Chris Chope engages decisively in the Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill Debate:
Excepts are shown below:
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 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It is a pity that we have not had the draft guidance already.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 Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission
Order. An hon. Member should not walk in front of another Member who is speaking. Please, let us show courtesy to each other.
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 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.
“Why is VAT charged on school uniform?”
It goes on to say:
“For older children—or those who are taller than average—”
I will come on to the issue of waist size in a minute—
“school uniforms, as well as all other clothing and shoes, attract the full standard VAT rate of 20%. Reality Check explores why these families are paying more and why successive governments haven’t acted.”
Very helpfully, it sets out what the current rules are and gives us this reminder:
“Clothing and shoes for young children have been charged a zero rate of VAT since the introduction of the tax on 1 April 1973. The problem is that there is no definition of the term ‘young children’ in VAT law. Instead, the VAT relief is based on the maximum size an average child will be on their 14th birthday. So clothes for older children, as well as many children under the age of 14 who are larger than average, are taxed at 20%. And this includes school uniform.”
Very helpfully—I do not know whether the hon. Member for Weaver Vale is familiar with this—Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs sets out maximum measurements for VAT zero-rated clothing. I will not go through the whole list, but let me pick out one, which is the height of boys in inches. The maximum height for a boy is 64 inches before the uniform or the clothes that that child is wearing become subject to VAT and lose the zero-rated exemption. Do you know, Mr Speaker, what the average height of a boy on his 14th birthday currently is in the United Kingdom? It is 64.6 inches. In other words, it is just over 5 feet 4½ inches. That is the average, which means that many average 14-year-olds, and by implication those of 12 and 13 and some of 11, are already having school uniforms purchased by their parents that are subject to value-added tax. That is not acceptable. It does not fit in with the Government’s policy, which is to reduce the burden of the cost of school uniforms on families, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will use our new freedoms to take forward proposals to remove value added tax on school uniforms.
The reality check asks another pertinent question:
“Why doesn’t the Government cut the rate?”
“The policy would be very popular with parents, and it has been considered in the past, but it has never been taken up. Way back in 1980”— a long time ago, Mr Speaker—
“HM Customs &
Excise considered the possibility of scrapping VAT on school uniforms, but concluded that the zero rate, aimed at children, would be exploited by adults in the larger sizes.”
We can see now that it is a burden not just on larger adults, but on children of average height. It goes on to say:
“After all, the uniform in a great number of secondary schools includes plain trousers, skirts and shirts—items that adults could wear too. There were proposals that elements of school uniform clearly identified as being from a particular school, by a logo for example, could be made exempt from VAT.”
That is my purpose in raising this; it could link two particular elements of the school uniform affordability policy.
One of the complaints made is that if a large number of items in a school uniform incorporate the particular badge or logo into the design, that adds to the costs of that item or uniform. I understand that, but obviously if the value added tax rules were changed to exempt from value added tax any school uniform that had such logos or insignia on it, the cost of those items would be reduced by 20%. That is not a new idea. This idea was raised and by my hon. Friend Tim Loughton back in 1997, when he proposed that such a policy could be policed by the production of a school identification card or that the uniform could be ordered through the school. Interestingly, the Labour Government in place at the time did not support that. Since then, other Members of Parliament have taken up the cause, including my hon. Friend Mr Baker. When he was a Minister at the Department for Exiting the European Union, he basically said, “Be patient. Once we left have, we will have the freedom to deal with this”; and hopefully we will.
Now that we have left the European Union, we are no longer constrained by its restrictions on what we can do. If, prior to leaving, the Government had wanted to add all school uniform to the list of goods that are taxed at 0%, they would have needed the agreement of all other European Union countries. That would have been impossible, as we found out when we tried to remove the value added tax on personal items for the use of women. Now that we have left, that restriction has gone.
The line from the Treasury is always that value added tax is a broad-based tax that contributes an enormous amount to the Revenue. The last time I discussed this with a Treasury Minister, he said that in Ministers’ inboxes, they have about 50 or 70 different propositions as to reductions that should be made on value added tax. I point out that the difference between value added tax on school uniforms and general value added tax is that the Government’s avowed policy is to reduce the cost of school uniforms, and it is now within their power to remove the VAT. The leakage to which I made a reference—non-uniform items being bought up by adults who should be paying the value added tax—could be addressed through the combination of changing the rules and enabling those specific uniforms to be allowed to be exempt from VAT, as long as they had a specific design unique to that school, such as a prominent badge.
