The chair of the Big Society Deregulation Taskforce takes a hard look at sector regulation
For 20 years, the Women's Institute cultivated flowers at Bucknell station in Shropshire, where only eight trains stop each day. But last autumn, Railtrack told the WI it had to stop unless it took out insurance, did a risk assessment and signed a five-page licence restricting its activities. So the WI stopped, to general local outrage.
Last year, Disability Essex took on a £12,000 Learning and Skills Council contract to train disabled adults in IT. After three months, it made its first claim for payment, which required the submission of 4,500 pieces of paper, weighing 1.4kg in total, relating to the eight hours training it had given to 89 people. The charity decided to terminate the contract.
These are just two of what Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts calls the "glorious examples" that have flowed in to the Big Society Deregulation Taskforce, which he has chaired since it was set up last summer.
There have been many other cases in the 600 submissions so far, he says, and at the beginning of each meeting the taskforce members amuse themselves with a brief competition to see who has come across the most unreasonable examples of bureacracy inhibiting charitable endeavour.
The taskforce was established by the Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, to fulfil a pre-election pledge that the Conservatives would act to cut what they see as unnecessary red tape in the sector.
Most of the complaints that have come to Hodgson's attention are about excessive Criminal Record Bureau checks, the form-filling demands of public sector contracts, inflexible planning restrictions, volunteers fearing prosecution for negligence and certain requirements of charity law.
The taskforce is working in parallel with Lord Young's review of health and safety legislation, which reported last year, the current review of the operation of CRB checks, and the Treasury review of the Gift Aid system. Later this year, there will also be a review of the Charities Act 2006, promised when the law was passed.
So there are a lot of red tape hunters "criss-crossing the minefield", says Hodgson. He likens the process to the game of battleships: if you can land a hit on all the squares occupied by a cruiser or an aircraft carrier, down it should go.
In charity law, Hodgson says, there is some "low-hanging fruit" to be picked. Two examples he gives include the requirement for charities that are also registered companies to file accounts with both the Charity Commission and Companies House, and the rule that charities with incomes of more than £5,000 must file accounts, despite the fact that a recommendation was made 10 years ago that the threshold should rise to £10,000. Another concern with charity law is unlimited trustee liability.
Hodgson says other areas are more difficult to tackle, including the legal position of volunteers who are frightened of being sued if accidents happen during activities they are involved in. This is exacerbated, he says, by law firms that urge people to use their services to sue for negligence over the slightest mishap, on a no-win, no-fee basis.
The taskforce is talking to the Law Commission about these issues, asking whether a way might be found to reassure volunteers by giving them some protection from being sued and to get more balance into risk-free litigation.
"If you're a good Samaritan, you're entitled to be treated as such, and not as someone who sets out with malice aforethought to try to cause trouble," says Hodgson. "If you wish to encourage volunteers, you have to provide a form of reassurance for them - or they'll stay at home."
Another difficult area, according to Hodgson, is enabling small charities to compete on a level playing field for public service contracts. "The forms are always different, the monitoring is very intrusive and it changes halfway through the piece."
So he doesn't want to raise the expectation that everything will change when the report of the taskforce is delivered, which will probably be around Easter. "An awful lot is talked about deregulation, but then it tends to run into the sand," he says. "I think we will come up with a small number of recommendations that can be implemented and then an appendix of further areas for investigation.
"A lot of this is going to be about changing attitudes, and that's not going to happen overnight - it's got to be done over a period of time. But a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step."
ON THE CASE
Members of the Big Society Deregulation Taskforce
Chair: Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Former Conservative charities spokesman
Andrew Hind, Former chief executive, Charity Commission
Lynne Berry, Chief executive, WRVS
Sir Graham Melmoth, Former chair, National Council for Voluntary Organisations
David Tyler, Chief executive, Community Matters
David Thompson, Chair, Marstons Brewery