Sir Keir Starmer accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of “trickle-down education” as he called for an end to the “scandal” of tax breaks for private schools.
The Labour leader said the prime minister was giving “handouts” to fee-paying schools like Winchester College, where Mr Sunak attended, by refusing to end their charitable status.
The charitable status for private schools means they don’t have to charge a VAT of 20% on fees.
In 2017, cabinet minister Michael Gove wrote an article in the Times saying removing this “burning injustice” would boost standards in the state sector by raising vital funds.
Sir Keir quoted Mr Gove as he launched a personal attack on Mr Sunak at PMQs.
“Winchester College has a rowing club, a rifle club and an extensive art collection,” he said.
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“They charge over £45,000 a year in fees. Why did he hand them nearly £6m of taxpayers’ money this year in what his levelling up secretary calls egregious state support?”
Sir Keir said that in Southampton, down the road from Winchester, four in 10 pupils fail their English or maths GCSE.
“Is that £6m of taxpayers’ money better spent on rifle ranges in Winchester or driving up standards in Southampton?” he asked.
Labour have vowed to end the tax advantage for private schools, saying this would raise £1.7bn a year.
Speaking after PMQs, Downing Street denied that it is a conflict of interest for Mr Sunak to defend private schools having the VAT exemption.
Sir Keir called it a “Tory scandal” that while private schools get this “giveaway”, there are hundreds of thousands of children leaving state education “without the qualifications that they need”.
“If he thinks the route to better education in this country is tax breaks for private schools in the hope they might hand that somewhat down to state schools, that’s laughable. Trickle-down education is nonsense,” Sir Keir said.
Starmer ‘not fit to lead’
Mr Sunak replied saying the government was “improving school standards for every pupil in this country”.
He accused the Opposition leader of failing to understand the aspirations of people like his parents, GPs who worked hard to save money to send him to Winchester.
“He doesn’t understand that, and that’s why he’s not fit to lead,” the prime minister hit back.
Sir Keir then moved on to housing targets – one of the several issues Mr Sunak is facing a backbench rebellion on.
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On Monday, the PM was forced to pull a vote on legislation that would set a target of building 300,000 homes per year when around 50 Tory MPs threatened to rebel.
Mr Sunak said the UK has seen “the largest number of first-time buyers in 20 years” with the Conservatives in power.
But Sir Keir said that every year, the age at which people can buy their first home goes up and a child born in the UK today wouldn’t be able to buy their first home until they are 45.
“Now, I love my kids, but I don’t want to be cooking them dinner in 30 years’ time,” he added.
‘Operation get tough’
Referencing the government’s “relaunch” – which according to The Sunday Times will be known as Operation Get Tough – Sir Keir asked: “How tough is he going to be with his backbenchers who are blocking the homes this country needs?”
According to the newspaper, Number 10 is planning to prioritise a crackdown on protests and the influx of people arriving in small boats across the Channel, in what it has dubbed “Operation Get Tough”.
Mr Sunak hit back: “He talks about toughness. He’s too weak to stop dozens of his own MPs joining the picket lines.”
Starmer accused of trying to ‘out-Brexit’ Tories
Sir Keir was also attacked by Ian Blackford, the SNP Westminster leader.
He said the Labour leader, who supported staying in the EU, is trying to “out-Brexit” Mr Sunak by promising not to reintroduce free movement if he gets into government.
He said Brexit “is now the elephant in the room that neither the Tories or Labour are willing to confront”.
“When will the prime minister finally see reality and admit that Brexit is a significant long-term cause of the UK economic crisis?” he said.