News special: The Charities Bill - Public benefit up for debate

The Government has left the door open to the inclusion in the Charities Bill of a clause that would clarify how charging schools and hospitals would have to demonstrate public benefit and qualify for charitable status.

Previously, ministers have refused to include any definition in the Bill itself and stuck to a formula of requiring the Charity Commission to draw up guidance on public benefit and check that organisations are providing it.

In the second reading of the Bill in the Lords last week, Home Office spokesman Lord Bassam gave no commitment to change, but said public benefit would no doubt be dealt with in greater detail in the debates at committee stage.

His response followed an assertion by the Liberal Democrat Lord Phillips that the Government had been willing to include public benefit criteria in the Bill and rush it through before the election if the Conservatives had agreed.

"We got to the point where they were inclined not to oppose my amendment, and indeed I heard the Independent Schools Council was inclined not to oppose my amendment," he said.

His amendment said that when the Charity Commission consulted on public benefit in relation to fee-charging charities, it would have to "consider the extent to which access thereto is restricted and the public benefit consequence thereof".

Labour peer Baroness Pitkeathley said she hoped the Government would accept a similar amendment this time. Lord Borrie (Labour) said he might introduce an amendment along the lines suggested recently by former Labour MP Christopher Price, who argued for stronger public benefit criteria to be included in the Bill.

Peers also argued that the Bill still needed improvement on the subjects of the definition of religion, the independence of action of the Charity Commission, the inclusion of a 'suitor's fund' for the new Charity Tribunal, audit thresholds and armed forces charities.

- See Policy and Politics, page 12.

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