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The sector needs a strong, robust Charity Commission

2 December 2015

Parliament is voting tomorrow on whether and how to extend the remit of the Charity Commission. For those of us who watch the voluntary sector up-close every day, this is an important moment.

The question of whether charities are a trusted, effective part of society is interlinked with the trust commanded by the regulator, which is expected not just to look after charities’ interests but also those of the wider public. These are the people who, after all, lend the time, money and goodwill without which most charities would run into trouble pretty rapidly.

That is why NPC has always argued for a strong, robust Charity Commission, and why we welcome steps that enable that to happen. This remains the best thing for both the Commission and for the charities it watches over.

Of course any measures must be necessary, proportionate and have adequate safeguards to prevents them being used in an arbitrary way.

Some in the sector are worried about allowing the regulator more scope to issue warnings to trustees if they suspect charities of breaching their duties, not least if such a warning can be given in public and without any prior notice.

It is a legal issue as to whether these powers are superfluous because the Charity Commission can already do this in other ways. And it is for the Charity Commission to explain why it needs these powers and how it will constrain itself from using them in an arbitrary way. NPC doesn’t have a team of in-house lawyers to run their eyes over new legislation, and we leave those debates on whether the balance is right to others.

However, we are very clear that the public must have confidence that the Charity Commission can and will act without delay, where it has suspicions. This can’t merely be on hearsay or rumour, but some of the alternatives put forward, like issuing a warning in private and giving charities 28 days to respond, are in danger of failing  to meet what the average donor might think was reasonable. It feels a little uncomfortable to imagine that, in a month during which genuine suspicions are starting to firm up into more serious allegations, donations carry on being collected and spent with supporters none the wiser.

The public need confidence that the Charity Commission can take action very quickly where they need to, and as transparently as possible. This confidence won’t survive if the regulator has to stay silent even when it has serious concerns. Indeed, under those circumstances one would expect a public backlash against the Commission and the charity sector, with all the old questions about trust brought back to the surface.

NPC has argued before that extra powers for the Charity Commission must not be unchecked. Any new powers must incorporate a smooth appeals process for charities who feel aggrieved. Judicial review, often the only mechanism open to them at present, is both expensive and highly unwieldy (and in the CAGE case a JR did less to clarify the Commission’s powers than we had hoped).