Outside Edge: Good riddance to a timid Bill

No one should mourn the passing of the Charities Bill, which failed to tackle the status of private schools and hospitals, says Tash Shifrin.

Ah well, there goes the Charities Bill. It is being squeezed off the parliamentary timetable by the looming election. Even the NCVO now concedes there'll almost certainly be no legislation this year.

NCVO chief executive Stuart Etherington said as much last week. But he added: "This should be seen as delay, not defeat."

There is another way of looking at it, though: as good news. The central plank of the Bill is a definition of charity based on showing public benefit, but by the time the Government and the Charity Commission had finished chewing it over and spitting it out, this good idea had become a travesty.

Neither authority shows any appetite for tackling the glaring anomaly of private schools and hospitals charging huge fees and claiming charitable status - and tax breaks.

Charity law expert Lord Phillips has ably demonstrated the Government's refusal to tolerate even a mild amendment to public benefit in case it ruffles feathers at the elite private schools.

Rejecting Lord Phillips' amendment on behalf of the Government, Baroness Scotland said: "We rejoice in the fact that there seems to have been a meeting of minds of those who have looked at the Bill in both the independent schools sector ... and the commission."

Frankly, there should be no rejoicing at this. It is worth reiterating: out there in the real world, members of the public simply do not believe that Eton College is currently a charity. The strenuous efforts to preserve private schools' charitable status make a mockery of the concept of public benefit - and, perhaps, make a mockery of the public.

The situation of fee-charging hospitals is, if anything, more ridiculous.

Even charities minister Fiona Mactaggart - happy to make encouraging noises on private schools - has said she thinks the likes of Nuffield Hospitals, which operates as a private company, would have problems passing a public benefit test.

But step forward the Charity Commission to introduce a lovely loophole.

In determining whether the "less well-off" can access a fee-charging charity's services - a key element of public benefit - commission guidance specifically mentions taking into account "medical insurance schemes".

Has the commission any idea what the lives of the "less well-off" are like? Does it really imagine Britain's poor are signed up for private medical insurance? The guidance beggars belief.

The Government and the commission have made public benefit meaningless.

There's little point in having legislation based on a principle so grossly undermined. The Charities Bill is dead. But no one should mourn a charity shake-up too timid to shake the edifices of privilege.

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