Commission becoming 'fully weaponised enforcement agency'

13 Jul 2016 News

The Charity Commission offices at 1 Drummond Gate

Fergus Burnett

Charity representatives accused the Charity Commission of "regulation led by red top" and said the government is trying to silence the sector, in a Parliamentary committee hearing yesterday.

Representatives from Acevo, NCVO, Small Charities Coalition, Charity Finance Group and Association of Charitable Foundations were giving evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities yesterday where they said that the deterioration in the relationship with both the regulator and government was a problem.

All bodies criticised the Commission for focusing on its regulatory function at the expense of its advice and support function.

Asheem Singh, interim chief executive at Acevo, said that the Commission has become “more of an interventionist, policing regulator – that has been a change that has been difficult”.

“Sometimes it does have the feel less of a regulator and more of a think tank,” he said. He added that the recent publication of its research into public trust and confidence was “accompanied with a fairly bombastic press release” and urged the Commission to be more “sober and judicious in its pronouncements”.

Karl Wilding, director of public policy and volunteering at NCVO, said: “I think having a strong regulator is good for public trust and confidence in charities.

“The problem is that in times they have interpreted strong as tough, and tough as regulation led by red top, and at times that has been unhelpful.”  

He added that: “For a regulator whose duty is to increase public trust and confidence there have been times where they have undermined public trust

Wilding said that NCVO’s main concern is about “the independence of its board” and “how that board is appointed” and called for a greater role for Parliament in the process.

Richard Jenkins, head of policy at the Association for Charitable Foundations, said that there is “anxiety” about the approach of the Commission and “a feeling that it’s not quite appropriately calibrated”.

He said that the regulator should adopt a “community policing” model, not a “fully weaponised enforcement agency” approach, but that “I think it’s tending towards the latter”.

He added that the Commission seems “over attuned” to criticism and warned that it should be careful not to discourage charities from being controversial, and said: “In some cases we need charities who are very risky, very provocative and very subversive.”

Rebecca Bunce, policy and engagement officer at the Small Charities Coalition, said that her organisation had noticed an increase in requests for support, and that “infrastructure bodies are stepping in in terms of translating regulation”.

Andrew O’Brien, head of policy and engagement at CFG, told the committee that “there is an issue about resource” of the Commission to help it do more to support charities, but rejected the idea that charities should pay for the regulator, and called for more public funding.

Yesterday CFG, Navca and the Small Charities Coalition wrote to the Charity Commission to urge it to postpone its planned consultation on charging charities for regulation.

Baronness Barker highlighted that the “Charity Commission has to be a regulator –  nobody else can be the regulator”.
Government ‘not listening’

Infrastructure bodies also all told peers that the sector’s relationship with government had become increasingly distant and had been damaged by the way the Lobbying Act was introduced.

Wilding said that the sector’s relationship with government had become “more distant and I would suggest to you is more instrumentalist” where “voice and campaigning role viewed as much less favourably”.

“I’d like to reset the relationship with government,” he said, to make it more “constructive and collaborative that recognises that we have some common goals and common problems”.

Singh said that cuts to funding at the Office for Civil Society means “it does not have the capacity to be anything other than an advocate” and can no longer be the “model funder” that was envisioned when the Office for the Third Sector was set up.

But he said he thought individual ministers are getting “wiser to what the voluntary sector can offer”.

He said that Lobbying Act meant that “the sector and the government fell out” and called for the government to implement the recommendations of the Hodgson review into the Lobbying Act.

Bunce warned that when all charities see are the “headline panic messages” from government the result is to “end up with voice being quietened”.

Jenkins said that “we find that the feedback loops [with government] have reduced” and that “our biggest problem is ignorance – it’s not that government intends to do harm – it’s that it inadvertently does it”.

O’Brien said that “there isn’t as much listening going on – it’s more telling”. He said: “Government needs to develop a bit of a thicker skin” when charities criticise it. And that: “We’re here to be a partner, but not necessarily a silent partner”. 

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