Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:33 pm on 8th March 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee 3:33 pm, 8th March 2017

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is a matter of concern when too many free schools do not fill their places and in many cases are not required to pay back to the Government—indeed to the taxpayer—for those empty spaces. Some 46 secondary free schools—a fifth or 21% of the total—are in local authority areas in which no new capacity is needed up to 2020. Free school places are also much more expensive than places provided by local authorities, mainly because of the land purchasing that the EFA is pursuing.

A place in a primary free school opening in 2014-15 cost an average of £14,400—a third more than one created by a local authority through a more planned programme. A place in a secondary free school cost £19,100, 50% more than a local authority place. Taxpayers’ money is being overspent, and it is not delivering results. We have seen a number of failures of free schools, and we have seen free schools undersubscribed. In Suffolk, for instance, more than half the total number of places in three free schools have not been filled. Two schools in Greater Manchester are also having problems. My hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams mentioned Collective Spirit, which is set to be broken up because of educational and financial failings.

In Hackney, what has worked is good leadership, good education and committed pupils and parents. The structure of a school is much less important than those things. However, spending this amount of money on a hell-for-leather delivery of 500 schools, a numerical target that must be met by 2020 whatever the cost, is not sensible, and spending money on selective free schools—grammar schools—on top of that beggars belief.

Business rates are a big issue in my inner London constituency. There were more than 10,000 signatures to a petition from small businesses throughout east London that we presented to Downing Street yesterday. Those businesses are concerned about the impact of business rate increases of up to 250%. It is very difficult for someone who is running a bike shop, a coffee shop or a small jewellery company to increase prices to cover such overheads. The reliefs are welcome, but we need to know more about the long-term review and what it will mean for businesses. One year of relief will do no more than stave off problems and save them up for the future.

The problem is that the Government have banked that money in their local government settlement, and councils cannot then reduce business rates themselves. There is no magic pot of money, and they did not see this coming. In our area, we are proud of our diverse high streets with their many small independent businesses. More than 96% of businesses in my constituency employ fewer than six people, and most employ only one or two. Because they are so small, the business rate increases are a real issue for them.