Independent School Fees: VAT

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 21 February 2024.

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Photo of Andrew Lewer Andrew Lewer Conservative, Northampton South 4:30, 21 February 2024

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, which is indeed the major thrust of what I have to say. As chair of the all-party group, I am delighted every year to sponsor the Independent Schools Council’s annual “Celebrating Partnerships” report, which gives parliamentarians and stakeholders from across the sector the opportunity to come together to celebrate the fantastic work that the independent sector does in partnership. Three quarters of independent schools are now in partnerships with state schools. That is not the old swimming pool every other Tuesday afternoon for an hour or two; they are embedded, mutually beneficial partnerships.

Given how influential and impactful the sector is for wider society, it is in disappointment that I stand in opposition to the Labour party’s policy position on independent education—the introduction of a 20% VAT fee on independent school fees. I urge the current Government and my Conservative party colleagues to be robust in their stance of not imposing VAT on school fees. I look forward to the Minister’s analysis of that, but given that the Opposition are currently well ahead in the polls, and it is at least possible that they could form a Government in the next Parliament, it is important that this debate has been granted. It is important that we take the time to scrutinise what I believe is an ill-thought-out policy. Although I welcome the fact that Labour’s plans for independent education under Keir Starmer are not as draconian, undemocratic and questionable in law as they were when he served in the shadow Cabinet of Jeremy Corbyn—when it looked like the party was trying to abolish the sector entirely—they are still very worrying indeed.

The principle of parental choice is supported by article 2 of the first protocol of the European convention on human rights, which was incorporated into domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998. It says that

“the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

However, is that right to choose being assisted, if said choice is made increasingly difficult by a huge tax rise? I do not think it is. It is also a fundamental principle that we do not tax the supply of education, and the Value Added Tax Act 1994 exempts education, including nurseries and universities, alongside independent schools. That principle is international in scope and the UK would be an outlier if Labour abandoned that policy. For example, EU nations, Australia and the USA do not apply sales taxes to education.

Beyond the core principles, there are many reasons why the policy could be harmful and doomed to fail. First, parents residing in the UK who make the decision to send their children to independent schools already contribute to the state education sector by paying their fair share of taxes. I have made that very clear in the Main Chamber when debating this subject, and the repeated use of terms such as “tax breaks” and “tax reliefs” should be avoided. Independent schools are taxed in the same way as other education providers and charities, and they provide more than £5 billion in tax annually, which is more than three times what Labour thinks it will raise from VAT. UK parents who pay school fees do so from already taxed income.

Now that the Labour party has put this policy forward, I am sure we will hear today that it has done so because it believes in educational excellence for everyone and not a reserved few. However, by introducing the policy a Labour Government would simply make independent schools even more elite than Labour already perceives them to be by pricing out hard-working parents who can just about afford to pay the fees to invest in their children’s futures. Those who can easily absorb the 20% will do so, and perhaps that is what the Labour party wants: to make private schools more elite so that it is more difficult for politicians like me to make the case for them.

I will use the jacuzzi and private jet analogy to demonstrate my point. Many of us will never have a jacuzzi in our gardens, but could probably afford to install one if we chose to do so. On the other hand, a private jet is, for virtually everyone, an unobtainable fantasy for a distant elite with no connection to our lives. That is what Labour wants independent education to be—the private jet, not the jacuzzi. Of course, that is purely figurative as a parallel and not related to the crucial importance of educational choice.

It has been said that these are not issues we should worry about, and that independent schools can simply absorb the VAT increase so that they do not pass it on to parents. That is a naive view, with many independent schools up and down the country being very small, operating on tight margins and unable to do that. A quarter of all schools in the Independent Schools Council have fewer than 155 pupils. They are not wealthy institutions that are able to absorb VAT.