Independent School Fees: VAT

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:03 pm on 21 February 2024.

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Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner 5:03, 21 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Henderson. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Lewer on securing the debate.

I represent a constituency with five thriving independent schools of the traditional private school variety; state schools that, as academies, are independent schools; a significant number of private special educational needs and disabilities schools; and private nursery provision. My children have benefited from state, private and privately funded state provision over the years, so I have a direct interest in the subject the debate.

I want to focus particularly on the impact that the VAT change would have on the very large sector of small independent schools, on which so many parents rely. Ofsted has a rule that any setting with two or more children present for the purposes of their education must be registered as a school. In my constituency, I have a stables—an equine centre—that provides equine therapy for mute, autistic children. Those children are reliant on it, because it is an environment in which they can gain educational benefit. They have been placed there and funded by the local authority, and that is simply not to be found in any other form of schooling.

Across the country, there is a huge number of such schools, which are legally registered, with an Ofsted number, and privately funded. Many are not charitable trusts; in some cases, they are businesses providing a particular type of apprenticeship or educational experience for a specific set of special educational needs. The impact of introducing VAT on the fees paid by local authorities and parents for that huge variety of provision would be absolutely enormous. A number of my constituents who have children with quite profound special educational needs are deeply concerned about the impact that this change would have on not just their household budget but the availability of the specific specialist provision on which they depend.

I have some sympathy with the argument that the element of education that is hotel costs in boarding schools is not strictly an educational purpose, and I have heard it advanced across the sector. However, it is clear that the availability of highly specialised private provision would be jeopardised profoundly by imposing a policy of putting VAT on all fees. The cost would directly hit the taxpayer and mean that so many of our constituents who feel that they have at last found the right setting for a child with profound needs, often after many years of searching for it, would see that put at risk by a policy of introducing VAT. I commend the Government on strongly resisting such a policy, and I hope the Minister will restate that resistance this afternoon.