Policy and Politics: Give and take over the Charities Bill

Stephen Cook

The scrutiny committee won some points, but lost the main one.

The joint Parliamentary committee that scrutinised the draft Charities Bill has persuaded voluntary sector minister Fiona Mactaggart to change her mind about who should grant charities certificates of fitness for public collections, including face-to-face fundraising.

When the committee questioned Mactaggart last summer, she said it would be "an additional unnecessary burden" on the Charity Commission to give it the job of granting such certificates, and insisted it should go to local authorities instead.

But in the final Charities Bill, published just before Christmas, she accepted after all the recommendation in the scrutiny committee's report that the task of issuing certificates of fitness should go to the Charity Commission rather than to a "lead local authority".

But Mactaggart refused to accept another principal recommendation of the committee, which wanted a partial definition of public benefit to be included in the Bill or in guidance issued by the Home Secretary.

Instead, she stuck to the formula supported by the main sector umbrella bodies, including the NCVO, that the commission should consult widely and produce guidance about public benefit that could be amended from time to time in the light of social circumstances.

She also decided not to take up an idea put forward by the committee as a suggestion rather than a formal recommendation - that fee-paying schools and hospitals should lose their charitable status and be given tax breaks by other means.

George Foulkes, the Labour MP for Carrick, Cumnock and the Doon Valley who chaired the scrutiny committee in its final session, said he was disappointed the Government had not taken up its recommendation on public benefit.

He predicted there would be a move back to it during the Bill's passage through Parliament because the Government's proposal would not "put a strong enough searchlight" on whether fee-paying schools and hospitals provided public benefit.

Bob Russell, Lib Dem MP for Colchester and another member of the scrutiny committee, said the Government had "bottled it" over the question of public benefit.

"I'm disappointed there isn't to be a common sense interpretation of what charity is," he said. "For schools such as Eton to be charities brings the concept of charity into disrepute. There are too many vested interests for anything radical. In all the parties there are many people who were educated at private school and the sector is very influential."

- See News Analysis, p20

TIME LINE

- The Charities Bill had its first reading on 20 December 2004 in the House of Lords

- Its second reading in the Lords is due on Thursday January 20

- The next stage is in committee, normally of the whole House

- The Bill then goes to Third Reading, when further amendments can be made, before going to the Commons

- It follows the same sequence there, but the Government can move a motion at Second Reading to give the Bill a timetable to make sure it moves quickly

- If the General Election, widely expected on May 5, is called before the Bill gets Royal Assent, it falls. It could, however, be reintroduced in a new Parliament.

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