Commission to go ahead with reforms if Bill falls

Stephen Cook and Mathew Little

The Charity Commission is to press on with planned reforms even if the Charities Bill fails, as expected, to become law before the general election anticipated in May.

One of the Bill's proposals is that the number of commissioners should increase from five to nine in order to broaden the base of the regulator's governance.

Commission chair Geraldine Peacock said this week that if the Bill does fall she plans either to use the services of "commissioners-designate" or to set up an advisory group to contribute wider views.

"I believe the Bill will become an Act sooner or later, but the commission needs to broaden its base now to make sure we aren't held up in our programme of change," she said.

"We've kept motoring on that front: we've got our new open board meetings and will be publishing the results of our internal review after Easter, together with a new look and literature.

"There needs to be some leadership in the sector, and we can do it in a neutral way because we're not a political or representative group."

The cancellation of two days of Lords committee hearings for the Bill has led observers to accept that the Bill will run out of time. The NCVO and others are now seeking a commitment from political parties that it would be reintroduced immediately after the election.

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action has called for a written definition of public benefit to be included in the proposed reform of charity law in the province.

In a paper published last week, it argued that the criteria for public benefit in the current Scottish Charities Bill should apply to Northern Ireland as well.

These include requirements that charities provide benefit to the public at large or a sufficient section of it and that any disbenefit or private benefit should be weighed against public benefit.

However, the Northern Ireland Office is proposing a framework similar to the Charities Bill in England, where definition and policing of public benefit is left to the regulatory body.

- See Outside Edge, back page.

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