The Draft Charities Bill: Committee gears up for scrutiny process

Mathew Little

Whether or not the definition of 'public benefit' should be spelled out in the Charities Bill will be one of the issues chewed over by the pre-legislative scrutiny committee.

The scrutiny process, which will last for most of the summer, takes place before a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament and will be open to submissions by charities and members of the public.

The committee comprises six MPs and six peers. It is chaired by Alan Milburn, the former health secretary, who last month called for a radical expansion of public service provision by charities. Other members include Labour MP George Foulkes and Liberal Democrat peer and charity lawyer Andrew Phillips.

The committee has already started its work, taking evidence from the Home Office and the Charity Commission. Oral evidence will be taken throughout June and the first half of July. Written evidence from large charities must be received by 28 June and from smaller charities by 21 June.

Other issues to be considered include whether the sector is in danger of being over-regulated, and whether the Bill will encourage more giving and volunteering.

The committee will also address the controversial subject of whether fee-paying schools and hospitals do enough to pass the public benefit test and retain charitable status. Foulkes publicly opposes charitable tax relief for private schools.

Phillips said a primary concern would be to improve the lot of smaller charities. "The first thing for the scrutiny committee is to hear the views of the typical charity, which has no employees and operates with minimal bureaucracy. Unless the Bill makes life better for them it will not succeed."

Whatever the committee concludes, the Government is not obliged to alter the bill's content. Last year the Communications Bill went through such pre-legislative scrutiny, but the Government ignored the committee's recommendations on media ownership by foreign corporations.

According to the Home Office, the aim is to conclude the scrutiny phase in the summer, so that the final draft can be included in November's Queen's Speech. But even if this deadline is reached the Bill's passage into law is still in doubt. With the Prime Minister expected to call a general election in early 2005, the Bill could be killed by the next election campaign, meaning that charity law reform would be left to the mercy of the next government's priorities.

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