Tax relief for schools is not a human right
Third secor magazine
The Charities Bill is through its committee stage, but the great controversy at its heart remains unresolved, to be battled out in the House at report stage in the autumn. Charities derive their generous tax breaks on the understanding that they do good, yet there is still no satisfactory definition of that ‘public benefit’.
This long-overdue Bill modernises and simplifies a bundle of archaic charity law that has needed reform ever since the coming of the welfare state. Why was it never done before? The Tories were lobbied to do it, but resisted all attempts to open this can of worms. The old law declared education, religion and the relief of poverty to be by definition charitable causes, dating back to times when the sector was almost all the welfare there was. Now the Bill sweeps away that presumption, how will Eton justify its tax breaks under the new regime?
New Labour never had the slightest wish to poke private schools or hospitals in the eye. Perish the thought. But now it’s let this ferret out of its cage. The Government plans to leave the Charity Commission to decide what ‘public benefit’ is for these high fee-paying institutions, with the heavy instruction to follow existing case law – basically hoping nothing much need change.
The NCVO, with some Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, is putting up an amendment obliging the commission to examine each case one by one for its charitable ‘public benefit’. Through bursaries, opening up playing fields or sharing labs with comprehensives, private schools would have to give back what they gain in tax breaks. Since every low-paid mother whose child will never go to a private school has to subsidise out of her taxes the rich child’s privileged education, that’s reasonable enough.
But all this is class politics, freighted with ideology. It is something to be fought out in the Commons, and Labour can’t try to dump it on the neutral Charity Commission. No one is suggesting closing down private schools: European human rights law decrees the right to parental choice in education. But tax relief is not a human right.
A caustic observer might look at the harm done by the separate education of the most affluent children and conclude that private schools are one of the greatest public disbenefits in a society where social mobility has now all but ground to a halt. But don’t expect that conclusion anytime soon.
Polly Toynbee is a columnist for The Guardian newspaper