services, which are already under strain.

The importance of prevention cannot be overstated. I welcome the fact that the unprecedented impact of covid-19 has been met with an unprecedented package of support from the Government. As well as the financial support available to working families and the enhancements to the welfare system, significant funding has been ploughed into schools to help young people catch up, into local authorities to help the most economically vulnerable and into the fantastic organisations that have worked tirelessly over the past few months to support communities.

I would like to take this opportunity to mention some of the great things that have been undertaken by local people in my constituency recently, which have contributed to the wellbeing of children, young people and families in the area. First and foremost, many of our teachers have worked right through the lockdown to support our children and young people. They have gone beyond teaching to ensure that emphasis is placed on young people’s wellbeing, by regularly contacting many children and their families to ensure that vulnerable children, in particular, are safe, cared for and able to carry on their education.

During two recent visits, I have also witnessed first hand schools’ hard work and the impact that it has had on pupils. First, at Rawlins Academy, I saw the lengths staff had gone to in ensuring that the school could open safely in September. More recently, at Cobden Primary School, I saw how happy the children were and what fantastic work was being created by the head, the teachers and the pupils. We owe an immense debt of gratitude to our teachers and schools for all they have done. Online organisations such as Amazing Grace, which is helping to bring children back up to speed with their coursework, have also been invaluable to the area.

As well as supporting the community through the initial stages of the pandemic, I have been working with organisations that are looking to the future and on to recovery. For example, Loughborough College, Charnwood Borough Council, Loughborough’s business improvement district and Loughborough’s jobcentre have joined forces to help young people into work—the surest way out of poverty—by promoting the kickstart scheme. I am thrilled to say that, so far, 143 job opportunities have been identified in Loughborough, and we only started two weeks ago. That is a testament to what can be achieved when Government organisations and the public work together to support local communities, and it is this collaborative effort that will be vital if we are to ensure that no one is left behind.

--- Later in debate ---
Jo Gideon Portrait Jo Gideon (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) on securing this really important debate.

The corona pandemic has had tough consequences. Families across the UK and in my constituency have had to make hard choices and sacrifices in order to protect the health of the nation. This global health crisis has shone a light on the fundamental building blocks of our society. It has forced us to question what really matters and how our social structures operate. Who are the organisations, the people and the community that we look to for support in our daily lives? The pandemic has shown that the answer cannot and should not always lie in the hands of Government. Instead, the value of a rich and meaningful family, community and local support network has been realised.

In July this year, I welcomed the Government’s support for a place-based approach to supporting education and employment outcomes as part of the country’s recovery measures from the pandemic. In my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central, I was delighted to see the Government deliver an extra £1.67 million in funding through the opportunity areas programme, which included support for holiday clubs for children and families, such as Ay Up Duck. Throughout the pandemic, the Ay Up Duck club and many charity organisations in Stoke have shown the value of voluntary and community sector organisations in supporting the delivery of Government-funded programmes for children and families, particularly for the role they played in ensuring that Government-funded meals were delivered to children from low-income households throughout the months of the school holidays and school closures. Since 2018, Ay Up Duck has delivered over 26,000 meals to more than 18,000 children and young people in schools, community centres and sports clubs across Stoke-on-Trent. It is a fantastic example of how charities are an essential community resource in organising the delivery of Government funding that is tailored to specific needs in the community.

Age UK has conducted research that shows that, if we feel more connected to our friends, families and communities, we are much less likely to encounter problems with brain function in later life. It is really important that, coming out of this pandemic, we capitalise on public support for volunteering and working together with families to continue to find ways to harness the economic, social and health benefits of being more connected to our community. Time and again, empowering families, communities and charitable organisations with the financial and political power to act has proven to be the most effective way to target Government money at the people who need it most.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)
- Hansard - -

Andrew Selous, you have half a minute.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

20 Oct 2020, 12:05 a.m.

I hope you are joking, Sir Christopher.

I want to thank The Sun newspaper and their agony aunt, Deidre Sanders, for flagging up today’s debate with their “Sort It Out” campaign. So let us sort it out for Louis, aged 8, who said:

“My mum and dad spend so much time hating each other, they don’t have time to love me”,

and for Shakira, aged 14, who says:

“when she picks up her phone and sighs and rolls her eyes, I know it’s my dad. I’d pay a lot of money to stop that, she just forgets that I love my dad too and I’m stuck right in the middle”.

I agree with what was said earlier on in the debate that the mums are bearing the brunt of so much of the ghastly covid pandemic. We have too many mothers out there forced to do everything by themselves. Those mothers are doing a heroic job, often under trying circumstances, and they deserve a lot of credit, but they should not have to do that alone as often as they do. Raising children is the most important job in the country and it is the responsibility of all of us as mothers and fathers.

As President Obama said in his 2010 father’s day address, our children

“don’t need us to be perfect. They do need us to be present. They need us to show up and give it our best shot”.

