Labour says regulator should publish guidance on independent schools and public benefit

Shadow charities minister Anna Turley told MPs it was inappropriate that the schools were subsidised by the taxpayer via the status

The shadow minister's amendment was met with government opposition
The shadow minister's amendment was met with government opposition

Anna Turley, the shadow minister for civil society, has said the Charity Commission should be required to publish guidance setting out what independent charitable schools must do to meet their public benefit requirements.

In a committee debate on the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill in parliament on Thursday, Turley presented an amendment that would have required independent charitable schools to work with local communities and state schools with a view to sharing resources such as sport and music facilities. It would also have required the commission to publish guidance detailing the minimum that the schools should do to comply with this duty.

Turley told the committee it was inappropriate that the social and financial advantages afforded to independent school pupils were subsidised by the taxpayer through charitable status.

"Charitable status is now an outdated and inappropriate financial privilege that is impossible to justify without substantial action from independent schools, which is what the new clauses seek to achieve," she said.

Turley said the trustees of independent schools should take action to ensure their institutions did not solely benefit those who pay fees, "yet the critical point is that it is up to the trustees to determine how that is achieved, and that is what we seek to challenge".

The amendments, which were withdrawn in the face of government opposition, had already been voted down in July when the bill was going through the House of Lords.

Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, told the committee that forcing charitable independent schools to do more was wrong and would open up the danger of charities suffering significantly increased state interference.

He said: "It would be wrong to single out one type of charity in legislation and stipulate one particular type and the extent of public benefit that it must provide. No other type of charity is treated in that way, and it would set a very dangerous precedent.

"What would be next? Religious charities, overseas aid charities or campaigning charities? Once the precedent has been set, the risk is that the temptation to interfere would be too great for some to resist, and specific legislative requirements could creep in over the years for different types of charities."

He said that the way in which a charity demonstrated its public benefit and the extent to which it did so was for its trustees to decide.

"It is not for the Charity Commission to interfere unless charities fail to meet the requirement," he said.

"An upper tribunal ruling in 2011 set the parameters for charitable independent schools. Public benefit must be real and not tokenistic, but beyond that it is not for the Charity Commission to dictate to schools the type or amount of public benefit they provide. That should be a matter for the trustees of the charity, who must take into account the charity’s circumstances."

The commission updated its guidance on fee-charging schools last year to encourage trustees to comment in their annual reports on the activities they carried out to meet their public benefit requirement, such as sharing their sports facilities with their state counterparts.

Turley said she would not press for a vote on the amendment, but her party would reconsider it when the bill had its third reading in the House of Commons.

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