It may be helpful to the Government to be reminded that it is currently possible to get around the rules for people aged up to 14, irrespective of their size and waist measurement, by making it clear that the uniform is exclusively for the use of under-14s. This is the type of advice that I have in mind that the Government should be producing in the revised statutory guidance. The zero rate applies to organisations such as Beavers or Brownies for the clothing items that form the uniform, regardless of the size, as long as those organisations cater exclusively for the under-14s. It would, for example, be possible for a school to specify that uniform—
Lindsay Hoyle Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission 9:45 am, 12th March 2021
Sir Christopher, I hate to interrupt. I recognise the theme, but I think we can both say that Beavers would never be of an adult size. We are not comparing like with like, because there is an age where children go to the next stage in Brownies and Guides—it is the same with Scouts and the Cubs movement—so they cannot be of a size where that would be applicable. As you rightly say, that is applicable to school uniforms that are of an adult size. We would agree—you are absolutely right—that the theme is about the size that uniform comes in, but I worry about trying to compare with something that could never happen.
I understand the point that you are making, Mr Speaker. I am drawing attention to this because it actually does happen at the moment. As long as their uniforms are for those up to the age of 14, Beavers and Brownies are able to provide those uniforms free of value added tax, irrespective of the size—
Lindsay Hoyle Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission
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.
The final point I want to make on this aspect is that there was recently a survey—it was highlighted in The Guardian, of all newspapers, but the reference I have is from the Press Association—that showed the waistline spread of UK children. I will not go into the whole detail of it, but the survey found that back in 2011, an average 11-year-old girl was 148.78 cm tall compared with 146.03 cm in 1978—an increase of 2.75 cm over that time—but her waistline was 70.2 cm on average, compared with 59.96 cm in 1978. We are talking about an average 11-year-old girl, and the average has probably gone up since 2011, but the limit beyond which the waistline of a garment is subject to VAT is only 69 cm, which shows that the current VAT limit for the waistline measurement of a piece of clothing is well below the average waistline of an 11-year-old girl. That is another example of the way in which the current VAT rules have introduced a sort of stealth tax upon parents who are trying to pay for school uniform.
This amendment is designed to ensure that these issues are addressed by the Minister when he puts out statutory guidance, with advice included in that guidance to schools on how to get around it. Obviously that advice to schools might change if the Government were to accept my advice—and, I am sure, the advice of the whole House—and intervene now to take away the burden of value added tax on school uniforms, thereby reducing the price of school uniforms for everybody affected. I put that in at the beginning of my remarks because I thought it was sensible to set it in context. Obviously, we want to maximise the quality and minimise the price. Everything that follows in relation to this guidance and this Bill is in a sense subordinate to the point I have made, because the issue of VAT is solely within the control of the Government, and I think if the Government acted on it, that would be very popular.
Turning to the other amendments in the order in which they appear on the amendment paper, amendment 3 is:
As it says in the Member’s explanatory statement:
“This amendment will introduce an objective test of relevance in place of a subjective test.”
Currently, the Bill says that the Secretary of State must issue guidance and that the
“‘costs aspects of school uniform policies’ means any aspects of school uniform policies that the Secretary of State considers relevant to the costs of school uniforms.”
The question I ask is: why should this Secretary of State solely be in the position to decide what is relevant to the costs of school uniforms? Why should that not be an objective test, so that any aspects of school uniform policies that are relevant to the costs of school uniforms would be included in this guidance? I think the example of value added tax is a good one, because the Secretary of State might decide that he did not regard value added tax as impinging on the issue of aspects of school uniform policies or costs, and thereby be able to exclude any reference to that, despite its relevance. That is why I have put in amendment 3, which would introduce an objective test, rather than a subjective test.
Amendment 4 would incorporate within the guidance criteria
“including price, quality, design, place of manufacture and country of origin.”
This is, in one sense, a highly topical issue because we know that there has been a lot of discussion in the context of the Trade Bill about whether our country should change its approach to international trade and whether Parliament should restrict the ability of the Government to enter into a trade deal with a country that is in the dock for genocide. I am not going to get into that debate, but the purpose of this amendment is to enable school governing bodies to take these issues into account when deciding on their school uniform policy.
