We should use our new Brexit freedoms to abolish VAT on school uniforms to help families with the cost of living
School uniforms are a crucial social leveller that helps reduce bullying and create a sense of belonging amongst pupils.
Without them, parents would be under pressure to buy their children the latest fashion trends, which are far more expensive and less durable. This type of clothing is completely impractical for a typical school day, whereas uniform is designed to last pupils 180 days of actual wear at a minimum.
However, we cannot ignore the financial impact that school uniforms have on families in places such as my Northampton South constituency, and indeed across the UK, particularly as the cost-of-living crisis starts to bite and national insurance increases this month. One way we can act to reduce this is to abolish VAT on school-specific uniform items, thanks to the new tax freedoms afforded to us by our exit from the European Union.
This year, the pressure on family budgets is tightening as we experience the highest inflation rates since records began. This is compounded by the rise in energy bills that has been made worse by the war in Ukraine and the resurgence in demand as economies reopen after the pandemic.
Whichever way you voted in the EU referendum, we should all now be in favour of ensuring that our country, and hard-working families, get the most out of the opportunities afforded to us by Brexit, including tax freedoms which may ease financial burdens at a time of need.
Children should be treated with parity, particularly when it comes to the costs of their school uniforms
I am proud that this has already been achieved in relation to the tampon tax, with sanitary products now classified as “essential items” without VAT now being applied. Although we saw years of solid campaigning, this was only made possible by Brexit. It is now only right that this is extended to school-specific uniform, with the current tax system penalising some children more than it does others.
At present, children over 14 and older, or those that are taller or larger than the average, are forced to pay more for uniform items. The reason for this levy is a historic EU rule that determined member states had to coordinate on VAT rates to ensure no “unfair competition” across borders.
Data compiled by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, based on official World Health Organisation statistics, demonstrate that children in the UK are now taller and larger than ever before. It is estimated that the official measurements are now closer to the average 12 or 13-year-old than a 14-year-old implying that the current system, last updated in 2002, is out of date.
I am sure that we can all agree children should be treated with parity, particularly when it comes to the costs of their school uniforms.
This campaign, being led by a school uniform trade association would help to reduce the costs of school uniform, at a limited cost to the taxpayer and support families through a time of significant financial hardship. They estimate this would save each family with a child over the age of 14 an average of £18.60 a year if they purchased one of every school-specific garment for their child. This would add up over the years, particularly for families with more than one child. The Association estimate that this could save parents across England almost £9 million in tax annually.
As families grapple with rising taxes, energy, fuel and food bills this would be a great step forward in helping to reduce the overall price of uniform items and relieve some financial pressure.
As I have set out, I am a big believer in the ability of school uniforms to create an important sense of identity and belonging amongst school pupils. This would be sorely missed if more schools opted to abolish school uniforms altogether and would create a range of problems for most families, not least financially.
There is a straightforward way that we can bring down the costs of school uniform, support families at a time of need, whilst also creating more parity in the school system. If that is not a win-win for parents and teachers alike, I do not know what is.
Andrew Lewer is the Conservative MP for Northampton South.
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