Charities Bill introduced

1 Jul 2021 Denise Copeland    Last updated: 16 Aug 2021

Communities Minister introduces the Charities Bill to the NI Assembly
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The Minister for Communities introduced the Charities Bill to the Assembly on 21 June 2021.  

The Charities Bill relates to the decision-making powers of Charity Commission staff and it explicitly lays out powers of delegation to the staff.  The Bill also introduces the groundwork for the introduction of a charity registration threshold, however this is subject to further investigation, consultation and regulation.  The Bill is being taken forward in parallel with the independent review of charity regulation and the role of the charity regulator, which plans to report in the Autumn. 

In introducing the Bill to the Assembly Minister Hargey stated:

“The decision that I have taken to bring forward primary legislation is designed to restore the regulatory framework and then seek to improve it through recommendations that may arise as a result of the review.”

Decision making by Charity Commission staff

The Bill proposes an amendment to the Charities Act (NI) 2008 with retrospective effect to make lawful many previous decisions made by Commission staff, but not all decisions.  The Minister explained:  

 “I recognise that it would be unwise and unjust to make all decisions taken by staff lawful. A number of individuals remain aggravated by the actions of commission staff, and I do not wish to do anything in the Bill that would impinge on their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. The Bill will, therefore, ensure that certain decisions that, in the main, were taken during the statutory inquiry and that have proved controversial in some cases will remain unlawful. Those decisions will therefore proceed to their natural conclusion by way of the courts if necessary. The Bill, however, will reinstate the lawfulness of the decisions that are considered to be uncontroversial, were taken for the benefit of the charities concerned and were, in the overwhelming majority of cases, welcomed by those charities.” 

The Bill will, therefore, make approximately 7,000 decisions, orders and directions lawful, and treat them as if they were always lawful. That includes not only the register but consent sought by charities and provided by commission staff that allowed charities to make changes to their operations in the interests of their beneficiaries, such as expanding or diversifying their field of operations or the services that they provide to the public.

The Bill, therefore, stipulates that decisions arising from a statutory inquiry that can have significant consequences for individuals, such as the removal of trustees and the commission's powers to make regulations, can never be delegated to staff. “

Introduction of a charity registration threshold 

The Minister explained the inclusion of the introduction of a registration threshold:

“...the Bill provides a vehicle to address an issue that has long been called for by the charities sector: the introduction of a registration threshold, below which a charity would not be required to register or be subject to annual reporting requirements if deemed appropriate. Although I am led to believe that such a fundamental change in the framework of regulation would be widely welcomed by the charities sector, it may have unintended consequences that cannot be properly investigated in the time frame required for the Bill.

There is also little evidence as to where the threshold should be set and whether it should be restricted to annual income or should include consideration of an organisation's assets. The independent review, therefore, is considering that issue, and I look forward to seeing the evidence that it brings to bear. In the interim, it is not my intention to introduce a specific registration threshold in the Bill. However, I want to include a power to introduce a threshold through regulations, should that be recommended by the review or should it become desirable at some point in future.

Any such policy will be subject to full consultation in order to ensure that a fundamental change to the framework of regulation is properly scrutinised. In addition, I propose that any subsequent regulations will be subject to the draft affirmative procedure to allow debate and scrutiny in the Assembly. The regulation power as drafted is, therefore, wide enough to allow for any threshold to be set at income only or at income and assets.”

Timeframe

It is envisaged that the Bill will receive Royal Assent in April of next year, for information on the timetable of the Bill’s passage, please see Charities Bill (niassembly.gov.uk)

The Charities Bill can be accessed here.

Have your say

The Assembly’s Committee for Communities wants to hear your views on the Charities Bill by completing its online questionnaire by Friday 3 September 2021.  Please click on the following link to access the questionnaire which also gives explanatory information to the purpose of the Bill.  Call for evidence and views on the Charities Bill

NICVA’s response is available at the following link  NICVA (draft) response to the Charities Bill | NICVA

denise.copeland@nicva.org's picture
by Denise Copeland

Governance and Charity Advice Manager

[email protected]

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