Independent School Fees: VAT

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:09 pm on 21 February 2024.

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Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee 5:09, 21 February 2024

I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Lewer on securing this important debate. I speak in my capacity as the Chair of the Education Committee.

This is slightly awkward, because we do not, of course, look at policy proposals that are not from the Government. However, we had a debate about a year ago in the Chamber of the House of Commons where the Labour party proposed to bypass my Committee and appoint their own to look at this policy proposal. What was interesting in that debate, as in this one, was how few Labour Back Benchers turned up to support what is supposed to be their flagship policy. This issue has not been raised by any of the Labour members of the Education Committee during my time as Chairman. In the circumstances, I find that very surprising.

I am concerned about this issue primarily because of its impact on our publicly funded schools. I seriously worry that Labour has not done its sums properly and has not brought the impact of the £6,000 a year required for the revenue funding, let alone the capital expense of expanding those schools, into its calculations. My county council is in the process of commissioning a £40 million secondary school to meet the demand for places that we already have. No calculation appears to have been conducted of what the cost would be of the extra places required by this policy.

When it comes to SEND, I expect the Labour Front-Bench spokesman to say that Labour will exempt specialist settings from its VAT proposals. I certainly hope that that is the case, and that is what was indicated in our previous debate. However, I do not think that the revenue calculations carried out by the Treasury some years ago on the basis of imposing 20% VAT on all charges for independent schools have taken that into account. I would love it if the Labour spokesman could update us today on what reduction in income Labour expects if it does exempt specialist settings from this policy and on whether that will apply to all of them, including the alternative provision settings that my hon. Friend David Simmonds referred to. I recently visited one at the Gloverspiece Mini Farm in the constituency of my hon. Friend Nigel Huddleston, which would like the assurance that it will not be clobbered by a 20% increase in VAT and in fees.

When it comes to SEND pupils, we are talking not just about those in specialist settings. Many of my mainstream independent schools in Worcester provide support to pupils who have identified special educational needs but not an EHCP. If those people are driven out of the independent sector by higher fees, they are likely to seek EHCPs, putting pressure on our health system and our local authorities, which are already overloaded—I will campaign, along with colleagues, to try to increase the resources for them.

As Chairman of the Education Committee, I want our state education system to be one of the best in the world—it already is, but we can make it even better. We should focus on doing that, rather than on creating the misleading impression that clobbering the independent sector by imposing VAT, which no Labour Government in the last century have ever proposed to introduce, and which none of our European or English-speaking peers apply to independent education, is somehow the solution.