Editorial: The Charities Bill, back with a vengeance

Stephen Cook, editor

It's difficult to get a precise account of what happened in those last hectic days, but it's now freely asserted at Westminster that the Government offered to rush the Charities Bill through in the period before the dissolution of Parliament in April.

It's to everyone's benefit that the Conservatives declined the offer, even if they did so for reasons of expediency and horse-trading rather than of principle. If it had gone through, we would now be saddled with a piece of legislation that, although extensively examined, had not been properly debated by the House of Commons and was unsatisfactory in some important respects. It might have solved some problems, but it would probably have created others.

Yesterday the Bill, promptly reintroduced after the election, had its second reading in the House of Lords. A glance at Hansard this morning will no doubt demonstrate that all the usual suspects are back: Lord Hodgson, fresh from his fishing trip, leading for the Conservatives with some style; the Liberal Democrat Lord Phillips wowing them with his depth of charity law experience; and Baroness Scotland wielding a dead bat on the Government's behalf. But there are serious issues of regulation at stake, and we shouldn't worry if it takes until Christmas to get the right answers.

Top of the list comes public benefit and the vexed question of how it should be defined and enforced. The Government's formula is still to have nothing in the Bill except powers for the Charity Commission to draw up guidance on the nature of the public benefit that organisations will have to demonstrate to qualify for charitable status.

But some individuals and bodies that professed themselves happy with this formula before the election are now starting to say that the Bill, while containing no actual definition, should at least set some general principles about public benefit. So there is movement.

It's also possible that the Government's position might now be more flexible.

Before the election, it was worried about anything the right-wing press could interpret as an attack on public schools, thus alienating middle-class voters.

Now, with its dangerously reduced majority, it is probably more concerned about managing the crucial group of backbench dissidents who have yet to show their hand on this question. It's a complex and fascinating situation, and now there's time to resolve it without the looming deadline of 5 May.

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