Editorial: Let teenagers be teenagers, not trustees

Stephen Cook, editor

The Government has occasionally given ground in the committee stage of the Charities Bill in the Lords, agreeing to amendments on, for example, the definition of religion and the working standards of the Charity Commission.

But such concessions have come only when the case was strong and peers have pressed hard. More typically, the response has been no, no, no and no. Strange, then, that in last week's session the Government spokesman, Lord Bassam of Brighton, nearly fell over himself to welcome an amendment supported only by its proposer, Lord Best. This was the plan to allow people under 18 to become trustees of charities.

Much of Lord Bassam's response was about the difficulties the proposal would bring, such as legal issues relating to the capacity of minors to enter into contracts or to own land. And yet he managed to conclude: "This is a cool concept. We will take it away and give it fair consideration."

His language - like that of another peer, who called the amendment "funky" - gives the game away here: the Government is prepared to go through all sorts of contortions in its usual knee-jerk attempt to be seen as youth-friendly.

The same week, a Charity Commission survey revealed that 40 per cent of charities have difficulty in recruiting trustees at all - let alone young trustees. Only one in 200 trustees is under the age of 24, and 76 in 100 are over 45. The commission has many proposals for changing the balance, such as moving away from recruiting by word of mouth, which has, disturbingly, increased by 13 per cent in the past four years. But the question that needs more debate is: what are we aiming for, exactly?

On ethnicity, it's relatively easy - charities need a balance that roughly reflects the relevant population. But on age it's more difficult. How high a proportion do they want of young and relatively inexperienced people, or of those who have busy jobs and young children, or of teenagers who might naturally be more interested in getting an education and experimenting with life?

Do we want Oxfam run by 16 year-olds? Lord Bassam accepted that many charities concerned with young people have already found satisfactory ways of consulting them and including their views. If m'learned friends convince him over the summer that the funky trustee amendment just won't wash, it might be no bad thing.

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