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Labour defends plan to use VAT on private school fees to fund free primary meals

Jeremy Corbyn has defended Labour's new £1 billion education policy of free meals for all primary school pupils paid for by VAT on private school fees.

The Labour leader said he had not ruled out removing charitable status from private schools which gives them tax breaks.

Mr Corbyn and his shadow education secretary Angela Rayner visited a children's centre in Leyland, Lancashire, for the launch of the new policy, which they say will boost the health and performance of all children while ending a "subsidy to the privileged few".

Private schools have criticised the policy and say Labour's sums do not add up, but Mr Corbyn backed his party's latest policy launch.

He said: "It will help all children and the outcomes in the areas where there are free school meals is improved school performances and improved educational attainment.

"Children who are well-fed do better in school."

Asked whether Labour would plan to remove charitable status for private schools, he said: "We haven't made a decision on that yet, we are looking at that, the issue we are putting forward at the moment is looking seriously at the question of children's health.

"We are considering lots of things but we have not made a decision on that yet.

"Nothing is ruled out but there are tax breaks that do need to be challenged, including the number of tax havens that are around the world and the policy of the government in cutting corporation tax, whereas we would want to be raising it.

"We are not proposing to close down private schools or private education but we are saying we want to raise money to ensure every child gets a decent school meal, and that is what the thinking is behind this policy.

"We are also challenging the government on the per-capita funding cut that's taking place in most schools by changing the funding formula which has resulted in the loss of some teachers' jobs, teaching assistant jobs, and schools sending out ever-more desperate appeals to parents to help them fund core services seems to me completely wrong."

All state-educated pupils in the first three years of primary school already receive free meals under a scheme introduced by the coalition government.

Only older youngsters from the poorest families qualify for continued free meals at school.

Labour say extending the scheme to all primary school pupils had been estimated to cost between £700 million and £900 million a year.

The party said an estimate by the Fabian Society in 2010 suggested introducing VAT on private school fees could raise around £1.5 billion annually.

About 93% of children are educated in state-run schools.

Labour say research from a pilot study shows universal access to free school meals improves pupils' performance.

The author of the study, by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), said such a policy would be expensive and more research is needed.

The announcement has been criticised by the Independent Schools Council (ISC), representing private schools, who said Labour's sums did not add up and would force smaller private schools to close.

Ms Rayner said free school meals would help lots of families whose children do not qualify because household earnings are above the £16,000 threshold.

She said: "This will be a real game changer for them and will save their parents significant money.

"While the Conservatives offer tax giveaways to their billionaire friends, they are cutting the schools budget and threatening the health and futures of all our children by denying children the basic right of a healthy lunch at school."

The 2016 Annual School Census by the Independent Schools Council (ISC) found 78% of their member schools had charitable status, a total of 999 schools, as there were deemed to be providing a "public benefit" including the likes of Eton, which charges more than £30,000 per pupil per term.

But Julie Robinson, general secretary of the ISC, said: "A third of pupils at our schools are on reduced fees and are from families where both parents work hard to pay the fees.

"If this measure was introduced smaller independent schools may close, driving more children back to be funded in the state system.

"Independent schools are fully aware of their social responsibilities and offer free and reduced cost places to children from lower income homes."

A Conservative spokesman dismissed the plan saying: "Labour would wreck the economy if they ever got back into government, meaning there would be less money to spend on our schools, not more.

"Their economic incompetence means this promise isn't worth the paper it's written on."

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