Editorial: What price the review of the act?

As the review of the Charities Act 2006 begins, one of its main thrusts has been largely negated, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

By the time you read this, the government is likely to have appointed - just before today's deadline - a person to conduct a review of the Charities Act 2006. This requirement was built into the act to placate those who were variously concerned about how it would affect public confidence and levels of donation and volunteering.

Perhaps the first thing to say about the act is that one of its main thrusts has been all but negated by the recent decision of the Upper Tribunal about private schools and public benefit. The last government intended the act to enable the Charity Commission proactively to require fee-charging schools to demonstrate public benefit to justify their charitable status. The judgement has, in effect, told the commission to take a back seat on this, and some lawyers think the position is now much the same as before the 2006 law.

So all the sound and fury over the commission's guidance, all the controversy the commission has endured, may have been for - well, nothing much. Labour's pusillanimous decision not to offer any definition of public benefit in the statute handed the whole thing over to the courts, in effect, and there it inconclusively rests.

The second matter to mention about the act is that one of its most important provisions has not been brought into force. It contains measures that would reform the complex and anomalous system of licensing public charitable collections by taking responsibility for it away from local authorities and giving it to the Charity Commission. The prospects of that happening any time soon, given the huge cuts to the regulator's budget, would seem exceedingly slim.

And yet the licensing of collections, and the regulatory roles of the Fundraising Standards Board and the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, are matters that need some urgent thought. Perhaps some pressure on this front will come from the reviews of the act being simultaneously conducted by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the Charity Law Association.

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