Focus: Policy and Politics - Lord Phillips signs off with a warning to charities

Nathalie Thomas

The campaigning lawyer has voted with his feet after becoming frustrated by 'poor legislation'.

"Crap legislation" is the principal explanation Lord Phillips has offered for his retirement from the House of Lords this summer.

Although the life peer cannot relinquish his position entirely without an act of Parliament, Phillips preferred to retire from active political life than to continue being what he describes as an "unwilling accomplice in the creation of tidal waves of irrelevant or ill-considered law".

During his eight years in the Lords, the former Lib Dem home affairs spokesman has been involved with numerous Bills - most notably the Identity Cards Bill, which saw him persuade the Lords to overturn the Commons on no fewer than four occasions.

But the voluntary sector will know him best for his work on the Charities Bill. Phillips does not go so far as to call the most significant charity legislation for 400 years "crap", but he's certainly not shy in criticising it.

"I have to be honest and say that, although there are particular forms within it that plainly one would like to see, I think the net effect is going to be negative for the voluntary charity sector," he said.

Small voluntary groups that make up the bulk of the sector will be the biggest victims of the legislation, Phillips believes. He thinks the Bill's main provisions will be neither of interest nor of benefit to small charities and will place an extra bureaucratic burden on the majority of organisations.

"It will mean that it will be more and more necessary for charities to resort to using lawyers in order to be sure that they are doing the right thing," he said.

Considering that he founded the London branch of the law firm Bates, Wells & Braithwaite, one might presume that Phillips would be in favour of this. Quite the opposite. He is vehement in his condemnation of what he describes as a "wholly fallacious anxiety" created by lawyers, accountants and some sector professionals, particularly in regard to trustees.

He believes they have whipped up, albeit inadvertently, a "completely false panic" about governance and the risks and responsibilities it brings.

Phillips is old-school when it comes to charity governance: he believes the simple spirit of voluntarism should always lie at the heart of charity and, accordingly, trustees should not be paid.

His former colleagues in the Lords and the Commons would agree, he said.

Before the Charities Bill was published, several organisations were pushing for paid trusteeships. However, none of the peers or MPs on the joint committee scrutinising the legislation suggested its inclusion in the Bill. "Nobody put an amendment among the hundreds tabled to make a general allowance for paid trustees," he added.

Phillips has similarly strong feelings about public benefit. He maintains that the Government showed "political cowardice" in its defeat of his amendment, which sought to ensure that fee-charging schools and hospitals could not avoid demonstrating public benefit. He believes the latest amendment, tabled by John Grogan MP, which gives regard to any "undue obstacle" in accessing an organisation's benefits, also has "nil" chance. "What does undue mean?" he said. "A private school will simply say we've got to charge these fees in order to balance our books."

Phillips will no longer be championing voluntary sector issues in the Lords, but he insisted it won't be a case of out of sight, out of mind.

He intends to devote more time to the Citizenship Foundation and the Solicitors Pro Bono Group - the two charities he founded - and will continue to help where he can.

"I am very much interested in maintaining a presence," he said.

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