NCVO tells PASC: clarify public benefit, no to automatic payment of trustees, respect charities’ right to campaign

We have just come out from a lively session with the Public Administration Select Committee, as part of its review of the Charities Act.

NCVO’s Chief Executive Sir Stuart, together with Cath Lee (Small Charities Coalition), Joe Irvin (NAVCA) and Sir Stephen Bubb (ACEVO), spent the early hours of this morning answering questions on the Charity Commission’s budget, the possibility of introducing charges for registration and penalties for late filing of accounts, public benefit, registration thresholds, payment of trustees, complaints about charities and – saved until last – campaigning.

Far from being a “football match” between the Committee members and the panel, or between the panel members themselves, there was genuine interest to hear everyone’s views on what are often difficult questions, and there was much agreement within the panel.

It was no surprise – given the special interest NCVO has always had– that Stuart was questioned quite intensively on the public benefit issue. Stuart said that Parliament passed the buck to the Charity Commission. These may be strong words, but experience has shown that it is now necessary to have a debate in Parliament about public benefit. For some time we have been suggesting that lessons can be learnt from Scottish legislation, which doesn’t define public benefit but has set down some key principles that OSCR has to follow when assessing public benefit. This has made the test more incisive and clear, and it is also the reason why there haven’t been the same problems for example around private schools.

Of course we were inevitably going to disagree with our colleagues at ACEVO on trustee payment. But their support for introducing an automatic power to pay trustees is very much a minority view, and it seems unlikely that PASC will recommend a change in law that is so strongly opposed by the sector. In NCVO’s view, such a change isn’t even necessary: any charity that wishes to pay its trustees can easily do so, provided they make their case to the Commission. There is something intrinsically special about trustees running a charity as a voluntary effort, and that should be preserved.

The session overran, understandably if you think about how many important things were discussed. But it appropriately ended with a strong defence of charities’ independence and right to campaign from us and the other members of the panel. The message was loud and clear: charities have a right and a duty to speak out on behalf of their beneficiaries, and by doing so they play an invaluable part in society.

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Elizabeth was head of policy and public services at NCVO until 2020.

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