Too many fathers are missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities and acted like boys, not men. We need fathers to realise that responsibility does not end at conception. What makes someone a man is not the ability to have a child, it is the courage to raise one and then enjoy the most rewarding and joyful experience of being a father.

A third of children see their parents split up before they are 16, and 1.25 million children are exposed to conflict between their parents. Efforts to support healthy relationships between parents are vital and we know that children benefit from loving parents and strong, loving and respectful marriages and relationships as well. We pass on empathy and kindness by living it; we are not strong by putting others down, but by lifting them up. That is why the work Patrick Myers is doing at the Department for Work and Pensions is so important with his Reducing Parental Conflict programme and why the work done by the members of the Relationships Alliance—Relate, Tavistock Relationships, Marriage Care and OnePlusOne—is so vital, as is the pre-marriage course, the work of Jonathan and Andrea Taylor-Cummings and many others. Also Care for the Family is a fantastic charity that teaches so much, telling parents to stop scoring points and stop thinking the worst.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)
- Hansard - -

Order. I am going to have to interrupt the hon. Member, otherwise we will not have time for wind-ups.

Tulip Siddiq Portrait Tulip Siddiq (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)
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20 Oct 2020, 11:10 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I want to thank the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger), the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this important debate. I am used to being in a room full of Conservatives, as my parents-in-law met through the Young Conservatives. This important debate has felt a bit like a family dinner, because I have thoroughly disagreed with some things the Conservatives have said while I have agreed with some points made. I agreed with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) when he talked about vulnerable children. Is he aware of the fact that 2 million children faced greater threats in lockdown, from domestic abuse to online grooming? He also raised the point about the mental health of black, Asian and minority ethnic children and families, who suffered disproportionately in the pandemic, exacerbating existing racial inequalities.

Unsurprisingly, I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) when she talked about the pandemic’s devastating impact on mothers’ earnings and employment. It is not necessary to be a mother with young children, as we are, to realise that our economy will not survive if we do not get childcare sorted and the system fixed in this country. It has been chronically underfunded for years and coronavirus has shone a spotlight, showing there is no doubt that funding is needed if we want to properly secure childcare and get mothers back to work. My hon. Friend also talked about redundancies, that the pandemic has hit women so much harder than men, the fantastic work of Pregnant Then Screwed, the broken system and child poverty.

The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) talked passionately about her constituency and about wellbeing. It is a word we did not mention much before the pandemic; I feel it was lost. However, the huge changes and isolation have hit wellbeing, with a survey by Young Minds showing that 80% of people have seen their mental health worsen during the pandemic. The hon. Lady also talked about food poverty passionately and how it affects her constituency. There were 200,000 children skipping meals at the height of the pandemic and around one in five children experienced food insecurity over the summer holidays.

I wanted to mention something said by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who has now left his place. I have never in my life agreed with him before, but I agree that there is a problem with schools, and we have to ensure that we fix the problem before the second wave of the pandemic hits us. He talked a lot about access to services, and anyone who does casework in their constituency knows what a problem that has been during coronavirus. Support through schools, the NHS and charities, and other services has been harder and harder to access. Teachers have been unable to identify problems, and that is one of the things that I urge the Government and the Minister to look at as we hit another wave of the pandemic.

I am glad that we are having this debate, especially because we have had so few opportunities to talk about the impact of the pandemic on children especially, and on their families. The received wisdom is that children suffer less from covid than adults, and thank goodness for that but, unfortunately, many times it has felt that children have been an afterthought in the pandemic. We have to fix that. I realise that covid-19 is uncharted territory and that this is something new for the Government. We as an Opposition have tried to be constructive—we want to help the Government navigate the choppy waters—but there is no excuse for repeating the mistakes that were made in the first six months of this pandemic.

This debate is an opportunity for us to examine the mistakes that were made and make sure that they are not repeated. We owe it to children to make sure that we do not repeat the massive mistakes that happened. By the end of March this year, the majority of children in this country were not going to school, for obvious reasons. The issues that arose from children not going to school were predictable. A proper plan should have been in place to mitigate the impact, especially for already vulnerable children, who were always going to be hit hardest by school closures.

School is often a safe haven for children who are at risk of domestic abuse or other threats at home and, because teachers often spot, report and provide support, or because of many children’s special educational needs and disabilities, such children were always going to find long periods away from school very challenging. That would often be without the SEN provision that they so desperately need. That was bound to have a knock-on impact on their family’s welfare.

I know that the intention of the Government was to keep schools open for vulnerable children but, in reality, if people actually look at the figures, very few vulnerable children went to school. As few as 5% of vulnerable children were going to school in the early weeks of the lockdown. Some children will have been safer at home during covid—there is no doubt about that—but that is not the case for many children. The reality is about ensuring that children at school get the support. That was not made a priority by the Government, and many of those children suffered as a result.

