Crossing the divide

4 Aug 06
MELISSA BENN | At first sight, the recent wrangling over the charities Bill, which returns to the Commons in the autumn, contradicts Tony Blair’s claims for a new era of political cross-dressing.

At first sight, the recent wrangling over the charities Bill, which returns to the Commons in the autumn, contradicts Tony Blair’s claims for a new era of political cross-dressing.

A bold move by a group of disaffected Labour MPs — supported in some respects by a couple of influential ministers — to restrict the rights of certain fee-charging schools and hospitals to claim substantial tax breaks looks like a return to Left-Right politics of the old school.

That David Cameron and the new model Tory Party — whose cynical support helped push through the education and inspections Bill in the late spring — has stayed conservatively silent on this issue only confirms this impression of a return to old-style politics.

But dig a little deeper, and the debate over charitable status could well turn out to be a good example of a new-style consensus over the relationship between private and public sectors.

Tax breaks for private schools have long been a source of resentment to educational egalitarians. With the introduction of a new charities Bill, which fell at the 2005 election, but returned in the last parliamentary session, has come another chance to restrict the benefits of charitable status for the elite private sector, worth £100m a year.

The government’s new proposal is that private schools — and hospitals — should prove a ‘public benefit’ before qualifying for preferential tax treatment, a test that is to be decided by the Charity Commission.

But this does not go far enough for some Labour MPs, several of them emboldened by their recent campaigning against the highly unpopular schools Bill: they judge the ‘public benefit’ test set by the Cabinet Office to be too vague.

According to MP John Grogan: ‘If a school is charging high fees, it should be doing much more than perhaps letting the local comprehensive use its football pitch once a year’. A survey by the Independent Schools Council three years ago found that more than half of all private schools do not make any of their facilities available to state schools or the local community.

The Labour MPs are further encouraged by a radical move by the Scottish Parliament last year to restrict charitable status to those that do not charge ‘unduly restrictive’ fees.

Enter two influential New Labour figures: Alan Johnson, education secretary, and Alan Milburn, still close to the prime minister. Both have spoken out in the past month in favour of further tightening the ‘public benefit’ test for private institutions. Their language has been surprisingly radical. Milburn has talked of putting ‘pressure’ on charitable public schools; Johnson has criticised their ‘elitism’ and called for a full sharing of their facilities, including teachers, with the state sector.

So what’s happening? Are Milburn and Johnson returning to their egalitarian roots, as the Blair leadership weakens? Or is the new pressure on public schools from the top of New Labour a return to third-way politics in a new form?

It’s hard to tell. In many ways, Milburn and Johnson’s interventions, radical language aside, fit with New Labour attempts to reconcile the private and public sectors. Remember Gordon Brown’s Budget Day claims to one day bring state spending on education up to private school levels?

More concretely, there has been much talk in educational circles of a ‘comprehensive approach’ to the nation’s schooling — including controlled state use of luxurious private school facilities — advocated by those such as Blair’s biographer and private school head Anthony Seldon.

So stretching the ‘public benefit’ case in new charity law might, in fact, prove a classic example of the modern political cross-dressing approach: don’t abolish or diminish the resources of the private sector: instead, strive to share in their good fortune. But only at the weekends or evenings, when the real business of elite education is over.

This is far from the egalitarian dream of challenging the very existence of private sector schools or removing the state subsidy from them completely, and ploughing the capital back into state schools.

As we head into the conference season, many are once again looking to Gordon Brown for his position on key issues such as these.

So far, so typically restrained. Brown’s close ally, Ed Miliband, minister for the third sector, has so far not deviated from the standard government line on the new Bill. Both he and Brown loyally supported the move towards more trust schools.

At the very least, the early autumn will reveal the true Tory party position. Its new leader might be full of rhetoric on the needs of the whole nation, but Cameron has been oddly silent on the privileges of the private schools. Forget the trendy trainers. On this issue, he might yet turn out to wear a full political penguin suit.

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