New public benefit guidance will give trustees 'huge discretion' on charging fees

Jo Edwardes, head of status and public benefit at the Charity Commission, says the regulator's role is only to ensure trustees have discharged their duty

Jo Edwardes
Jo Edwardes

The Charity Commission’s new guidance on public benefit will give trustees of fee-charging charities a "huge amount of discretion" to set the amounts they charge for their services, the regulator has said.

Speaking at a public meeting of the commission in Nottingham yesterday, Jo Edwardes, head of status and public benefit at the commission, said the regulator would publish its "clearer and shorter" final guidance within the next few weeks, based on the consultation it carried out between June and September last year.

The regulator withdrew its guidance on public benefit and fee-charging charities in 2011 after a legal challenge by the Independent Schools Council.

Edwardes said the new guidance would say trustees would decide whether or not fees were more than the poor could afford.

"It’s for trustees to think about the level of fees and who is being charged," she said. "Who are your beneficiaries? Who do you think ought to have access to those services? Do you think they would be excluded by your fees and, if they would be, how might you help them to benefit?"

Asked whether the commission would step in if it was decided that the trustees’ decision on fee charging had been wrong, Edwardes said that as long as the trustees had acted appropriately and followed due process there was little the commission could do.

She said: "There’s a huge amount of discretion there for trustees. The commission’s role here is to ask if the trustees have discharged their duty – it’s not for the commission to say we think there should be this level of provision or that level of provision, or they should have x number of bursaries."

Edwardes said that a charity would not be rejected or removed from the commission’s register on the basis of whether it was run for the public benefit or not. "It would always be because ultimately its purposes were not for the public benefit," she said.

She said the new guidance would consist of three short guides, each dealing with different aspects of public benefit – the public benefit requirement, running a charity and reporting.

"So three guides that are shorter, and you read only what you need to read," said Edwardes.

She said that other issues, such as charitable purposes, were now covered in separate guidance.

The guidance issued by the commission in 2008 specifically for charities working in religion and the relief of poverty would no longer be part of the regulator’s public benefit guidance, she said.

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