We are talking about price, and I think that needs to be spelled out, but we also need to refer to issues of quality. That point was made very eloquently on Second Reading by, among others, as I recall, my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken. I think even Seema Malhotra made the same point that we should be talking not just about price but about quality and design, as well as the place of manufacture and the country of origin.
Increasing numbers of people in this country do not wish to purchase goods whose origin is China. In particular, they do not wish to purchase goods comprising cotton, which may have been produced under slave labour conditions in particular parts of China. Obviously, those goods from China are often less expensive than goods sourced from elsewhere, even from places such as India or Bangladesh. Surely it should be open to a governing body to discuss the merits or otherwise of having a school uniform that is sourced from China, or from some other country with which that governing body thinks we should operate at arm’s length, rather than indulging its breaches of human rights.
That is why I have introduced those criteria, and I was delighted when my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough supported the amendment. He has an enormous amount of experience on this subject and, as you may know, Mr Speaker, he was chair of the committee that took over from Sir Anthony Steen and deals with international people trafficking. He has shared with me the fact that the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 3 December tries to promote the suppression of traffic in persons and the exploitation of others. The idea is to eradicate contemporary forms of slavery because, according to the UN, an estimated 40.3 million people are in modern-day slavery, including almost 25 million in forced labour and some 15.5 million in forced marriages.
Horrifically, there are 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every 1,000 people in the world, and one in four of those victims are children. This is an important issue, and it is relevant in the context of this debate because national and international companies supply school uniforms, and they need to know that it is open to governing bodies to inquire into the place of manufacture and country of origin of the school uniforms being sold. Some interesting data have been produced on this—I am trying to get to the nub of this issue. The garment industry turns over almost £3 trillion a year, yet garment workers, 80% of whom are women, work for poverty pay, earning as little as £15 a month. Human rights abuses are systemic throughout the industry. Poverty wages, long hours, forced overtime, unsafe working conditions and so on are all commonplace in the clothing industry, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough knows, it is an industry built on exploitation that grows as a result of a lack of transparency, and makes holding brands accountable very difficult.
So how do we do that? We can put pressure on the suppliers of school uniforms to ensure that their sources of supply are worthy of our support and schools’ support. You may remember, Mr Speaker, that a campaign group, Labour Behind the Label, was established to
“raise public awareness and promote collective action from consumers to push for change” in the garment industry, because it wanted to ensure that companies took
“responsibility for workers’ rights throughout the entirety of their supply chains.”
The group works with trade unions worldwide and concentrates on protecting the human rights of garment workers.
Labour Behind the Label believes that
“no-one should live in poverty for the price of a cheap t-shirt. That a living wage is a basic human right, as is working without fear for your life.”
That is why, in 2019, it started a petition to challenge Trutex, one of the largest suppliers of school uniforms. This story actually has quite an encouraging conclusion, and it is possible that, if amendment 4 is accepted, we could have similarly successful outcomes based on pressure put on those who provide school uniforms.
Trutex is the United Kingdom’s largest specialist schoolwear brand. In 2019, its turnover was £27.5 million. It has supplied school uniforms across Britain for 150 years. It sells logoed uniforms and sportswear to thousands of schools, often operating exclusive contracts with schools and selling through individual retailers.
Labour Behind the Label said:
“Uniform monopolies…leave parents in an ethical bind, forced to buy from brands that lack transparency. Trutex’s website offers vague promises of a commitment to ethical production and assurances that its production sites are well managed and safe. Yet unlike many other brands who have published lists of where their factories are located, Trutex remain silent and provide absolutely no evidence that what they say is true.”
After collecting signatures for the petition to which I referred, it was able to establish that Trutex was working positively in some areas, which had not been recognised, but was doing a poor job of spelling out to others what it was doing.
The good news is that, in 2020, Trutex published a corporate sustainability report. That substantial document lists its suppliers around the globe and contains a list of 20 tier 1 suppliers, including in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the United Kingdom. Trutex has also joined the Ethical Trading Initiative as a foundation stage member and has accepted that organisation’s base code—a code of conduct based on key International Labour Organisation conventions. While membership of the Ethical Trading Initiative does not automatically mean that a member is ethical, or that it properly upholds labour rights, it is obviously a step in the right direction.
