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School Uniform Costs — [Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:03 pm on 5th November 2019.

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Photo of Mike Kane Mike Kane Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 3:03 pm, 5th November 2019

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend Emma Hardy on securing the debate on the last day of this Parliament. It is not quite the graveyard shift, as she put it. We may be competing with the House on who finishes first—I believe the valedictory speeches have just started—and I know you are anxious to get in the final word of this Parliament, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend for her work. She is an indefatigable campaigner on education, not just as a former trade unionist in education but as a former teacher, like me. Her passion shines through.

I thank all Members who contributed to the debate. John Howell rightly said that uniforms bring a common identity. Few schools up and down the land do not have some sort of uniform. He also talked about second-hand clothes, as did my hon. Friend. I might not be forgiven for saying this, as a Mancunian MP from Cottonopolis, but we now know that cotton production is one of the greatest polluters on the planet. We must begin to think of new ways to go forward sustainably. Recycling, reuse and reduction of cotton is therefore important.

I was taken aback by the community organising project of my hon. Friend Stephanie Peacock, putting power into the hands of people who struggle to purchase uniform individually. Bringing people together for a school uniform exchange is a remarkably good idea. If she does not mind, I may well steal it for my own constituency.

As ever, whether in Westminster Hall debates or Adjournment debates, Jim Shannon made some strong points. Poverty is common across our islands, and it is a form of discrimination if parents have to fork out too much for uniforms.

We know that common uniform policy reduces bullying in schools, and I saw it for myself. Sometimes as a schoolteacher I would dread non-uniform days. The school where I taught was in a very mixed area. There were some rich areas from which children would come in wearing designer Nike gear, and some came in wearing supermarket gear. Even at quite a young age, they knew the difference. That is important.

I think of my constituency, which StepChange says has 3,000 families containing 5,000 children in toxic debt—the most in England, for sure—owing about £14 million to utility companies, dependent on payday lenders and pawn brokers to get to the end of the month. They are unable to pay when their white goods break down and they are really struggling to get by. I also have the highest number of social tenants who are affected by the bedroom tax—or the spare room subsidy. This is therefore a timely debate to finish off this Parliament.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle said, nine years of austerity has been unrelenting. Universal credit is failing, driving people to debt and even destitution. For many in my constituency and up and down the land, and particularly for those in faith communities, the two-child policy for child benefit is an utter disgrace. I pray for the day of a Labour Government. If one comes about in a few weeks’ time, that is one of the first things we will deal with. If we do have a Conservative Government, I pray for the day on which they will change their mind, because it is driving people to despair.

More than 4 million children are growing up in poverty. More than 1 million are forced to go to food banks, and it is predicted to get worse. My food banks coalition came to me towards the end of August—we will all have faced this—saying, “We have run out of food, Mr Kane.” I asked, “Why have you run out of food? We have churches, civil society, supermarkets and business contributing week in, week out.” They said, “It’s school uniform buying week.” They were out of food at the Wythenshawe food bank. The Government should be hanging their head in shame that those families are in that situation.

There are also signs that our increasingly fragmented schools system hampers what we can offer our parents and children. It is a system that allows free schools and academies to act as islands, independent of their communities and the needs of the children they are supposed to support. On this Government’s watch, we have seen parent governors stripped from school governing bodies up and down the land. It is a system with no means by which parents can hold a school to account, and the Government have failed entirely to act on parents’ concerns. Academies and free schools set rigid dress codes with expensive uniforms that cannot be bought on the high street, and children are sent home from school because their parents cannot afford to meet those dress codes.

The system has exacerbated sending children home, with 10,000 children off-rolled in the last year alone. We give a charter to criminals and county line gangs when we send children home and we have no idea where they are. The system is broken. What is the Minister doing to ensure that children do not lose time in school because their parents cannot meet unrealistic demands on school uniforms? When will the Minister ensure that the Government meet their pledge to make school uniform guidance legally binding? What are the Minister and the Government doing to address the ever-increasing challenge faced by parents to pay for the basics? What will they do to ensure that support is available when they have overseen the abolition by stealth of the school uniform grant?

Time after time, Labour has pressed Ministers to take action, but yet again we are well into a school year with parents paying the price for the Government’s failure to act. The Government pledged statutory guidance in 2015, yet, four years and three Prime Ministers on, they still hide behind the excuse that they could not find parliamentary time. It is clearer than ever that parents, children and teachers need a Government that will act on their behalf—a Labour Government with a national education service. Will the Minister pledge to us today to end once and for all the perverse situation whereby poverty acts as a barrier to children attending school?

Finally, may I thank all Members who have contributed today and to the parliamentary Session? Putting one’s name on a ballot paper, from whatever political party, is a brave act: an increasingly braver act these days. I wish all Members good luck and I thank the Minister for his courtesy over the past few years. I have stood opposite him many times in many debates. I thank the House staff, the Doorkeepers and all who keep us safe and functioning in this place.