A Conservative peer has accused the Charity Commission of showing political bias for the first time in its 157-year history in its application of the public benefit test for independent schools.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford, a former master in charge of the scholars at Eton School and former headmaster of two other independent schools, said the regulator had shown "prejudice and partisanship" towards fee-paying schools.
Speaking during a House of Lords debate on the Public Bodies Bill on Tuesday, Pilkington said education had been acknowledged as charitable since 1601 and every independent school he knew subsidised poor pupils with scholarships and bursaries.
"I feel that the commission has started to show a political bias, which has actually been unnoticed in the whole of its history since it was set up by statute in 1853," he said.
Pilkington said King's School, Canterbury, had no endowments and took 13 per cent of its income, which came mainly from fees, to subsidise scholarships and bursaries when he was headmaster.
"The present charitable administration is questioning the commitment of independent schools to their charitable status," he said. "That is quite wrong and prejudiced and ought to be questioned. It could have an effect on the ancient universities, taking away their independence."
He said it was crucial in a democracy that the state should not influence admissions procedures and the commission should be questioned on this matter.
Pilkington said the 2006 Charities Act, which removed the presumption of public benefit from charities, was passed "without too much questioning".
He added: "The commission has turned very general clauses into a way of questioning the whole business of charitable education, particularly in independent schools.
"That is wrong and should be questioned. It is wrong that political activity should enter into such an organisation and I shall certainly be raising the issue later."