Policy and Politics: Intense time pressure on Charities Bill

Stephen Cook

NCVO urges all parties to ensure the Bill is passed before an election.

The NCVO has written to the Government and the main opposition parties urging them to make sure that the Charities Bill completes its remaining Parliamentary stages and becomes law before the general election, widely expected on May 5.

The letter, emphasising the cross-party support for the Bill and urging politicians to maintain its momentum, has been sent to Peter Hain, leader of the House of Commons, and to opposition business managers. Other members of the 'Charities Bill coalition' may also be writing to the Government.

The NCVO letter is prompted by growing concerns about the timetabling of the Bill, which will have its fourth day of line-by-line scrutiny in the Grand Committee of the Lords today, followed by two more days listed for 3 and 8 March. Report stage and third reading are expected before the Easter recess on 24 March.

The Bill would then go to the Commons. Parliament resumes on 4 April, and a 5 May election would require the dissolution of Parliament a few days later. This means the Bill would have to be rushed through all its Commons stages in a very short time, in competition with other urgent legislation. A June election would mean an easier timetable.

"It always looked tight," said Chris Stalker, director of campaigns at the NCVO. "Our plan B has always been that if it doesn't get through we would call for a new government to reintroduce the Bill as soon as possible. But we're still hopeful."

One observer who did not want to be quoted by name said there might be an element of luck in whether the Bill got through: "I don't think anyone knows how all this will play itself out."

The Grand Committee has already examined the most contentious part of the Bill, including the Government's intention to keep a definition of public benefit out of the Bill and leave it to the Charity Commission.

Ministers have so far resisted an amendment that would require the Commission, when judging whether an organisation provided public benefit, to "consider the extent to which access thereto is restricted and the public benefit consequences thereof".

The amendment was intended to ensure fee-paying schools and hospitals would face a public benefit test with teeth. Home Office minister Baroness Scotland said she did not think the amendment added anything to the Bill and would not be surprised if the Commission's checks identified charities whose fees restricted access so much that they could not demonstrate public benefit.

The Government also resisted an amendment, saying the Charity Commission, which is a non-ministerial government department, should be "an independent body free of government control". The amendment was moved by Lord Phillips (Lib Dem) and strongly backed by Lord Hodgson (Con), who said it was "probably the most important issue we shall be debating".

He said the commission "should not be part of the Government, but independent of them".

KEY POINTS

- The NCVO wrote to the Government and opposition parties urging them to make sure the Charities Bill is passed before a general election

- The letter was prompted by concerns about the timetabling of the Bill

- If an election is called for 5 May, the Bill will have to be rushed through all its Commons stages, in competition with other Bills.

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