Because of that progress, the petition to which I referred has now been closed, but Labour Behind the Label continues to monitor Trutex and other uniform brands
“to make sure that parents and families have the right to know that their school uniforms are made in decent working conditions.”
Trutex responded to the concerns, and it should be congratulated on that. The strong message from that is that we should incorporate in the statutory guidance a reference to the ability of governing bodies to take into account the source of the school uniforms that they adopt for their school.
The Schoolwear Association represents all those involved in the supply of school-specific uniform, from direct retailers to school suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, suppliers, agents and schools. Established in 2006, the association has over 200 members, and between them they clothe three quarters of Britain’s schoolchildren, so obviously it is an important organisation. It promotes best practice across the UK schoolwear industry and is committed to ensuring that a long-term, robust and competitive market exists for the supply of schoolwear. Its code of practice sets out its aims and values, including ethical compliance to ensure that workers are treated fairly. It states:
“Members will operate to the highest reasonable standards of ethical compliance”.
Obviously, that commitment could be built upon if individual governing bodies wanted to do so.
However, it is not only direct school suppliers for which there is an issue of transparency; the larger suppliers may well be the most guilty of using slave labour, and it is also an issue for the large supermarket chains. That brings me to an issue that was discussed quite a lot on Second Reading and in Committee: alternative sources of school uniform. How is it that some generic items are so much cheaper when purchased from a supermarket? The supermarkets are now able to produce this clothing at significantly lower costs, but the purchaser is unable to be sure about the sourcing. If we allowed governing bodies to deal with this as part of the school uniform, then these items would be subject to the same safeguards to which I have referred.
A 2015 investigation by the Daily Mirror—not an organ I read regularly, I must admit—highlighted that two of Britain’s top stores, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, were selling school uniforms made by workers who were paid just 25p an hour. The large retailer Next was selling uniforms from a 6,000-worker factory in Bangladesh. It vowed to look at conditions after admitting that staff had to put in unacceptable overtime. Sometimes they were toiling—I think that is the right expression—for more than 70 hours a week, and for just £51 a month. That was significantly higher even than the country’s weekly legal limit of 60 hours. One mother working in one of those factories wanted parents in Britain to be aware of their poverty. She said:
“Look at the irony, I make school uniforms and can’t afford to send my daughter to school.”
It is an irony that should stop us in our tracks and make us realise how important it is to get the sourcing of school uniforms right.
The article described how most employees live in terrible conditions, with families in one room. The children often have to fend for themselves, and many leave school early so that they can find work to help the family. A 33-year-old stitcher said that his basic daily wage was equivalent to £1.97. Even with long overtime, he earned only £76 a month. He said:
“It’s a low wage. My elder son goes to school in his one uniform through the year.”
That is a significant contrast with what we are lucky enough to enjoy in this country. The man said that he could not afford to educate his other son.
Those sorts of organisations make garments for large supermarkets which are often incorporated in school uniforms. A clothes finisher with a fixed monthly salary of £56.77 said:
“We are often forced to work overtime to avoid the factory paying charges for late delivery. They make people work four to six hours of overtime a day.”
For each hour of overtime, they get 34p. That is why we need to take action and encourage others to take action by naming and shaming these suppliers and giving the power to school governing bodies, which incorporate an enormous amount of collective wisdom, to take action on these issues. I have not even mentioned the Uyghurs, not because I have overlooked them but because the point has been made sufficiently and others may want to go further into the issue in the debate.
I believe that price, quality, design, place of manufacture and country of origin should be in the guidance. In reference to quality and design, I noticed when I looked at the statutory guidance issued by the Welsh Government that it requires schools to produce school uniforms that do not need to be dry cleaned. It seems to me that a school blazer that does not need to be dry cleaned is probably incompatible with desirable design standards. Design is important so I disagree with that prescriptive Welsh statutory guidance which deals with not just whether garments have to be dry cleaned but other issues. I throw that out as an example, which brings me on, you will be delighted to know, Mr Speaker, to amendment 1.
