Attorney General’s consent for references by the regulator to the charity tribunal ‘should not be removed’, government rules

The government has rejected further pressure over allowing the Charity Commission to take cases to the charity tribunal without gaining the permission of the Attorney General.

In a committee debate on the Charities Bill in parliament last week, Jeff Smith, the Labour MP for Manchester Withington, pressed Nigel Huddleston, the charities minister, on why the government had not adopted the measure, which had been recommended by the Law Commission in 2017.

“Organisations from across the charity sector share the view that the Charity Commission is well placed to highlight potentially challenging issues within charity law and that the current requirement for consent presents an unnecessary barrier to ensuring that issues of charity law can be considered and addressed by the tribunal,” Smith told MPs.

But Huddleston said the government had rejected the recommendation on the basis that the Attorney General has a duty to protect charitable interests in England and Wales and the mechanism helped fulfill that duty.

He said the government had concluded that the Attorney General’s consent for references to the charity tribunal was “an important element in the system which should not be removed”.

He said the matter had been “thoroughly debated” as the bill went through the House of Lords. When it was in the Lords last year, an amendment on the matter had been put forward by the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, but was not accepted.

Hodgson had told peers that the requirement undermined the commission’s authority and independence. But he agreed to withdraw the amendment.

Smith also asked Huddleston if he would set out how the government planned to tighten the appointment system to avoid a repeat of the “rather shambolic appointment” of Martin Thomas as chair of the Charity Commission.

Last month, Thomas resigned from the role less than a week after being appointed after allegations surfaced relating to his behaviour while he was chair of the charity Women for Women International, which supports female survivors of war.

The minister did not respond to Smith’s question.

The Charities Bill, which was announced in the Queen’s Speech in May, is designed to bring into force long-awaited reforms intended to reduce the amount of bureaucracy faced by charities.

It is estimated that the legislation will save the sector at least £28m over the next decade.

Smith said Labour supported the “sensible measures in and principles of the bill”.

The legislation is expected to be debated further by MPs this week.

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