Outside Edge: Define intervention

The Charity Commission has written a document so tangled that it is of little benefit and should not have been made public, says Tash Shifrin.

What is it about the Charity Commission that makes it produce relentlessly uninformative verbiage? Its latest offering, a document on its "approach" to public benefit, is a horror.

Yes, it's that central plank of the Charities Bill again. The one that last year produced the famous "dog's breakfast" comment - Alan Milburn's term - when the commission clashed with the Home Office, suggesting a public benefit check would not affect private schools' charitable status.

"I know the debate will continue and hope this explanation of our thinking will give it a new clarity and precision," declared commission chair Geraldine Peacock last week. Geraldine, you must be joking.

A phalanx of Sir Humphreys has clearly laboured hard to produce this impenetrable tangle, in which it seems nothing can be defined without being redefined in a subsequent clause using the same words in a different order: "There are two essential elements of the public benefit requirement," paragraph 14 informs us, adding that these are "public" and, er, "benefit".

"How will we ensure that charities meet the public benefit requirement?" the paper asks. "We first need a clear understanding of what the public benefit requirement means." And so it goes on, round and round in circles, revealing precisely nothing about what the commission is actually going to do.

Public benefit checks on existing charities? "We are still considering the best way of carrying out these checks." What has the commission done to develop "greater awareness and understanding of the public benefit requirement"? Well, "we have published this document" it boasts, ludicrously adding a three-point explanation of what the document does.

It would be nice to have an explanation of the commission's approach to public benefit - but only when it's got an approach. This looks like another desperate look-open-but-say-nothing effort.

Remarkably, the commission's accompanying "legal principles" paper is actually more comprehensible. It's not clear how it squares with the commission's earlier legal principles, but at least there is some outline of how public benefit might be judged.

Private schools fearing a crackdown on their charitable status need not panic. There look to be plenty of loopholes. Ministers who are soft on private schools can relax, too.

And that's where the whole public benefit rigmarole falls down. In the real world only a tiny percentage of people believe Eton College is charitable.

But the Bill, if it is ever passed, would probably leave Eton's charity status untouched. Public benefit - the heart of the new definition of charity - will bear no relation to what the public thinks is to its benefit.

Not a very endearing "approach".

- Tash Shifrin is a specialist social affairs writer.

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