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Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:39 am on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Shadow Secretary of State for Education 11:39 am, 13th March 2020

I start by wishing my hon. Friend Grahame Morris a happy birthday—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] I congratulate my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury on introducing this important Bill and thank all hon. Members from across the House who have spoken in today’s debate. He is not just an hon. Friend, but an actual friend, and not just mine, because it seems that James Daly and other Members have taken to him as well. I do not think that that is down to his good fashion sense—[Laughter.] As he pointed out, school uniforms can hide some of the disastrous fashion mistakes that many of us have made. My hon. Friend Sam Tarry mentioned his school uniform fashion, his trainers in particular, and many Members will know that I have an obsession with shoes, and I have put my own little twist on things with the ones I am wearing today.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale in paying tribute to the former Member for Peterborough, Lisa Forbes, who introduced a similar Bill in the previous Parliament and did so much to bring the issue to the nation’s attention. My hon. Friend’s Bill is important because there are no binding rules on school uniforms in England. I hope the Minister’s response will answer my hon. Friend’s points about limiting branded items and breaking down the monopolies of single suppliers, and many Members quite rightly mentioned the quality of school uniforms.

I reiterate that this Bill is not anti-school uniform, as my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra outlined in her valuable contribution. We also heard from Chris Green and Scott Benton, who continues the legacy of the previous Member for his constituency with his passion for education and his personal experience, from which I am sure the House will benefit. I also acknowledge the expertise of David Johnston shown in his contribution. Robert Courts made a pithy speech—[Laughter.] There was so much of value in it that there is not enough time for me to go through it all, but he clearly has a talent that will be used many times in the House in the coming months and years.

I am pleased that there is a consensus across the House today on this Bill. It was in November 2015 that then Tory Chancellor promised to legislate on such issues, but we are now four years and four Education Secretaries on. I have responded to three Conservative Queen’s Speeches and still nothing has happened. It has fallen on Labour Members to step in, introducing two Bills in six months. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale, with the help of Back Benchers from across the House, including Kevin Hollinrake, has had to do the Government’s job for them, and I hope they will now offer him their full support.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale mentioned in his opening speech, school uniform costs blight working families in England, and many Members have spoken about examples from their constituencies. Although I am in a privileged position now, I remember all too well just how expensive it was to put my first son through school. It is a problem that still affects my constituents today, as well as the friends I grew up with. My hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) all expressed that point eloquently in their passionate contributions today. Their complaints echo the concerns of the mums who gave evidence to the Select Committees on Education and on Work and Pensions last summer and spoke of the strain of school uniform costs and the huge pressures put on their budgets in the school holidays. The Minister will know that the previous Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee warned the Government that school uniform costs reinforced the financial difficulties that many parents face during the summer holidays. I pay tribute to the organisations and MPs who assist with the swap of school uniforms to help those parents.

Many Members mentioned the figures from the Children’s Society that were released today, showing that parents are spending over £300 on uniforms and that hundreds of thousands of children across England are going to school wearing incorrect or ill-fitting uniforms. I know that some Members question that research, but many families watching this debate know the reality, and I welcome the work of the Children’s Society that has contributed to today’s debate. Parents have reported that they have had to cut back on essentials like food to cover the cost of school uniforms, and children have been sent home and denied their education, but this Bill will change that. Andrew Lewer and others made important points about pragmatic considerations, and it is right that we consider them, but it is also right that I share that I also have a love for “The Simpsons” and that I am about to hit a milestone which means that I am old enough to remember the Bartman—[Laughter.]

The Bill will ensure that hard-pressed parents will not suffer the indignity of their children being sent home because they are wearing the wrong uniform. It will free up money for parents to spend on activities for their kids during the summer holidays. Above all, it will ensure that no child is priced out of school, because our fundamental belief is that education should be free, and under my national education service it would be free and lifelong at the point of need as well. This Bill takes us one step towards that ideal. I am proud to endorse it today, and I urge all Members to support it.