OPINION: New Bill means new labours

Lisa Harker, chair of the Daycare Trust but writes in a personal capacity

Next week we will learn whether the Charities Bill Coalition has accomplished its mission. The Queen's Speech will tell us if the Government plans to introduce a new Charities Bill in the coming year.

The signs are very good. Earlier in the year, the Home Secretary David Blunkett made clear his support for new legislation. And at a Labour conference fringe meeting last month, Fiona Mactaggart went so far as to promise that she would deliver a new Charities Bill. Given the demands on legislative time, not to mention the uncertain length of any ministerial tenure, her statement exuded the kind of confidence only ever exhibited by someone in receipt of gold-plated assurances about the future.

So it looks likely that a law will be proposed that will redefine charitable status around the principle of public benefit, introduce new legal forms for charities and social enterprises, and clarify the regulatory role of the Charity Commission.

The Coalition has been right to claim the urgency of a new law, arguing that to postpone the introduction of legislation would hold back the sector.

All three political parties want to encourage charities to play a greater role in public service delivery but the sector's ability to respond is hampered by a regulatory framework that is hopelessly out of date.

What's more, the public's perception of charities is old-fashioned and the current lack of transparency in the definition of charitable status does nothing to challenge this. A sector fit for the 21st century has to be supported by laws and regulations that reflect modern values and working practices.

But mention of a Charities Bill in the Queen's Speech will only be cause for a small celebration. While new legislation could provide a necessary foundation for the sector's future, its fate is even more dependent on its position in policy-making debates. No law can ensure that there is a level playing field for all sectors when it comes to the delivery of public services. Nor can you legislate to alter the public's views of the sector's role. A new Charities Bill could provide the legal framework the third sector now needs, but it won't determine its future role in society.

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