Amendment 1 was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and I and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley have supported it. The essence of it is that the guidance should make provision to ensure that there is an adequate market for second-hand uniform where that uniform is provided new by a single supplier and to establish a hardship fund for parents or guardians who struggle to meet the cost of providing uniform for their children. This is an important point. We all agree about the virtues of school uniform and we want to ensure that there is a vibrant second-hand market in school uniform because that can bear down on the costs and significantly improve access. Apart from anything else, if there is a vibrant second-hand market, that can also incentivise the emphasis on quality of goods, because they will be able to last rather than going downhill very quickly. I cannot remember which hon. Member it was who referred in Committee and, I think, also on Second Reading to the fact that her son’s blazers lasted about a year each, but her daughter’s blazer, of a higher quality, lasted for about five years. I do not think that that was just because of the different treatment her children were giving to their clothes; it showed the quality of them, and obviously those that last longer are more able to be recycled.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough for bringing to my attention the fact that in September 2020, at the height of the covid pandemic, Hope Uniform Exchange started a pop-up store in Weston-super-Mare, which saw an average of 40 families a day picking up free or affordable second-hand school uniforms. At the time a parent was interviewed by the press about the challenges of keeping up with their rent, bills, job and the overall impact of covid, which had made money tighter for them. They said:
“It makes a huge difference for us because otherwise we would have not gone to the uniform store. We would have kept going all around all the charity shops and try to find what we need because the uniform store would have cost us about £70, which is quite a bit.”
Hope Uniform Exchange received about 200 bin bags of branded and non-branded uniforms from its donation points around the town, and that is just in one town. It asks parents to bring in clothes to swap or, if they did not have any, to offer a donation to the surplus.
This amendment would ensure that schools provide a second-hand uniforms shop where parents could buy affordable second-hand uniforms. It would ensure that, as I said earlier, the blazers could be reused or handed on to another child; not every family has a whole lot of siblings who can take the same blazer on successively as it goes down the age range.
In Committee, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale mentioned the situation of a parent who was concerned about purchasing a child’s uniform because the branding on the clothing might limit the ability of family and friends to use hand-me-downs. This amendment would also ensure that, where there is a single supplier, adequate markets for second-hand uniforms would be available. That would address the issue where a school uniform needs to have a logo, since there would still be availability of second-hand uniforms. I remember that, on that recent occasion when I was at school, we had an active second-hand uniform shop, of which my parents made great use, if I may say so.
Sustainability is crucial. We have seen some people anticipating the growth in size of their children by purchasing blazers three times the size they need, in the hope that it will last longer. This amendment is about trying to avoid those distortions through behavioural consequences in people because of the lack of affordable alternatives to the new uniform.
I refer also as an example to Uniform Exchange, which is based in Huddersfield. It operates across 182 schools in Kirklees and has collected and recycled thousands of donations of outgrown school uniforms and transformed them into new clothes, given for free to local children in need. The Prime Minister, no less, congratulated Ms Kate France on setting up the scheme and honoured her with a Points of Light award. The Prime Minister, no less, congratulated Ms Kate France on setting up the scheme and honoured her with a Points of Light award. He wrote to her, stating:
“By setting up the Uniform Exchange, you have collected an astonishing 100,000 items of school uniform to be saved from landfill. This is an achievement for the environment and also for the families you help with free uniform.”
Uniform Exchange is just one example of thousands of schemes in place to ensure that school uniforms are reused. Not only are they environmentally friendly, but they help tackle the costs, especially for struggling families. The amendment would ensure that every school had a second-hand uniform shop.
On Second Reading, Florence Eshalomi said of the Bill:
“even if it passes, the hard reality is that school uniforms will still be an expense that some of our poorest in society fail to afford. While there is support for poor families, it is at the behest of local authorities”—[Official Report, 13 March 2020;
Vol. 673, c. 563.]
That is why the second part of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough deals with the issue of financial help for purchasing school uniforms. Each school would have to have a hardship fund for school uniforms. That would mean that every family, however difficult their financial circumstances, would be able to dress their children in a school uniform like the uniforms of every other child in that school. That might be a very low cost for the school as a whole, but it would be immensely valuable to those children, who would then have a proper school uniform that fit them properly. It would also be perfectly consistent with a school’s having an exclusive uniform supplier. That, in itself, enables a school to establish a strong ethos around its logo, mottoes and so on.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister would very much encourage all this and say that it does not need to be put into the statutory guidance. But the perennial issue with guidance is what should and should not be put into it—I see my right hon. Friend nodding. That is why it is a bit frustrating that we are having this debate without actually having seen the draft statutory guidance; if we could actually see it, we would know the context and the extent to which any omission would be remedied by the amendments or whether what is in the amendments was already incorporated. It is important that we steer the Minister in the right direction, and I hope that amendment 1 does that.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker; you will be pleased to see the progress that I am making in dealing with this large group of amendments. I now turn to amendment 6, which would relieve schools of having to have regard to the statutory guidance and leave the issue to their discretion.
