By Melanie Phillips
Charities are being hijacked and turned into pawns in Labour’s class war
The Government’s ‘social mobility czar’, Alan Milburn, is due to tell us all this week how class barriers can finally be broken down.
According to the advance spinning, his report will say that the rate of access to top jobs by people from disadvantaged backgrounds has got slower.
Apparently, the former Cabinet minister wants to avoid further alienating the middle-classes, who are furious at the social engineering by universities rigging admissions against the most able candidates just because they come from the right side of the tracks.
Yet at the same time, he is said to want universities to offer places to such pupils with lower grades, backed up by aptitude tests.
But this would surely be social engineering with kid gloves on. And if another idea being floated actually surfaces in his report, this exercise will prove – regardless of his reputation as an ultra-Blairite ‘reformer’ – that he is just another class warrior.
But a key factor behind that shameful situation was the destruction of the grammar school.
This was Britain’s historic engine of social mobility. Selective education is the single most effective vehicle ever devised for propelling poor children out of disadvantage.
As comprehensive schools were forced to teach to the lowest common denominator, the entire education system was also forced to reduce standards across the board.
With grammar schools no longer available, more and more parents were driven to beggar themselves to get a decent education for their children by sending them to independent schools.
Instead of responding by addressing the real causes of educational failure, the Government attacked these private schools. Too cowardly to do it openly, and thus provoke the wrath of voters, it chose to do so by stealth.
It is now suggested that Mr Milburn will call on the Charity Commission to force independent schools to share their extracurricular activities with state-school pupils as a condition of maintaining their charitable status.
Such proposed arm-twisting is the giveaway to his mindset. For the truth is that the Charity Commission has been turned into a major weapon in the Government’s armoury against independent schools by threatening to force them into actions that would bankrupt them.
Last week, the Commission picked upon two small private prep schools which it said weren’t doing enough to ‘ensure that people who cannot afford the fees can benefit from what they do’.
This was an act of ideological spite. Many private schools already do as much as they can to help poor pupils. But if they are forced to give more bursaries than they can afford, they will go broke. Of course, that is the aim of the exercise.
After all, there used to be a great scheme for opening up independent schools to poor children. It was called the direct grant system under which a quarter of places were free.
That was abolished by Labour in the Seventies. The Tories brought in the similar assisted places scheme in the Eighties – only for that to be abolished by the Blair government.
So let’s hear no more about wider ‘access’. The aim is no access at all.
The Charity Commission was primed by Labour for this attack back in 2006. Dame Suzi Leather, an independent-school educated Labour career quangocrat (what else), was made its chairman specifically to lead the charge against the independent schools in the revolutionary cause of restructuring British society.
The weapon the Government gave her was a new charity law, brought in to enable the Government to attack its designated victims. For the first time, this law put the burden on charities to show they were delivering the ‘public benefit’ they had previously been assumed to embody.
This allowed the Commission to redefine the meaning of ‘public benefit’ as help for the poor. But the point of a charity may not necessarily be to help the poor. It may exist to benefit other causes.
Education has always been seen as a public benefit in itself. So independent schools were charities simply because they were delivering education, to the benefit of society as a whole.
But the Labour Party has redefined education not as a good in itself but only insofar as it serves the agenda of ‘equality’. So if schools charge fees, they must be presumed not to be delivering a ‘public benefit’.
Now one of Britain’s leading charity law firms, Wilsons Solicitors, has said the Commission’s guidance is an ‘ill-conceived, politically-driven policy’. It explains that the fact the law was changed to make charities prove their public benefit does not mean that the test of that benefit has itself changed.
Indeed, Parliament chose not to alter it in any way. Yet the Charity Commission is now acting unilaterally by requiring charities to show they are specifically benefiting the poor.
The fact is that charity is being hijacked and turned into a branch of politics. For example, last year the Commission relaxed the rules so that charities can now go in for political campaigning.
And how! Save The Children, Oxfam and Barnardos have all campaigned recently for higher welfare benefits or lower taxes; a Barnardos poll found that 78 per cent of nine and ten-year-olds thought ‘the Prime Minister should never break promises’; Christian Aid lobbies strongly against ‘trade liberalisation and privatisation’ in developing countries.
People who give money to these charities do so in the belief that their donation will go towards the relief of individual suffering.
They do not give in order to fund a highly ideological campaign for a particular economic policy or political point of view.
Yet this abuse of ‘charity’ is said to be in accordance with the law. Once again, the Charity Commission changed the rules to say that charities should ‘speak out’ to advance their ends. Although their purpose must not be political, they are now able to carry out political activity as a means of supporting their charitable aims.
This allows charities to launch highly partisan political campaigning. Because they ‘command high levels of public trust and confidence’, said the Commission, charities were ‘uniquely placed’ to campaign.
But this is a cynical abuse of the fact that they only ever had that public trust in the first place because they were seen to be above politics.
There’s yet worse still. The Government is now throwing money at those charities which campaign in accordance with its policies. For instance, the Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne has said it will give £750,000 to small charities with ‘innovative ideas for making their voices heard on subjects such as disability and social inclusion’.
All of this enables the Government to advance controversial agendas such as the destruction of the independent schools without being seen to do so itself.
Policies which might lose it votes are being laundered through the charity world, whose programmes appear not only to be separate from politics but also to be sanctified by the unsullied altruism of ‘public benefit’.
This is nothing less than the cynical corruption and debasement of charity to deliver the egalitarian utopia – the cause which, regardless of Alan Milburn’s contortions, still remains Labour’s undying and destructive obsession.