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Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:58 am on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Labour/Co-operative, Feltham and Heston 9:58 am, 13th March 2020

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I, too, wanted to look at the detail of the costs, so when I did the research in my local schools, I asked about the individual items included. The costs were considerably lower than the full average coming through the Children’s Society, but I am sure that as the debate goes on, the details of how that was calculated will be looked at closely. The point my hon. Friend makes, however, about one in five families struggling, is important. There is also variation across the country. We cannot allow that to be hidden.

Local authorities are another part of the picture. Sometimes they help in cases of hardship, but in Hounslow the grant has been cut from £120 to £60, which is not enough to cover the whole cost of a school uniform, even where it is cheaper. That is another example of the impact of austerity and its effect on children in our society collectively. The Bill will place a duty on the Secretary of State, as we have discussed.

In Feltham and Heston, almost 5,000 households depend on universal credit and have child dependants, with about 66% of them being lone parents. It is not surprising, therefore, when we look at the economics being dealt with by families, that thousands of parents are struggling to make ends meet. Anything we can do to reduce the costs of purchasing school uniforms for their children will be a positive step. For any parent to have to cut back on food or other basic essentials in order to afford school uniform—it happens at particular times of the year—is completely unacceptable.

I welcome the Bill. I look forward to the consultation on how to implement the guidance to get the long-term answer to this, with the input of schools, parents and providers.

Over the past few weeks, I have been contacted by many constituents. At first glance, the Bill seems uncontroversial, asking the important question of how we move forward. I want to make a few points for consideration on that. The first is about the quality and durability of school uniforms. That has to be considered because of the way uniforms might be supplied. None of us wants to see a situation in which school uniforms are produced cheaply, imported and sold in local supermarkets. We want to see a different way, in which durability and quality are also considered, with guidance on that as well.

Secondly, the single supplier arrangements have been much discussed. The Bill does not rule those out, but understanding in more detail whether schools should be allowed to have single suppliers is important. The analysis is mixed on the use of single supplier contracts and whether they drive up prices for parents. Some analysis and examples show that the contracts can add value, as long as robust tendering processes are in place. A number of the schools that came back to me have single supplier relationships which, when they run well, can provide better for families because they ensure better year-round availability of products for all. Single suppliers also tend to overstock, allowing for tailored affordability and other relationships with the school in the interests of parents.