Former third sector minister Ed Miliband told the House of Commons last year that the law governing public fundraising was "a bad combination of bureaucracy and inconsistency". It was also a product of wartime Britain, resting on one Act of Parliament passed in the middle of the First World War and another at the onset of the Second World War.
The 2006 Charities Act, which Miliband was recommending to MPs, promised a new licensing regime for an age concerned with ubiquitous street fundraisers rather than unofficial collections for wounded war veterans. But when the old regime will finally be put to rest remains in question. The licensing system is bottom of the Charity Commission's list of priorities from the Charities Act and requires an as yet unauthorised injection of cash from the Government to make it work.
Under the outgoing system, charities must seek permission from local authorities to engage in door-to-door or street collections, although many believe that the law does not cover street fundraising using direct debits.
The new system will bring in a two-stage registration process for collections in public places. Charities must apply to the Charity Commission for a public collections certificate and to the local authority concerned for a permit. For door-to-door collections, a charity needs only a certificate from the commission.
The commission can refuse a certificate if it judges that fundraising proceeds will be 'inadequate'. Local authorities can refuse permits only because of public nuisance. Martin Horwood, Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham, has warned that councils could use their new powers to "reduce the opportunity for public collections to two days a week, which is rather less than was intended".
But not yet. According to the Cabinet Office timetable, the earliest charities will have to apply for certificates will be February 2009. The new system could cost millions to administer and the commission is already facing budget cuts when the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review concludes in the summer. "We've always said that there are going to be resource implications for us," says a commission spokesman. "Where the money comes from is a detail that has to be worked out."