Left-wingers are planning to table amendments challenging the charitable status of fee-charging schools, Third Sector has learned.
Fifty-two Labour MPs rebelled against the Government over the controversial Education Bill, and many could do so again when the Charities Bill is finally put before them, forcing the Government to again rely on Conservative votes.
John McDonnell, Labour MP for Hayes & Harlington and chairman of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, said he would revive the amendment, first tabled by Lord Phillips, that required the Charity Commission to "have regard to the impact on access to charitable benefit of fees charged".
The amendment was rejected when tabled in the House of Lords.
"We want to take the debate on from the Lords and try to secure an amendment to the Bill that properly reflects the true purpose of charity, which is not to subsidise the education of the richest children in the country," McDonnell told Third Sector.
Lynne Jones, Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, said she wanted a "strong definition of public good" that went beyond the kind of "tokenism" that, for example, allowed public schools to qualify because they opened their facilities to the local comprehensive once a year.
Other Labour MPs, canvassed by the law firm Bates, Wells & Braithwaite, also indicated their opposition to the Bill's public benefit provision.
Peter Kilfoyle, MP for Liverpool, Walton, said he was "implacably opposed to the privileges extended to public schools". His fellow Liverpool MP Bob Wareing said: "I have never believed that fee-paying schools, such as Eton, should receive charitable tax breaks."
Rosamund McCarthy, a consultant with Bates, Wells & Braithwaite, said the charity sector needed to develop a stance on the charitable status of public schools.
"This is a potential time bomb, ticking until it gets to the Commons," she said. "The sector needs to be able to respond, not least because the vast majority of the public have no inkling that private schools are charities. There is a risk that wider knowledge could tar the charity sector in general."
But Julian Blake, partner at Bates, Wells & Braithwaite, insisted that fee-paying schools were not inconsistent with charitable principles.
"Lord Phillips' amendment would provide a change in the law that would allow an appropriate emphasis on recalling independent schools to their charitable mission," he said.
- See Editorial, page 22.