The charity tribunal and the Law Commission should examine what could be done to reassure volunteers who are worried about being sued, the Big Society Deregulation Taskforce has recommended.
Its chair, the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson, said at the launch of its final report yesterday that the question of volunteer liability was "the big one" for the taskforce, and that if the tribunal and the Law Commission could not help, it should be taken up by the government.
The report, Unshackling Good Neighbours, says that, rightly or wrongly, fear of litigation is a major preoccupation among volunteers. Official guidance, it says, falls short of the recommendation in Lord Young's recent report on health and safety that people should not be "held liable for any consequences due to well-intentioned voluntary acts on their part".
It says the Attorney General should refer the issue of the liability of volunteers, including trustees, to the charity tribunal to examine whether a "reasonableness test" for voluntary activity could be established.
"While any determination would affect charities only and would not bind courts generally, it could serve as a marker and, more importantly, send a signal to the wider public about the direction of travel on this important issue," the report says.
Subsequently, it says, the Law Commission should be asked to examine whether any statutory changes could usefully be made, and if neither approach was fruitful the government should take up the issue.
"The task force accepts that these recommendations may not be popular with some sections of the law who may regard them as being entirely superfluous," it says." We argue that society needs to find ways to reassure the would-be good neighbour, and this is a way of achieving that."
Hodgson said other priorities in the report included: a simpler fundraising licensing regime; easier commissioning for charities, including limits on the cost of bidding for public service delivery contracts; reducing the cost of insurance for charities, in particular for volunteer drivers; the creation of a less restrictive environment for social investment; and encouraging volunteering among the unemployed.
The report says fundraising licences are "ineffective, confusing and burdensome" and recommends they should be reviewed as part of the forthcoming review of the Charities Act.
It also says that local councils often know little about licences they are asked to enforce and offer charities bad information.
It recommends limits on commissioning services so that the price of bidding is no more than 2 per cent of the value of the contract on contracts worth less than £500,000, and 1 per cent of larger contracts.
Similarly, the price of monitoring should be no more than 4 per cent of contracts under £500,000 and 2 per cent thereafter, according to the report.
"Most of all, monitoring requirements should not be changed halfway through the contract," said Hodgson. "Charities particularly hate that."
Another major issue, said Hodgson, was insurance for charities, which he said the Association of British Insurers had agreed to work on.
He said a particular issue was that of volunteer drivers, and that the taskforce had found marked differences in reporting requirements at seven large insurance firms.
Hodgson also recommended that a committee be set up to respond to calls for new legislation. Too often, he said, new regulation was imposed quickly after a particular issue came to light out of a sense that "something must be done". He recommended instead that any new legislation be passed to a separate group so that "cooler heads might prevail".
Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, promised his department would rank the report’s recommendations according to their importance and achievability, and pursue them in that order.
"Some of them are definitely do-able, and some are more of a stretch," said Hurd.
He said that Hodgson would be asked to return in a year and report on his department’s progress.