Review of the Year: Panel tidies up 'dog's breakfast'

Stephen Cook & Mathew Little

The Charities Bill spent most of the year being discussed in draft form and is expected to be published early in 2005, with a timetable to reach the statute book before the General Election expected in May or June.

Alan Milburn, then chairman of the Parliamentary committee which scrutinised the draft bill, called it "a dog's breakfast" because of confusion over how its planned public benefit test would apply to private schools and hospitals.

But the committee produced a unanimous report which backed a 'concordat' between the Home Office and the Charity Commission over how public benefit would be defined and applied. It also floated the possibility of removing charitable status from private schools, but granting them certain tax reliefs instead.

Latest speculation is that the Bill might follow the approach of the new charity Bill in Scotland, which includes a short definition of public benefit, to be supplemented by rules drawn up by the regulator.

July saw the launch of the Government's three-year Futurebuilders fund, the £125m loans and grants fund to showcase new approaches in voluntary sector public service delivery. Health and social care groups have dominated the first tranche of applications.

A Scottish Futurebuilders fund was also established and a similar fund mooted for Northern Ireland.

The six-year-old Compact between state and sector was revised. The code on funding was rewritten to include government contracts as well as grants.

It says that voluntary organisations should calculate their overhead costs rather than setting a standard percentage.

The new £80m government plan for improving voluntary sector infrastructure - Changeup - proposed 'national hubs' to act as beacons of good practice and steer frontline bodies to sources of support.

But controversy ensued when umbrella bodies argued over who should run the £9m ICT hub. There were reported threats from the Home Office to give responsibility for the hub to the private sector if agreement could not be reached.

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