Government accepts most proposals on Protection of Charities Bill

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Parliament-20150224054256644The government yesterday accepted most of a Parliamentary committee’s recommendations on a bill to give the Charity Commission more powers, but rejected its call to give NGOs greater protection from terrorism legislation.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Draft Protection of Charities Bill, made up of a dozen MPs and peers, was set up to scrutinise a bill containing a number of new powers for the Commission, designed to close loopholes in the current regime.

The committee took evidence from the Commission itself and from sector infrastructure bodies, legal experts and academics and published final report on 25th Feb. A government response to the report was published by the Cabinet Office, accepting most but not all of the committee’s recommendations.

Statutory warnings

The bill committee said greater safeguards were needed around a power to give statutory warnings in less serious cases, which were stronger than the current power to offer “advice and guidance”.

Its report said: “We accept the need for stronger safeguards on the face of the bill in relation to a statutory warning, so that a recipient has an explanation of the reasons for the warning and has an opportunity to make representations, and for them to be considered by the Commission before it is published. We will amend the draft bill accordingly.”

However the government disagreed with the committee on when warnings could be issued. It said statutory warnings should be available for a breach of trust or duty, as well as a failure to comply with statute.

The government and the committee agreed that it should not be possible to appeal warnings to the Charity Tribunal.

Proposals not in the original bill

The committee also recommended including powers the Commission had asked for, but which were not included in the bill.

These include a power to disqualify individuals who are banned as trustees from other senior positions, and a proposal that the Commission should have the power to direct charities not to undertake activities if it was concerned about wrongdoing. The government said it would consider whether to model this on an existing power of the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.

Terrorism offences

The committee also said that while terrorism offences were not part of the bill, it was calling on the government to offer greater protection to charities.

“The difficulties posed by current terrorism legislation to the protection of charities working overseas to deliver humanitarian aid in difficult circumstances were put to the Committee compellingly by a number of witnesses,” it said. “Although we accept that these difficulties have not led to prosecutions, they appear to present a real risk of a ‘chilling effect’ on UK NGOs’ activities overseas at a time when their efforts are possibly more critical than ever before.”

However the government response said it did not accept this suggestion, and that “a legislative exemption of the sort suggested for consideration by the Committee would create loopholes in terrorism legislation that could be exploited by those seeking to abuse charity for terrorist purposes.”

The response also rejected the idea of a “chilling effect” and said that if charities were not prosecuted for terrorism offences, the law as it stood must be working.

“We are not aware of any recent prosecutions of Non-Governmental Organisations or their staff for a terrorism offence, which suggests that the protections already in place are adequate,” it said.

“We welcome the Committee’s conclusion that these issues are not within the scope of the draft bill.”

Traffic to Commission website

The government also responded to a criticism by the committee that moving the Commission website to gov.uk had made it more difficult to effectively access resources.

“Moving the Charity Commission’s website onto GOV.UK, along with 250 other departments and agencies, has seen a significant increase in traffic to the Commission’s online content,” the response said.

 

Source: David Ainsworth (Civil Society)

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