Thursday 6 June 2013

No, No, No

What are the key issues facing charities today?  Funding problems, rising demand, trying to keep Government on track over public service reform, getting more volunteers and higher levels of giving.

So what do the Commons Public Administration committee think is our big challenge? Defining public benefit and reforming charity law!

ACEVO has responded to their Report on the Charity Law and the Commission, published today. In particular the proposal for Parliament to redefine "public benefit" and force charities to publish how much they spend on campaigning.

This is bad report. It is an unhelpful and unnecessary distraction, at a time when charities need distraction like a hole in the head.

The problem of a few charities struggling with the public benefit test is not a nut that needs cracking with new legislation and an orgy of parliamentary debate as to how charities should be regulated.

The fundamental point that the report misses is that what we need is for the Charity Commission to get its act together and be given the resources to do its job, not politicians meddling in how charities are defined and run.

At a time of deep recession, mounting social need and declining income, charities need to be left to get on with the job, not distracted by MPs determined to open Pandora's Box and redraw the line on what is considered charitable.

The fact is much time and debate was spent on the whole issue of how you define charities at the beginning of the century when we debated the Cabinet Office report on public benefit and then in the run up to the new Charity Act in 2006. The broad consensus is that trying to define exactly what public benefit means is a can of worms.  The idea that politicians will define this is anathema. So what will they decide on public schools for example? In or out? That is why we have always left this issue to be sorted under the good old English common law. Case law has been an entirely sensible way to resolve difficulties of definition.

Whilst a tiny number have struggled with the public benefit test, the vast majority of charities are perfectly happy to prove how they have benefited the public and have had no problem in doing so. The Charity Commission is revisiting its guidance to resolve the confusion that there has been in a handful of cases.

They dismiss entirely sensible arguments and the proposal from Lord Hodgson on allowing charity trustees themselves whatever to pay trustees in a badly argued and illogical section that misses the point. No one is arguing that trustees should be paid but, as Hodgson argued, charities should be allowed to determine these themselves.

The proposal to force charities to account for how many hours they spend on campaigning is an entirely unnecessary piece of red tape at a time when charities are struggling quite enough as it is. The committee presents no evidence that the extra bureaucracy is needed; beyond the views of an individual witness whose motives the committee questions in its own report.

The report’s own evidence shows that while 1.1% of the public say their trust in charity has reduced in the last two years because of campaigning activity, 67% of the public think charities should be able to campaign on the causes they represent. So the proposal is entirely without foundation and would impose a regulatory burden that would mean more donations being spent on bureaucracy, and less on good causes. It is a regulatory madness and the Government should reject it.

Ironic that when some of Mr Jenkins' colleagues in the Tory Party have been arguing the equal marriage bill is not a priority for parliamentary time, he comes up this proposal to take on an issue that does not require or need more legislation.

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