CentreForum’s ‘Liberal Hero of the Week’ #1 – Matthew Parris

by Stephen Tall on June 14, 2012

ImageWelcome to the first in a new series here on CentreForum’s blog — Liberal Hero of the Week — as chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice

The aim is simple enough: to showcase public figures who help promote the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book: economic, personal, political and social liberalism. We will be highlighting individuals regardless of their party affiliation, and indeed from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism then they’re in contention. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

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Matthew Parris

Columnist for The Times, and former Conservative MP.

Reason: for his attack on the charitable status of private schools that are bastions of privilege.

Matthew Parris ventured where few politicians dare to tread in an article for The Times this week entitled, Schools that sell privilege can’t be charities (£): 

… the reasons many parents choose to pay for private education are a tangle between educational and social ambitions, and these are not the same. You’d want a child, I’d want my child, to learn the relaxed and breezy confidence, the loose manner, the intangible sense of entitlement, that comes with a good private education in Britain. There does exist a ruling class in Britain and you’d want your child to join it.

This is not education, but privilege. The purchase of an expensive education is, in part, the purchase of privilege; the social advantage of your child over other children. I am not persuaded that this is the “public benefit” that our definition of a charity requires it to offer. And I dismiss out of hand the hoary old argument that private schools save taxpayers the cost of educating pupils in state schools. You might as well claim charitable status for your car on the ground that it saves local authorities the cost of subsidising your seat on the bus.

The Coalition’s recent attempt to cap tax-relief for higher-rate donors (the infamous ‘Charity Tax’) re-ignited the debate about what is meant by the term ‘public benefit’ which all charities have been legally obliged to serve since the passing of the Charities Act 2006.

Who benefits? And who pays?

The fact that private schools are directly equated with charities such as Cancer Research UK and Oxfam – and can therefore benefit from rates relief and exemption from tax on investment income – is breathtaking. It means that the low-paid in society – including those earning less than the minimum wage – are helping to subsidise through their taxes the school fees of the better-off in society to the tune of an estimated £100 million each and every year.

Initially, the ‘public benefit’ test set for this country’s 2,600 independent schools by the Charities Commission included the requirement to provide a certain number and level of bursaries for poorer pupils. However, a judicial review in October 2011 said the Commission had gone further than the law allowed. Schools can now retain their charitable status by offering minimal bursary provision so long as they also pass on some of their advantages to near-by state schools – for example, by sharing sports facilities with local state schools.

If private schools are to be classed as charities a much simpler, more straightforward test of ‘public benefit’ should apply: are they willing to educate any child subject only to a fair admissions policy which treats all children equally regardless of their household income?

What’s the chance of change?

This debate has been kicking around for years.

A decade ago, under the then Labour Government, a joint Commons and Lords committee recommended removing private schools’ charitable status altogether, while offering them continuing tax breaks if they were able to prove sufficient public benefit. However, this idea, championed by its chair Alan Milburn – who continues to back it from his berth as the Coalition Government’s social mobility ‘tsar’ – was diluted into its current, limp state by then Minister for the Third Sector, Ed Miliband, as he steered the 2006 Charities Act to the statute book. In contrast, his brother, David, proposed ending private schools’ tax subsidy during his failed leadership campaign in 2010.

The current Conservative secretary of state for education, Michael Gove – while lamenting the ‘private school dominance of our society’ in a speech at Brighton College last month – has at the same time played down the possibility of a review into private schools’ charitable status.

Too many politicians are too scared of the reaction from the right-wing press – and from middle-class parents – to feel able to call for an end to this state sponsorship of continuing educational inequality. So kudos to Matthew Parris for using his platform at the Thunderer to advance this particular liberal cause. 

* Stephen Tall has been Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice since 2007, and also writes at his own site, StephenTall.org. He tweets @stephentall. Please submit your nominations for future ‘Liberals of the Week’ to Stephen by email or via Twitter.