The lobbying bill and the failings of the Charity Commission were the themes that dominated the voluntary sector’s political agenda this year.
The sector waged a continuing campaign against measures contained in the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, which charities warned could severely curtail their ability to campaign in the run-up to elections.
The bill contains proposals to reduce the spending limit for campaigns by any third-party organisation in the run-up to and during elections on campaigns that "could be reasonably regarded as intended" to favour particular parties or candidates.
The government insisted that the bill would not gag charities and the sections that charities are most concerned about remained largely untouched during the bill’s passage through the House of Commons and as far as the committee stage the House of Lords. But the government did promise to "substantially raise" the spending limits and is expected to make changes at the report stage of the bill in the Lords in January.
The Charity Commission received heavy criticism this year over its handling of the Cup Trust, a charity set up to help donors avoid tax. After a mauling at the hands of MPs on the Public Accounts Committee over the trust, the committee asked the National Audit Office to examine the regulator’s effectiveness.
The NAO’s report, published in December, said the commission was failing to regulate charities effectively and provided poor value for money.
Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, suggested subsequently that the commission could be thrown on the bonfire of the quangos and its work taken over by HM Revenue & Customs.
The commission is likely to get new powers to strengthen its regulatory ability but was told as part of the Autumn Statement that there would be further cuts to itsbudget.
The commission was not without its defenders. In a wide-ranging report, the Public Administration Select Committee said the regulator had not been given the resources to meet its statutory objectives, that the 2006 Charities Act was critically flawed and that the commission was left in an "impossible position".
The Cabinet Office issued a response to the PASC report later in the year, together with its response to Lord Hodgson’s 2012 review of the Charities Act 2006. It rejected the committee's recommendation that the question of public benefit by charities should be revisted by parliament, did not support a change in the charity registration threshold, was not in favour of paying trustees and said it would give charity fundraising five years to develop a sensible framework for self-regulation.
In its response in December to the PASC report, the commission suggested that parliament should consider whether it could be relieved of its statutory duty to publish public benefit guidance.
The sector also faced a concerted attack over the pay of its chief executives and the Public Administration Select Committee began an inquiry into the issue. Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the chief executives body Acevo, said in September that the sector faced a more hostile environment than he had experienced in a decade, while Martyn Lewis, chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, warned of a "febrile political environment".
But Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, gave short shrift to the idea that charities faced a concerted attack from parliamentarians and the media. "Frankly, it’s crap," he said.
Politicians also became heavily involved in the debate about whether the Charity Commission should register the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, a small but wealthy religious group that practises a doctrine of separation that forbids them to eat, drink or socialise with people outside their faith, including members of their own family.
Several parliamentarians accused the Charity Commission of having an anti-Christian agenda and tried to change the law to protect the brethren. But others gathered evidence that the group’s activities were harmful.
In October, Labour appointed Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan, as its new shadow minister for the sector, replacing Gareth Thomas.