Focus: Policy and Politics - Analysis - Public benefit back on Charities Bill agenda

Stephen Cook

The vexed question of public benefit and the Charities Bill has been on the back-burner since the Bill's first reading in the Commons before Christmas, but will move back to the front again with the second reading, which is expected next month.

Key figures in the voluntary sector are beating a path to the door of Paul Goggins, Home Office minister, to tell him how the issue is vital to the future of charities and ask him to rethink the Government's position.

In the Lords last October, the Government ensured the defeat of an amendment from Lord Phillips that required the Charity Commission to consider the effects on public benefit of the charging policy of any charity.

This was designed to help the commission deal with the 'how can Eton be a charity?' question when it consults and issues guidance, as the Bill requires it to do, on how charities should meet the requirement to provide public benefit. Without the Phillips amendment, all the Bill says about public benefit is that any reference to it "is a reference to the public benefit as that term is understood for the purposes of the law relating to charities in England and Wales".

That means, in effect, case law - and Phillips and others have explained how one key case from 1967 suggests that the question of charging should play no part in public benefit questions. Many voluntary sector organisations and lawyers fear this could mean that commission guidance that dealt with charging, in response to perceived public concern, could be repeatedly challenged in the proposed new Charity Tribunal.

The result of that, they argue, would be to discredit the modernisation of the sector promoted by the Bill. And in the absence of significant support so far from the opposition or Labour backbenches, their main hope is a change of ministerial hearts.

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