Editorial: Charity 'brand' at risk from private school test sham

Mathew Little

This week, the Parliamentary committee scrutinising the draft Charities Bill will hear the views of sector representatives the NCVO and Acevo.

Their submissions are likely to overlook the charitable status of private schools.

That could be a mistake. The whole purpose of the Bill, in the eyes of bodies such as the NCVO and the Government, is to protect the charity 'brand'. That's why a public benefit test, applicable to all charities, was deemed necessary. It's in the bag, so now we can relax.

Perhaps not. The current arrangements are anachronistic and inconsistent, but not lethally damaging. Genuine charities such as Oxfam and Help the Aged can trade on their visible public benefit in raising funds. Public schools, happy to take tax breaks but less so to publicise their charity status, can skulk in the shadows. The public may not understand this murky compromise - only 11 per cent think Eton is a charity - but it does not seem to deter them from giving.

With a Charities Act, this will be brought out into the open. Public character tests will be carried out on public schools. And with a government determined not to antagonise a powerful section of the electorate, you can bet the bar will be set low. The result will be institutions dedicated - and, let's be honest about this - to entrenching privilege offering the sop of a bursary scheme in return for an official stamp telling the world they deliver public benefit. Elitist fee-paying schools will be inextricably coupled in the public's mind with genuine charities trying to change the world. How exactly does that protect the charity brand?

The Government may have political and pragmatic reasons to want to retain the tax advantages for private education, but it endangers the reputation of real charities and preserves the very anachronism the Charities Bill was meant to dispel.

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