We have all seen the signs of the damage in the casework that we deal with as constituency MPs—the child with SEN struggling to readjust after six months out of school, the looked-after child unable to access a social worker and many more worrying examples. Young carers in particular have suffered during this pandemic. I heard from one 12-year-old boy who had struggled to sleep due to worries about the pandemic and his caring responsibilities. He is now receiving specialised support through the See, Hear, Respond programme, which is run by Barnardo’s and more than 80 local charities and community organisations, but many children in that position have not been so lucky. Referrals for children’s services fell by 50% in some areas during the pandemic.

I want to pick up briefly on adoption, which my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke about so eloquently. The problems with adoption were outlined in her speech, especially the delays with medical checks, and I hope that the Minister will listen to her plea for future funding for the adoption support fund.

I also wanted to pick up on the point about the decision to water down legal protections for children in care and those with SEN. It was a particularly worrying example of this failure to prioritise vulnerable children. Ministers rightly recognised that local authorities would be under huge pressure due to covid-19 and would find it hard to meet their statutory duties to support children. However, instead of thinking about how to ensure children were supported, whether that was with investment in services, new ways of working or digital outreach, the Government simply scrapped many of the key statutory duties. So many children suffered in silence as a result of that, and wider neglect has been hidden from view.

When there was an up-tick in schools returning, we have not seen the problems that we know have developed and been exacerbated in lockdown coming to the surface. That means children are still missing out on the support. I ask the Minister, what work is her Department doing to reach out to those hard-to-reach communities?

The other thing I want to speak about is digital poverty in this country. Having an iPad, a laptop or a mobile phone is something a lot of us take for granted, but close to 1 million children went into lockdown without the IT equipment or internet access they needed to learn remotely or to keep in touch with friends. The Government recognised that they would need to deliver digital devices to many families. However, the 200,000 laptops that were promised were nowhere near enough, and the target to deliver them by June was too late for most.

I am sure that MPs in their constituencies had emails complaining about that. The June target was missed, and as the Schools Minister set out in response to a parliamentary question, only 200,000 laptops had been delivered by last month. That is far too late. In a meeting with headteachers earlier this month, I was told that much of the equipment that was delivered was unsuitable for children with special educational needs.

What was the result? Disadvantaged children, who were already unable to access as much learning support at home as their peers, were completely cut off from their teachers, a key factor in the 75% widening of the attainment gap that DfE officials have predicted. It also meant that children could not connect with their friends during the most isolated period of their lives, worsening their mental health and cutting them off from avenues of support.

Finally, on free school meals, which is tomorrow’s big debate in the Chamber, the Government have realised that they must act to provide for children who are at home rather than in school. They set up a voucher system, which of course we welcome, but the delivery of the scheme was shambolic. First, delivery of the vouchers was outsourced to a private company, rather than being entrusted to local authorities and schools who knew how best to meet the needs of their families. It was plagued by delays and technical difficulties that left many children without food and many parents facing the humiliation of being turned away from supermarket tills in front of their communities.

Secondly, we had to fight to get the scheme extended, first for the Easter holidays and then over summer. It took relentless campaigning from us and the intervention of Marcus Rashford to force Ministers into a U-turn, and now we are back in exactly the same position. The Welsh Labour Government have committed to providing free school meals over holidays until spring next year. We in the Opposition are calling for the same here, alongside Marcus Rashford and other food poverty campaigners, but yet again Ministers are stubbornly refusing to do it.

Free school meals are a lifeline for at least 1.4 million children who qualify for them—a figure that is now likely to be above 2 million as unemployment rises. I will share a quote from a parent who shared their experience with the Children’s Society last month and whose testimony will feature in an upcoming report. They say: “I tell my kid to make sure they eat all their school meals, as it may be the only meal they have. I often have nothing to eat and any food I do have I give to my kid, as they only get one meal a day. I don’t have a meal many days.”

I want all the Conservative MPs in this room to think for a minute about the children they know—maybe their own children, as the hon. Member for Devizes mentioned so eloquently at the beginning, or their godchildren, nieces, nephews, neighbours or friends—and think about them having to go to sleep hungry at home one night and then wake up the next day knowing that there is no food in the house. Can they imagine the small person they love going to sleep hungry, not being able to sleep because their stomach is rumbling? That is what I would like us to think about.

We all got into politics for a reason; we wanted to protect the most vulnerable and we wanted to make life better for people. I ask Conservative MPs to think carefully about the fact that we are the lucky ones. I never go to bed with my one-year-old or four-year-old hungry. I go to bed knowing that I can feed them the next day. Surely food support over the holidays is the least we can do to help families in this position?

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)
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Order. We need to hear from the Minister. I call Vicky Ford.

Vicky Ford Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Vicky Ford)
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20 Oct 2020, 11:19 a.m.