The essence of this is a chicken and egg thing—it depends what is in the statutory guidance. If the statutory guidance is perfectly bland and reasonable, I do not see any problem with requiring schools to have regard to it, but if it is unreasonable and unnecessarily demanding, it could ultimately be counterproductive. Hon. Members may recall that there is currently no requirement in law for a school to have a uniform policy. We have been talking about what should in a uniform policy if it exists, but if a school takes the view that the guidance is unreasonable and demanding, its best way of avoiding having to do anything set out in the guidance is not to have a uniform policy at all, and it is perfectly entitled to do that.
This is an interesting lacuna, and my right hon. Friend the Minister may wish to comment on it in his response. Why is there no requirement for a school to have a school uniform policy, and why is it that we are going to great lengths to introduce statutory guidance that could effectively, as I have said, be totally ignored? The reason behind the amendment is to ensure that there is a means by which some of the steam can be let out. Obviously, responsible school governing bodies will look at these issues and ask whether the guidance is sensible and whether they should follow it, and if so, how.
A lot will depend, again, on how much discretion the guidance gives. I referenced the Welsh statutory guidance, which I think now requires that there should not be more than one bespoke item with a badge or insignia on it. How ridiculous is that? Ironically, I do not know how the Government are now doing their counting, but at one stage they were counting a pair of gloves for personal protective equipment as two items, so I do not know whether that would leave a Welsh school that wanted to have the school colours on two socks in breach of the Welsh regulations. I make that point, in a sense reduced to absurdity, because that sort of prescriptive guidance would ultimately lead to school governing bodies saying, probably wisely, to parents that they will have a school uniform, but it will not be the subject of a policy, because if they have a policy they will fall foul of these unreasonable regulations that the Government have introduced. Method and thinking have gone into amendment 6.
Amendments 7 and 8 are, in a sense, alternatives. Amendment 7 would leave out “developing and” from clause 1, page 1, line 12, which would make that provision read:
“The appropriate authority of a relevant school must have regard to guidance issued under this section when implementing a school uniform policy for the school.”
It seems to me that that would be a simplification, because we would be talking about implementing a policy rather than developing one. The authority would be able to look at its policy to see whether it fitted in with the Government guidance before implementing it.
In a sense, the alternative is to keep the existing words—
“when developing and implementing a school uniform policy”— and add in “publishing”, as in amendment 8. I tabled amendment 8 to re-emphasise the point that I was making in relation to the previous amendments, because there is no requirement for a school to publish a school uniform policy. In a sense, that would go as far as the Government could, because they are not changing the primary legislation to require a school to have a uniform policy. These measures would require a school to have regard whether it wanted to have a uniform policy. I would be interested to hear what the Minister thinks about that. As ever, I am trying to be helpful to the Government in their policy development.
Amendment 9 reads:
“Clause 1, page 1, line 14, leave out ‘from time to time’ and insert ‘, no sooner than five years after the first guidance is issued under this section,’.
The explanatory statement is:
“This amendment will ensure that any guidance remains in place for at least five years.”
This is crucial. The current non-statutory guidance has been in place since 2013. It is important that we should not have chopping and changing at short notice, which could make it expensive for schools to comply with any changes to statutory guidance. It is less significant if the guidance is not statutory, but we are talking about statutory guidance. Those involved in the manufacture and supply of school uniforms have made strong representations such that adequate notice should be given of any changes to the requirements. It should be a reasonable expectation that when the new guidance is issued, it is not going to be just for a year or two—that it is not going to keep chopping and changing, as the guidance has in relation to the covid-19 pandemic. The covid-19 pandemic is an emergency, whereas I do not think anybody could argue that the price and quality of school uniforms is an emergency.
The Government should be able to think ahead and say, “This is the guidance we are going to give and it will be in place for five years minimum.” That would enable schools to enter into contracts for supply, subject, in my view—I do not know whether this will be in the guidance—to proper competitive tendering and clear specification. If one goes out to tender and gets a supplier, one will probably get a much better price if one gives a reasonably lengthy contract period, rather than saying in the tender, “This may have to change after a year because the guidance might be changed on the whim of a change of Minister, Secretary of State or even Government.”
