Consultation highlights fees debate

The Charity Commission has received 657 responses to the consultations on its draft sub-sector guidance documents on public benefit, which closed this month.

The guidance for charities advancing religion generated 260 responses, the greatest number. The guidance for fee-charging charities elicited 184 responses, with 161 for the advancement of education and 52 for poverty relief.

Responses to the fee-charging consultation highlighted fresh concerns and suggestions. In its submission, law firm Bircham Dyson Bell said that the commission had raised unnecessary fears that charities might lose their charitable status if they failed the public benefit test.

It said the draft guidance took an "aggressive line" and falsely implied that the public benefit test related to a charity's activities rather than its purposes.

Nicola Evans, a senior associate at the firm, said the activities and fees charged by a charity were irrelevant to whether its purposes fulfilled the public benefit test.

"Case law does not talk about there being some minimum level of individual benefits to be continually topped up, but instead that the organisation be established for the public good," she said.

A commission spokesman said the regulator had made the point in its Charities and Public Benefit guidance that the public benefit test was a test of purposes and not of activities. "But looking at activities is necessary to decide whether a charity's purposes are, and are being carried out, for the public benefit," he said.

Meanwhile, the Education Review Group of sector leaders, education experts, academics and lawyers used its response to the consultation on fee-charging charities to suggest an alternative view of what fee-charging charitable schools should do to show public benefit. The group, set up last year to provide independent evidence to the Charity Commission on the meaning of public benefit in the education sector, rejects assisted-place schemes because it says they deprive the state sector of its best pupils. It says fee-charging schools should help state schools by, say, lending them teachers (see box, above).

Fiona Miller, a group member and former adviser to Tony Blair, said benefit should be to the local education community, especially disadvantaged children.

"A lot of people in the state system have been reluctant to get involved in the argument, while the commission has been bombarded by the independent sector," she said.

EDUCATION REVIEW GROUP PROPOSALS

Fee-charging schools should sign up to the voluntary sector code of good governance, and commit to advertising trustee vacancies and having boards that include people from the state sector and those who were state-educated.

They should also help state schools by:

- Lending them teachers, especially in subjects that have a shortage of staff

- Helping more state pupils win places at elite universities

- Offering boarding facilities to urban teenagers with chaotic lives

- Offering educational opportunities for young people not in education, training or employment

- Being involved in the new national 14-19 age group collaborations and diplomas

See www.education reviewgroup.org.

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