Thank you for your excellent chairing of this debate, Sir Christopher. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) on securing this important debate. It is good to have so many different hon. Members present.

I will use this opportunity to update the House on what the Department for Education has been doing to support children, young people and their families during this time. The Government are dedicated to supporting children and families, and the Secretary of State for Education has been entrusted with the family policy brief by the Prime Minister, to ensure that there is a Cabinet-level Minister with oversight of the issue. The Secretary of State is very clear that the two core aims are the protection of vulnerable children and ensuring that every child has the best start in life. He recently made a speech outlining the improvements needed to the adoption system in this country, aiming to close the gap between the number of adopter families and the number of children looking for those loving-forever homes.

We are soon to announce the independent review on children’s social care with the aim to reform and improve an incredible service that plays a vital role in the lives of our most vulnerable children. We continue to work on the SEN review for children with special educational needs and disabilities. We work with Departments across Government on a range of policies to support all children to grow up in happy and loving environments.

--- Later in debate ---
Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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20 Oct 2020, 12:20 a.m.

I will make announcements on that very shortly. I want it to be spent on research and development.

Regarding adoption, data was published last week showing a gap of about 600 children between those waiting for adoption and those waiting for a child. The gap has narrowed, but we must narrow it further. We need to encourage more families to come forward to provide those loving forever homes.

We are investing £1 million in a national adoption recruitment scheme and another £2.8 million supporting the voluntary adoption agencies. Courts have prioritised adoption. Flexibility to the adoption support fund during covid has helped another 60,000 families. The changes we made to social care regulations—incidentally, the Opposition tried to throw them out—were specifically to make sure that adoption could continue while not being delayed for medical reports. However, I take the important point made by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell).

We have put in more support to those who are leaving care to make sure that they do not need to leave care at this time. On the very important point on child poverty and food, we have injected more than £9 million into the welfare system over this period and given support to income protection schemes, mortgage holidays, additional support for rent, and we have done other things to support family income.

When schools were closed to the majority of pupils, we launched the national voucher scheme. It was challenging, but it meant that 1.4 million children who normally received free school meals could still be supported. We also extended free school meals to the children of those families who have no recourse to public funds. Some £380 million was spent on supermarket vouchers, but now that schools have reopened, kitchens have reopened and children are being provided with food, which is so much more important than a paper voucher.

Schools up and down the country are also providing food parcels to those who are self-isolating. In the summer, children from more than 1,800 schools received healthy breakfasts through the breakfast club programme. Our holiday activities and food programme was absolutely remarkable in the 17 local authorities where it was run. We have also announced £63 million for local authorities to provide discretionary financial help to those in need in schools.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who has now left, mentioned that schools sometimes sent home whole bubbles. We have set up a new Department for Education helpline to help schools with bespoke advice when they have cases.

Finally, the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) spoke about the outstanding work that schools and school staff have done to bring children back to school. She is absolutely right, and I agree with every word she said about how fabulous school staff up and down the country have been. We will continue to work with other Departments to put in place significant amounts of wider support. As we know, providing a child with the best start in life means that they can grow up in a loving, happy, stable home environment. That is what we are committed to do.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (in the Chair)
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20 Oct 2020, 11:30 a.m.

I have exercised my discretion to allow the debate to go a little longer, because the next debate has been withdrawn.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered support for children and families during the covid-19 outbreak.

Oral Answers to Questions

Christopher Chope Excerpts
Monday 22nd June 2020

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Education
Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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We all recognise how important early years settings are, both for children and for their parents and carers. Early years settings have been able to open their doors to all children from 1 June. I spoke to sector representative organisations and childcare providers in the first week of wider opening to understand the detailed challenges they face. We know that it is a difficult time for many businesses, and we will continue to ensure that early years providers get the best possible help from all the Government’s support schemes.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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What steps he is taking to attract new recruits to the teaching profession in England. [903520]

Nick Gibb Portrait The Minister for School Standards (Nick Gibb)
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Our recruitment and retention strategy sets out our plans to attract high-quality recruits to the profession. The “Get into teaching” marketing campaign provides information to trainees, including on the availability of tax-free bursaries and scholarships worth up to £28,000 in certain subjects. We have also set out plans to increase the minimum starting salary for teachers to £30,000 by September 2022.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope
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Sadly, many people are losing their jobs or are threatened with redundancy, and we know there is a mass shortage of teachers of physics and maths in particular. Will my right hon. Friend enable schools to second people from industry to fill the vacancies, so that people with talent can fill the vacuum?

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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The organisation Now Teach, which was set up by Lucy Kellaway and which we support, has seen a huge surge of interest from people like the ones my hon. Friend suggests. It helps career changers to come into teaching. We have also seen a 12% increase in applications to teacher training in the last quarter, to the end of May.

Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill

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

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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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.