Amendment 9 is, then, designed to introduce some stability and predictability into the process on the basis that that will ultimately result in better value for money. I hope the Minister will be able to respond positively to that, and, even if he does not accept the amendment, at least give some sort of public undertaking as to the length of time for which he intends any guidance issued to be operative. This amendment makes it clear that my preference would be for a period of at least five years.
We now come to amendment 10, which is deregulatory. It is designed to ensure that the guidance does not apply to an alternative provision academy. I will also discuss here, if I may, amendment 11. Amendment 11 would exclude a non-maintained school from the provisions of the Bill. The reason I tabled those amendments is that, of all the issues that are faced by schools, particularly schools providing alternative provision, organising school uniforms should not be at the top of the list.
Amendment 12 proposes that we should also exclude pupil referral units. A pupil referral unit—certainly from my limited experience—comprises pupils who have been excluded or whose attendance has been suspended from a whole range of different schools. I would have thought that the idea of having a school uniform policy for those pupils would be superfluous to requirements. The hope must be that, when pupils go to a pupil referral unit, they will continue to wear the uniform belonging to the school from which they have been excluded in the hope that, as a result of the successful tutelage in the referral unit, they are able to return to the school from whence they came, so that they can rejoin their peer group in that school after they have learned better manners or whatever it was that caused them to be suspended in the first place.
I would be interested to know the Minister’s thinking about this. I understand that the Government wish to deal with these issues of costs in relation to academy schools and maintained schools, but do they really need to get involved in these other schools, as set out in clause 1(5)? My answer to that rhetorical question is that they do not need to get involved in all that. Indeed, there is probably something to be said for using the pupil premium income that local authorities have to deal with any issues to do with the clothing and shoes that those attending these particular schools have. These amendments try to reduce the already very considerable burdens. I take my hat off to all involved in teaching, running and managing alternative provision—academies, non-maintained special schools and pupil referral units—and we owe it to them not to add to their burdens through this legislation. I hope that the Minister agrees.
At the moment, there does not seem to be any discretion under the legislation, because “relevant school” means all those schools set out in proposed new subsection (5). Unless I am wrong about this, there does not seem to be any scope in this primary legislation to remove any of the requirements in that subsection. That is my concern, dealt with in amendments 11, 12 and 13. Amendments 13 and 14 are consequential on those, so I do not need to address them.
I am now getting, delightfully—from my point of view anyway—closer to the end of my remarks, because we are almost at the end of this large group of amendments. Amendment 15 would insert proposed new subsection (7):
“Before issuing any guidance under this section, the Secretary of State must consult the National Governors Association, the Parent Teacher Association UK and representatives of the different categories of relevant school.”
This might be described as a bit of a probing amendment, because the Minister has not so far shared with the House exactly what his plans are for consultation on this draft guidance, once it has been issued. As I said earlier, in Committee we got the impression that he was champing at the bit to really engage with—to use this ghastly expression—stakeholders without further ado. That does not seem to have happened, so we now have a danger that the national governors association, the parent teacher association and other representatives may find themselves left out of the loop, because the Government might suddenly say, “This is all incredibly urgent. We’ve got to get on with this”, and so on.
I hope that the Minister will be able to give some sort of undertaking—perhaps that is too strong a word—or expression of good intent to engage with this list of stakeholders, as well as with other stakeholders whom I have not specified in this amendment. This amendment is not meant to exclude other stakeholders, but just to make the point about, in my view, the absolute necessity that, before any guidance is issued, there should be proper consultation.
That brings me to amendment 16, which is the last of my amendments. I thought it would test the patience of the House if I put down too many more, so I confined the number of amendments to 15, and obviously, we had the extra one from my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough. We talk about burdens. This Bill will impact not just on headteachers, governing bodies and parents but on the providers of school uniforms, the designers of school uniforms, the procurers of school uniforms, suppliers of school uniforms, the retailers that are involved and the manufacturers. It is therefore important that there should be proper notice before any of the guidance comes into effect.
