Policy and Politics: Commission prepares for new powers

Stephen Cook

Parliamentarians hear how the Charities Bill would work in practice.

Charities that failed to pass a public benefit test after the Charities Bill became law could be subject to a range of sanctions before losing their charitable status, the all-party Parliamentary group on charities and the voluntary sector heard last week.

Geraldine Peacock, chairman of the Charity Commission, told a meeting of peers and MPs in the group that recalcitrant charities could be charged, fined or suspended for a period before the final sanction was used.

She was telling the group how the commission planned to carry out the powers proposed in the Bill.

"It was a very constructive meeting," she said afterwards. "The main subjects were how to reinforce the themes of the second reading debate in the Lords, such as the independence of the commission, resourcing it properly, the construction and application of the public benefit test, and sanctions.

"Some sanctions are only available to the Home Secretary, so one question is whether we would have to go through him or whether they could be delegated to us."

Rosie Chapman, the commission's head of policy, said after the meeting that the new powers in the Bill, enabling the commission to carry out the public benefit tests and license charities for public collections, meant it would need £3m-£9m added to its £31m budget.

"The Conservatives have already proposed an amendment that we should use our powers proportionately and fairly, and we would be more than happy to go along with that," she said.

Tom Levitt, Labour MP for High Peak and chairman of the group, said Peacock explained how a body with charitable status which failed to satisfy public benefit requirements would first be told how it might succeed in doing so. Other sanctions, including removal of charitable status, would follow.

"They thought they have sufficient powers, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating," he said. "In the past I've not been impressed by the commission, but it is more credible now, and more of a friend to the sector."

Levitt said it would be positive if the proposed public benefit test could enable the excellent facilities of independent schools to be shared, and become assets for the whole community.

"I'm not convinced that removing their charitable status would do more than warm the cockles of a few old Labour hearts. It's much better to make progress in other ways," he added.

Baroness Pitkeathley, also a member of the group, said the 'concordat' between the commission and Home Office on an approach to public benefit was helpful: "I have no doubt the commission will be robust in using the powers it does have."

- See Letters, p25

KEY POINTS

- A charity failing to pass the public benefit test would first be told how it might succeed in doing so

- Fines or suspension would follow, before loss of charitable status

- Charity Commission estimates new powers will require £3m-£9m added to £31m budget

- Tom Levitt says facilities at independent schools would ideally be shared, becoming assets for the whole community

- Levitt believes commission is now more credible.

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