Charity Commission tells MPs it needs more resources to meet its aims

14 May 2020 News

Baroness Stowell, chair of the Charity Commission

The Charity Commission needs more resources to fulfil its ambitions, its chair has told MPs. 

Last month Baroness Stowell, chair of the Charity Commission, sent written answers to questions raised by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee for its inquiry into the work of the regulator.

She was due to give oral evidence in March, but the session was cancelled due to lockdown measures. Her submission was released to the public yesterday.

Increased demand 

Stowell's submission highlights that the Commission was allocated an additional £5m to its budget from April 2018, which allowed it to recruit 85 new staff. However, the new funding was not given in response to the aspirations set out in the Commission’s 2018-2023 strategy, which was announced in October 2018, and was also agreed prior to the Oxfam case in early 2018 and the significant spike in casework that resulted from it.

As such, the letter reads: “We do not currently have the resources necessary to fulfil all of our ambitions.”

The submission states that the volumes of incoming casework have continued to grow. However, it also says that the Commission has managed to reduce historic backlogs during 2019-20, with the total volume of work queued and awaiting allocation falling by 80% between January 2019 and the end of March this year, from 5,339 to just over 1,000. 

Public trust: 'Plain wrong' to suggest we undermine the reputation of charities

The letter states that public trust in the charitable sector has fallen significantly in recent years. However, it also reveals that the latest edition of the Commission's public trust research is set to indicate “a small increase”, though levels have still not recovered to those seen in 2014.

Given this upward trend, the submission argues: “The suggestion that by understanding and speaking to public expectation we are undermining the reputation of charities is plain wrong.”

Moving forward, Stowell writes that regulatory gaps are becoming clearer to the regulator: “The most significant of these is the extent to which people perceive and can rely on registered status as a guarantee that a charity is meeting their expectations in how they operate.”

The Commission is also currently undertaking a review of its powers, but says this work is at an early stage.

The regulator states that it wants to remove “unnecessary regulation where possible”. For example, it is supportive of the Law Commission Bill which would introduce a range of changes, such as reducing situations where charities need the Commission’s permission before they can act. 

Serious incident reporting

The Commission has changed its approach to serious incident reporting and introduced a new online form in June 2019 for charities to use when reporting serious incidents.

It says this has improved the quality of the reports it receives. 

Prior to the introduction of the online form, only around 30% of reports of serious incidents (RSIs) contained the correct information to enable the Commission to triage them at the point of submission.The new online form means the regulator is now receiving the correct information at the point of submission for approximately 90% of reports.

Charities now receive an email acknowledgement at the point of submission and will receive a formal response from the triage team within 10 calendar days. 

There continues to be an increase in reporting. In 2018-19, the regulator received 3,895 RSIs, of which 64% were related to safeguarding. 

In 2019-2020 the Commission received and processed 5,730 serious incident reports, an increase of 47%, of which 3,411 were safeguarding related.

In January 2020 the Commission received a record volume of annual return and accounts submissions from charities, and 98.8% of the sector’s income is accounted for as a result.

High-profile inquiries 

The DCMS committee highlighted that the Oxfam inquiry cost £370,000 in staff time, equivalent to 1.3% of the Commission’s annual budget. Meanwhile, the inquiry into Save the Children lasted nearly two years, and the Commission admitted mishandling a whistleblowing complaint against the Alzheimer’s Society in 2018.

Stowell writes that the Commission’s inquiry into Save the Children UK involved examining over 15,000 documents and undertaking over 40 in-depth interviews with individuals. 

“It is right that our investigation was as thorough and robust as those who raised concerns with us had a right to expect. There is no fixed target for the length of a statutory inquiry, but the Commission’s aim is to conclude investigations as soon as is practicable,” the letter reads. 

“It is simply that some inquiries will take more time and resources than others because of the complexity of the cases and the level of legal challenge that the charity and interested parties involved bring to bear,” she added.

She said that the regulator's handling of the complaint against the Alzheimer's Society in 2018 “showed the error was one of previous process not being followed”, and is ‘not an indication of systemic failure”. 

Stowell says that the regulator has now made several attempts to contact the 2018 complainant in the Alzheimer's Society case, but that the complainant has not responded.

New registrations 

Between January 2019 and the end of March this year, the regulator decided 9,391 applications to register charities, an increase of 25%.

Stowell wrote that the length of time applications take to process depends on a number of factors, including whether all the necessary information has been included in the application in order for the Commission to make a decision.

The overall average registration time for a successful application is 67 days, but 10% are registered within 48 hours, a further 13% within seven days, and a further 9% within 21 days. Registration applications in its two highest risk categories take on average 101 and 118 days respectively.

Status for religious charities

The DCMS committee asked the regulator what preparations it is making for the ending of excepted status for religious charities in March 2021, and whether it be able to cope with the related increase in demand for its services.

The letter responds: “We are conscious that 31 March 2021, the date on which the excepting regulations are currently due to expire, is drawing closer. We are in discussion with the Office for Civil Society to explore an extension to this.”

Editor's note - 15 May

The first sentence has been amended for clarity. The Commission is not seeking additional funding to help manage the increased volume of casework but to address its wider aims. 

For more news, interviews, opinion and analysis about charities and the voluntary sector, sign up to receive the Civil Society News daily bulletin here.

More on