As we said earlier, tomorrow will be the first anniversary of the Bill’s Second Reading; I cannot remember whether you were in the Chair at that time, Madam Deputy Speaker. At that stage, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, like me, probably expected that his Bill would have been on the statute book and the statutory guidance in place long before now, so that it could take effect in the academic year 2021-22. For reasons beyond his control, my control and perhaps—I am being generous to my right hon. Friend—the Minister’s control as well, that scenario has not come about.
I thought it would be good, in the course of the debate, for my right hon. Friend to be able to put down a marker as to whether it is his intention that the Bill should still come into effect and become operative in terms of new guidance being applicable in time for the new school year starting next September. Actually, it will effectively start much sooner than that, because if there are going to be changes to school uniform, that uniform will need to be available in the shops in August, and school governing bodies will need to be able to make up policies in the light of any guidance prior to that.
I am inviting my right hon. Friend the Minister to say that, through no fault of anybody’s, time has now passed to such an extent that it would be unreasonable to expect this legislation to take effect, in terms of the statutory guidance being mandatory for school governing bodies, for the 2021-22 academic year. If he were able to give that assurance, it would allay a lot of concerns. I am not a school governor at the moment—I used to be an acting chairman of a school governing body in Wandsworth some time ago—but I am well aware of the burden and responsibility that people take on when they are running governing bodies. I do not think anybody could do anything other than give them the highest praise for the way in which they have been dealing with the consequences of this pandemic, so let us not burden them with having to respond to statutory guidance for implementation prior to this coming academic year.
The reason I make a bit of a meal of this is that my right hon. Friend the Minister said in Committee that it was still his intention that the Bill should come into effect in time for the next academic year. He said that on 15 or 16 September 2020, so I think it is reasonable that he should be able to give us an update six months later as to what his intentions are.
Having said all that, I hope from the tone and the content of what I have been saying that it is clear that I am very much enthusiastic about school uniforms. I want to see good-quality school uniforms at a price that people can afford. If this Bill contributes to facilitating that, all to the good. It has been a useful exercise, on Second Reading and in Committee, for people to have been reminded that there is almost unanimous cross-party support for the principle of school uniforms, and for the belief that school uniforms are a means of levelling up—to use that in vogue expression—and ensuring an improved ethos and even discipline in a school.
There are often schools that get into really hard times. When I was the leader of Wandsworth Borough Council, we had just been able to break free from the constraints of the Inner London Education Authority, and I can think of lots of schools in Wandsworth then of which the council was, frankly, quite ashamed. Now there are some brilliant schools in Wandsworth. I see that Fleur Anderson is nodding enthusiastically. I am delighted to see her in her place. If she does not know, let me tell her that I was born in Putney many years ago. Indeed, my grandfather founded a prep school in Putney because he could not afford to educate his six children. I will not go into that, but I think it is relevant to this debate. That school had a very good uniform, which I remember from when I went to celebrate the school’s 75th anniversary. Sadly, it is no longer there, but it was in Carlton Drive—the hon. Lady may know about it. I am going to leave that there; I was going back to my happy memories of when I lived in the Putney constituency and was on Wandsworth Council.
The point that I am making is about the burden on governors, governing bodies and all those who have to deliver for parents and pupils across the country. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister, in responding to this, will accept that I am trying to get a proportionate response from the Government so that we minimise the unnecessary regulation and do not have the application of the law of unintended consequences, which I think is what is going to happen in Wales. I hope that we can in due course—later today, perhaps—congratulate the hon. Member for Weaver Vale on having steered this Bill through, even if none of the amendments to which I have spoken are accepted by the Government. There is a problem of which you are probably aware, Madam Deputy Speaker: however meritorious an amendment, the Government are always reluctant to accept it because of the “not invented here” syndrome.
Finally, let me revert to the point I was making about value added tax. For all that we are talking about, changing the rule on value added tax would deliver a bigger financial relief for parents and children up and down the country, including girls of average girth aged 11 and boys of average height aged 14 across the piece. This is the area on which we should now concentrate. I hope that when we come to the new Session, with the opportunity for fresh private Members’ Bills, the Government may even be prepared to sponsor a hand- out Bill to remove value added tax from all branded school uniforms.
It is a pleasure to follow 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.
Several other Members raised various matters, leading to the following concluding statement from Chris Chope
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 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.
- ENDS -
PLEASE NOTE: To read ALL Chris Chope's interaction, ideas and interventions during this debate please CLICK HERE