Editorial: The Bill can wait for another Parliament

Stephen Cook, editor

By this time next week it is likely, if the political correspondents are right, that an election will have been called and Parliament will be frantically involved in the 'wash-up' that precedes the dissolution of Parliament and the start of the campaign proper.

Enter Lord Shutt of Greetland, one of the peers involved in the Charities Bill: "I do not know much about washing up. I have washed up a few pots and pans in my time, but I do not know - none of us knows, really - how things are going to go from here. I should like to think that the Bill will get a good wash and brush up and become law."

His words in the closing stages of the Grand Committee's painstaking consideration of the Bill echo the wishes of many: that it will somehow, in the horse trading of the last hectic days, be whipped through the Commons and onto the Statute Book.

Would that be a good thing? Well, in many ways it would. The Bill was widely consulted on, trawled over by the joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Committee last summer, and taken to pieces by the Lords during eight long and gruelling afternoons.

As a result, the Government has made important concessions: it has agreed that the regulation of public fundraising should be transferred to the Charity Commission; that the commission should be made more independent; that it should be required to act in a fair and proportionate way; and that the Bill's definition of religion should be amended to include non-theistic beliefs. There have been technical amendments, too, and there was rejoicing among Conservatives when they managed to changed the phrase "considers is no longer" to "no longer considers is".

But the fact remains that the Government's position on the question of how the Bill's proposed test of 'public benefit' will apply to fee-paying schools and hospitals has not been sorted out to everyone's satisfaction.

Rather than accept amendments that senior lawyers say would deal with the lack of clarity about how things would work out in practice, it has chosen to put its trust in a series of assertions that would not necessarily stand up in court. There are a number of MPs - probably a small number, admittedly - who want to have their say about this and would be denied it if the Bill is rushed through this week. That is why, on balance, it would be better for the Bill to wait and come back to the Commons in a new Parliament.

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