Regulations have been laid before parliament requiring new Healthwatch organisations, designed to champion the rights of health service users, to be social enterprises.
The regulations also contain a legal definition of a social enterprise, although this will only apply for the purposes of appointing the new Healthwatch bodies.
The NHS Bodies and Local Authorities (Partnership Arrangements, Care Trusts, Public Health and Local Healthwatch) Regulations 2012 say that all Healthwatch bodies must be social enterprises.
It says that an organisation that wants to be considered as a social enterprise must either be a charity or a community interest company, or have provisions in its constitution that it distributes less than 50 per cent of its profit to shareholders, state that it acts for the benefit of the community and have a clause that requires it to pass on assets to another social enterprise in the event of winding up.
Ceri Jones, head of policy and research at Social Enterprise UK, said her organisation had helped to set the definition used in the regulations.
"But this won’t set a precedent," she said. "I don’t think that as we see more commissioning from social enterprise we will see government try to define more closely what it is."
Some legal definition of social enterprise had previously been made in the Health and Social Care Act 2008, in order to give the health secretary the power to give financial assistance through the Social Enterprise Investment Fund.