Charity Commission will defend aid charities being demonised, says chair 

12 Oct 2023 News

Orlando Fraser, chair of the Charity Commission

Charity Commission

The chair of the Charity Commission, Orlando Fraser, has criticised those who “demonise” international development charities who work lawfully.

Fraser was speaking at the Charity Law Association annual conference, and said many aid charities “do great work to promote universal values of kindness and compassion around the world”.

He said: “Some wish to demonise those charities and their work but so long as they are furthering their purposes in line with the regulator’s guidance, based on the law, the Commission, and I, are behind them.” 

Fraser appeared to refer to the Commission’s recent inquiry into Care4Calais, which backed the charity’s decision to issue judicial review proceedings to challenge the UK government’s migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda.

He said: “Some may disagree with the charity's decision, but we examined if it was lawful, and we said so loud and clear.”

Fraser also said the Commission must remain free from undue influence from any outside party, including party politicians, who often take a close interest in its work.

Regulator should not be ‘weaponised’ in debates 

Fraser said charities and the Charity Commission often work in some of the most sensitive areas of contentious debates. 

“In that context, I will continue to encourage charities themselves to engage in public discourse in a way that is tolerant and respectful of different views and perspectives,” he said.

The Commission chair also said the regulator must avoid being “weaponised in polarising debates”.

He added: “But just as charities should be mindful to engage with others, with respect and tolerance, so the Commission itself needs to be mindful of the atmosphere and culture within which we operate.

“It'll be all too easy for us to become swept up and weaponised in polarising debates, to be used or misused by parties intent on pursuing ideological aims by regulatory outcomes.”

He said: “There are times when the Commission comes under intense public pressure to take a certain approach or make a particular decision.

“My ambition is not to be popular today, but to ensure the Commission is respected into the future and to ensure its role as independent regulator remains recognised, valued.

“It is right that regulators are held to account for the exercise of their statutory powers. And it is necessary in a free society that public bodies are open to criticism of their work. 

“We may not always agree with or accept the arguments put forward in the courts or elsewhere. But reasonable checks and balances are ultimately both a sign and a guarantor of a healthy, accountable system.”

Fraser said it is his view that “the law is a safe harbour in a volatile world” as “we live in an increasingly divided society in which public discourse is becoming evermore polarised and coarser”.

He said charities are free to campaign robustly in furtherance of their purposes, despite some calling on the regulator to challenge supposedly “woke” charities. 

“To them I've said that 'wokeness' is not a term that has any legal or regulatory meaning” and that for this reason, “I really wouldn't know where to start”.

‘We will exercise leniency where appropriate’

Fraser said the Commission “will exercise leniency where appropriate when trustees make honest reasonable mistakes from which they are learning”.

“But we will take robust action where we consider a charity or its purposes to be exploited or harmed by abuse or negligence,” he said.

He added he is aware that some charities are having issues onboarding with the new My Charity Commission account service, and therefore with filing electronic documents. 

“Most are successfully onboarded, I think we're well over 100,000, but some are experiencing problems. I would like to use this opportunity to make clear that the Commission will ensure that no charity is disadvantaged because of issues in accessing a service.”

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


More on