Opinion: Bill pleasing but uninvolving

Rachel O'Brien

Much of the debate greeting the Charities Bill has been around how we define public benefit. There is lots of good news - independent schools will need to be more ambitious about their wider social role. Amnesty will get charitable status and charging won't be inconsistent with benefiting the public. And - my favourite - there will even be restrictions on face-to-face fundraising.

And the bad news? Well, more a question of no news. Why does the Bill say so little about the role that charities should or could play in encouraging civil and political participation?

After next week's elections, there will be more hand-wringing about the low turnout and its implications. Acres of column inches will be given over to analysing it. Pundits will point to the long-term decline in deference towards major social institutions, while political parties will worry about what this means for their prospects and for the health of the political system. Meanwhile, clever people over at the Home Office will be developing policies aimed at renewing participation. I know it's a cheap trick, but search its web version of the Charities Bill for a mention of civic renewal.

There's not a thing.

This is despite the fact that the voluntary sector works at all levels of community, and is bound together by a notion of public benefit. The sector is integral to many diverse networks and communicates directly with millions of people. And even though one aim of the Bill is to increase public confidence, the sector is already trusted by most.

So why the gap? Is it because the sector does not make enough of its unique position and the role it could play in connecting people? Or does it suspect it doesn't do it very well?

Whatever the answer, the sector needs to ensure that in defining public benefit, it stresses its role in encouraging participation and connecting people. And while making the case for protecting human rights may be easy, is the sector ready to defend the local chess club and the neighbourhood group that provides a space for drinking tea together? And if not, where's the public good in that?

Rachel O'Brien is director of external affairs at the Institute for Public Policy Research. Lisa Harker is recovering from an accident.

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