Editorial: Red tape raiders face big obstacles

Some proposals could be easily implemented, but the ones that would really make a difference are more forbidding, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

A vital part of show jumping is 'walking the course', where riders inspect the fences on foot, calculate the width of the water jump, the number of strides between fences, the best approach to take.

The report of the Big Society Deregulation Taskforce is a comparable assessment of the obstacles facing ministers in their project of freeing the voluntary sector of restrictive red tape. And it's obvious from the outset that they're not heading for a clear round.

Some things could be achieved by knocking heads together, such as clarifying and encouraging volunteering by jobseekers and getting local authorities to provide clear standard guidance on the licensing of fundraising events. Others might require legislation but seem do-able, such as eliminating regulatory duplication, simplifying the charity licensing regime and a creating a new, explicit power for charities to engage in social investment.

But the things that could really bring a step change are multifaceted and more forbidding. One example is the reform of commissioning to create a more level playing field for the sector. Another is the clarification and minimising of volunteer liability, including that of trustees. The taskforce said these were the two thorniest questions it tackled.

It recommends asking the charity tribunal to develop a "reasonableness test", intended to reassure volunteers that they are unlikely to be sued if they take reasonable steps to guard against mishap. Whether it comes from the tribunal or another authoritative sector body, a charter of this kind would clearly be useful. But at the end of the day, the law on negligence cannot and should not apply differently to volunteers than to other citizens.

Our lead letter alongside this column argues that past experience suggests reports like this will lead only to tinkering at the edges because there is never enough political will and parliamentary time to push through the changes that would really make a difference. Is this unduly pessimistic? Or will David Cameron and his ministers buck the trend and prove our correspondent wrong?

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