Commission ‘hinders’ board diversity with criminal record waiver system, says Unlock

24 Jun 2021 News

The Charity Commission is hindering efforts to ensure boards are more representative of the people they serve by granting low numbers of waivers to people with criminal records, Unlock charity has said.

In one year the Commission refused more than half of the applications it received from people with criminal convictions wishing to serve as trustees, according to data provided to Civil Society News through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

New rules came into force in August 2018 which introduced an automatic disqualification from serving as a trustee at charities in England and Wales for those with a criminal conviction. A process to grant waivers to people affected began in February 2018.

Between 1 February 2020 to 17 May 2021 the Commission received 11 applications for a waiver from automatic disqualification, including one application that was withdrawn by the applicant. 

During this period two applications have been granted, three applications have been declined, and four applications are awaiting a decision. 

One application was made by a person who did not need to apply. 

Previously FOI data has shown similar patterns, of low numbers applying for waivers and the majority being declined, prompting the charity Unlock to call for a review.

Its chief executive, Angela Cairns, has now repeated calls for a review and criticised the regulator for “disempowering charities from making their own decisions” and “creating an additional barrier to diversity”.

'These applicants have already demonstrated their worth to charities'

Cairns said: “One of the Charity Commission’s objectives is keeping charity relevant for today’s world. That means enabling charities to recruit trustees and senior managers with the skills and experiences needed to deliver their mission.  

“The low number of waiver applicants suggests people disqualified because of specified criminal records are deterred from applying. This is hardly surprising when so few waivers are granted. These applicants have already demonstrated their worth to charities, having been selected as either trustees or senior managers – but the Charity Commission is disempowering charities from making their own decisions. We know that people with criminal records are often deterred from applying for roles where they expect rejection.  

“Given growing awareness of racial inequality in criminal justice, we are concerned that the waiver process is creating an additional barrier to diversity in the third sector. The Charity Commission’s own research in 2017 found that 92% of trustees were white. At a time when charities are making efforts to ensure boards are more representative of the people they serve, the Charity Commission should be looking at ways to help, rather than hinder them.  

“We repeat our earlier call for the Commission to carry out a review of the waiver process, and to publish its findings.”

'We assess every application for a waiver fairly and consistently'

The regulator has said it needs to be satisfied that a decision to grant a waiver would not damage public trust.

A Charity Commission spokesperson said: “Parliament has decided that, as a general rule, people with serious unspent convictions for certain crimes should, by default, be disqualified from trusteeship and senior charity management. This is to protect individual charities and to protect public trust in charity more widely. But Parliament also allowed for exceptions to that rule, in individual cases, which is what the waiver system is for. 

“We assess every application for a waiver fairly and consistently, and on its own merits. Our decision rests on whether an application demonstrates that granting the waiver would be in the best interests of the charity in question. We also need to be satisfied that a decision to grant a waiver would not damage public trust and confidence in charities.”

They added: “More widely - we agree that it is vital that a wide range of people serve as charity trustees, and we are committed to working with the sector to improve diversity among trustees overall.”

The Commission's decisions about waivers can be appealed through the Charity Tribunal.

The regulator does not hold information on how many people have been automatically disqualified from trusteeship for having criminal records. 

From 1 February 2018 to 31 January 2019 and 1 February 2019 to 17 January 2020, the number of people applying for waivers was low. 

Only five applied from 2019-2020 and of these only two waivers were granted. In 2018-2019 the Commission received nine applications and accepted four. 

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