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It is always a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall. I thank John Howell for what he said; it is nice almost to complete this Parliament in Westminster Hall—I suspect there may be one more debate to come, but that is by the by.
I am very pleased to be involved in this debate, and I congratulate Emma Hardy on bringing it forward. This is a massive issue in my constituency. The Minister does not have responsibility for it, because it is a devolved matter—if the Assembly were working, it would be sorting it out—but, if I may, I would like to make some remarks in relation to Northern Ireland.
This is a big issue in my constituency simply because, as the hon. Lady and everyone else who spoke said, a number of families are in the clutches of in-work poverty. That term probably has not been used very often in the House, but it happens to people. I find there is a squeezed lower middle class, who find it more difficult than anybody else just to try to get through because they are outside the benefit system, so they feel the pain. They go to work, yet the money coming in does not satisfy the money going out, particularly in August and September every year, as parents scramble to get school uniforms.
Some retailers that are aware of the pressure on parents offer packages. For instance—nobody will know this—Crawford’s across from my advice centre on Frances Street in Newtownards has offers online for all the major schools and some others, designed to help parents get a good deal. Mr Crawford has been doing that for umpteen years, and he does it very well. However, by their nature, offers are time limited, and if someone does not have the money in August and September, they must scrape together even more to meet their child’s basic school needs.
Expensive uniforms are another form of discrimination: if someone cannot afford the uniform, they cannot attend the school. They may have the educational qualities, but can they buy the uniform? No, they cannot. Unfortunately, therefore, parents may have to make difficult decisions for children who have the educational quality. Everybody, including the Minister, wants everyone to have the same opportunity for educational achievement, but someone who is poor and does not have much income will sometimes make decisions based not on how bright wee Johnny or Sally is but on what they can afford.
In 2017, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People published a report stating that the average cost of a school uniform in Northern Ireland is £109 per child, with yearly education costs well over £1,200 a year. I am going to mention some things that hon. Members have already mentioned, because it is important that they are on the record. Last year, a survey found that more than a third of families in Northern Ireland go into debt at the beginning of the new school year because of rising costs. A third of families in Northern Ireland go into debt just to get the uniform to get their children to school. School uniform grants are available from the Education Authority to families in receipt of universal credit or certain other benefits, but, at best, those grants cover only a fraction of the cost of the typical school uniform, and people are struggling greatly.
We should try to encourage children to be active, yet when they join a school club—hockey, football, rugby, athletics or whatever it may be—and travel to matches, they must be in their PE tracksuit with full school insignia, and then their actual playing gear and all the rest. Again, that is a method of discrimination. It can be heartbreaking for a family on the poverty line to realise that their child is good enough for the school team but that they cannot be part of it because the family cannot afford the prohibitive cost of the uniform. With full PE kits starting at £240—those are the cheaper options—and children needing one at least every other year, that is a massive cost. Let us be honest: the hon. Member for Henley mentioned how a uniform can look well used in a couple of weeks, and PE kits can get damaged as well, so that £240 may be unfortunately only the start of the cost. For that reason, some children are not taking part in school clubs, staying away not because they do not have the interest, the enthusiasm, the energy or the ability but because their mums and dads cannot afford the massive cost.
We are in 2019, and I truly thought these days were behind us, yet it is clear that children are penalised in their education because their parents work as hard as they can but have difficulty just making ends meet. I believed that was why working tax credit was created, to step in, fill the gaps and help with school uniforms and the now obligatory hockey, football, Gaelic football and rugby uniforms, as it should. Yet unfortunately in August and September, and at other times of the year, whenever parents come to see me, I see at first hand in my office that it is not working. We need more help for those who are working and yet are on the breadline—the working poor. That is a real issue.
At this stage, I wish to thank some people in my constituency who do great work. The likes of the Ards Community Network, Friends of Regent House and other residents’ groups have introduced a system, like the one referred to by the hon. Member for Henley, where used uniforms that are still in good condition can be dropped off to help those who cannot do it all. Hon. Members have referred to similar organisations. Those initiatives must be applauded and encouraged, but they highlight the failure of the system we have in place. That we need those initiatives illustrates clearly that we need help.
As a side issue, the Trussell Trust opened its first food bank in Northern Ireland in Newtownards in December 2011. I was there at the opening. It is now operating in more than 20 locations across the region. Families in crisis are up by over 13%. The welfare system is missing those people on the peripheries. I sincerely ask for a review of the school uniform grants procedure to help those on the edge.
I know that this is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland and that the Minister has no responsibility for what happens there, but hon. Members’ reflections are mirrored in my constituency as well. School uniform grants must help those who may be above the threshold on paper but in real life are struggling.
It is so important that children are happy at school. In my constituency and across Northern Ireland—I am sure this affects other hon. Members—we have some of the highest figures for young people at primary school level, and certainly at secondary school level, with mental health problems. Why is that? It is because they are not happy at school. I suggest very gently to the Minister and hon. Members that we must improve the quality of life for our children at school. We must ensure that they all have equal opportunities in education and so on. If that happens, we can make a change. My question to the Minister is this: when will that happen?