Editorial: Scotland ahead in public benefit charity law race

Stephen Cook

The Scottish Executive has stepped in and grasped the nettle that English Parliamentarians spent much of this year eyeing from a safe distance: the newly published Charities Bill in Scotland contains a definition of public benefit. It's only half a dozen short clauses, so it doesn't aim to be comprehensive. It's also been spelt out that the Office of the Scottish Charities Regulator will have a role in interpreting the definition and ensuring that charities satisfy its requirements. The courts will be a last resort.

South of the border, the draft Charities Bill refers only to "public benefit as that term is understood". During the hearings of the Parliamentary committee that scrutinised the draft Bill over the summer, there was much sound and fury about adding a proper definition to the Bill - the fear in some quarters was this would be the only way to make sure the historically-sanctioned charitable status of expensive private schools and hospitals could be effectively challenged. In the end, the committee backed a rather wishy-washy 'concordat' between the Home Office and the Charity Commission asserting that public benefit checks would indeed apply to schools, and said its principles could either be included in the real Bill or issued as non-binding statutory guidance by the Secretary of State.

Third Sector went to press before this week's Queen's Speech, which was widely expected to promise a Charities Bill. When the Government comes to respond to the committee's recommendations and introduces a Bill, it may yet follow the Scottish model. Any system is bound be three-legged, resting on the legislation, the regulatory interpretation of it, and the courts. At the moment in England, the legislation leg seems disproportionately short.

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