Politics news: Public benefit rebels are faced down by ministers

Nathalie Thomas

The Government has warded off a last-ditch bid by Labour backbenchers and Lib Dem MPs to strengthen the way in which the public benefit of fee-charging charities will be assessed under the Charities Bill.

An amendment tabled by John Grogan, Labour MP for Selby, was withdrawn during the Bill's report stage last week, after the Government made clear that it would not "add to the existing law".

Grogan's revision would have required the Charity Commission to take into account the effect of placing any "undue restriction on" obtaining a charity's benefit. The Government prefers to rely on case law and has succeeded in winning over opponents by promising to review the legislation in three years.

Grogan described as "sparse" the existing case law, which includes Re Resch, a 1969 case regarded as the key precedent on fee charging and public benefit. He accused the Charity Commission and the NCVO, which had both previously supported the case for greater clarity on public benefit, of a volte-face.

Grogan argued that commission chief executive Andrew Hind, former commission chair Geraldine Peacock and Dame Suzi Leather, who replaced Peacock in August, all held different positions on the issue.

Hind, he said, expressed concern about a "worrying lack of clarity" in the case law, and Peacock asserted that the Bill would not alter decisions based on case law.

Grogan said: "Leather says she will apply the test robustly and has talked about holding seminars with stakeholders to discuss how public benefit might be defined."

The Conservatives were unsuccessful in securing safeguards for the charitable status of religious organisations. Ann Widdecombe, Conservative MP for Maidstone and the Weald, argued in favour of maintaining the assumption that religious charities are for the public benefit. "That particular presumption has served us for centuries," she said.

The Bill is expected to complete its parliamentary stages by 15 November.

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