Policy and Politics: Scottish Charities Bill goes through

Matthew Little

Holyrood has settled on a different approach from England and Wales.

Charity law in Scotland broke decisively with the model of regulation in England and Wales with the passing of the Scottish Charities Bill last week. The Bill is set to receive Royal Assent within weeks.

The Conservatives' 15 MSPs abstained from supporting the Bill, claiming it would endanger the charitable status of public schools. But it was still passed easily, by 98 votes to zero.

The Bill takes a distinctively different approach from the reform process in England. Would-be and existing Scottish charities will have to satisfy written criteria on public benefit, in contrast with the English Charities Bill.

The Bill introduces a public benefit test, which will take into account any "disbenefit" incurred to the public by an organisation's activities, as well as the benefits it provides.

To qualify as a charity, an organisation must demonstrate that the benefit it provides is not "unduly restrictive". The Conservative rebellion was provoked by the Bill's taking into account any "charge or fee".

Supported by the public schools, the party's communities spokeswoman, Mary Scanlon, tabled an amendment to remove the reference to charges and fees. When that failed, the party decided not to support the Bill - although it did not vote against it.

Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations, hailed the culmination of a decade-long campaign to introduce comprehensive legal regulation to Scotland's voluntary sector for the first time.

"Charities are a dynamic force for good in Scotland and at last they have the legal recognition they deserve," he said. "This is a great day for all of us who have spent the past 10 years pressing the case for comprehensive and modern regulation."

The Bill also legally establishes the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator. The OSCR, which has been functional since December 2003, will have the power to determine charitable status, intervene in the management of charities and compile a register of charities in Scotland.

A management board for the OSCR will be established in the spring. The SCVO has supported the establishment of the OSCR, but corporate affairs director Lucy McTernan said the regulator had been "overly rigorous" in its dealings with charities so far.

The Bill also ends the anomaly of organisations, such as Scottish Natural Heritage, that claim charitable status but are constitutionally required to follow directions issued by government.

It states that an organisation that allows Scottish ministers or ministers of the crown to control its activities will not pass the charity test. Six national museums and galleries in Scotland will be exempt from this legal requirement, but Scotland's 40 further education colleges are expected to gain more independence from ministers as a result of the Bill.

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