Charities are an ancient form of organisational governance, that were formed long before the modern form of Government in which all of us are entitled to vote, and the predate the welfare state by several centuries. Some of us have been involved with the charitable sector far longer than we have been old enough to vote. The Charity Commission has also a long history and recent changes implemented as a result of Government decisions which were not featured in manifestos raise all sorts of questions, as does the appointment of a Chairman like William Shawcross as I have written previously. The Charitable sector has come in for specific criticism by the current Government which has led me to write previously asking if the Conservative Party were hell bent on destroying them? That was one of the few blogs I have written over the last 4 years that has generated a strong reaction. I should stress that while I still believe the current Conservative Party has demonstrated its deep rooted misunderstanding of Charities through legislative changes and constant sniping from a number of MPs, that there is no evidence of this distrust locally in Sussex.
Earlier this month Sarah Atkinson who is described as a senior executive within the Charity Commission spoke at an event organised by Westminster Social Policy Forum. She explained that “We are clear – we’re here to serve the public; we’re not champions of the sector,” and went on to say “Our relationship with the sector should never be cosy. We are the sector’s regulator, not its defender or champion.” However she also said, the sector and the commission had a common goal, which was improving public trust in charities. It is a clearly difficult to avoid a cosy looking relationship if as she argues the Commission really does have a common goal with the sector.
The Charity Commission is funded by the Government which means that all of the power in the relationship is in the hands of the Government. This is evident in the decision taken recently to transfer the Commission website from its own Independent domain to the Gov.UK domain, a change that has been faced with a myriad of problems. Sarah Atkinson referred to that during the seminar when she admitted that the commission was still getting to grips with how to make best use of the gov.uk platform, and said that anyone who was having problems should give some feedback, and the issue would be taken up with the Government Digital Service. “When we speak to GDS, they say ‘no you’re not getting negative feedback; people are fine’,” she said. “Help us out here – if you’re having problems, feed them back.” In my own view the change was entirely unnecessary and is unhelpful for a sector that prides itself on its independence from the state, particularly a state that appears intent on restricting the voice of the sector
Sarah Atkinson told the seminar that, given declining resources, the commission was increasingly less able to provide individual advice to charities, but it was developing its online advice and guidance for trustees in response to the recurrent problems it witnessed. But it was a challenge to address the issue of how many trustees did not understand their basic legal responsibilities, she said. The problem in a culture with strong evidence of a digital divide is that many charities do not have IT facilities and so focusing on online resources is bound to lead to huge gaps in understanding. The changes I have alluded to have all been imposed on the sector by the Commission with little or no consultation or explanation. This has been recognised by the National Audit Office in their recent report
“Externally, the Commission needs to show stakeholders how its new regulatory approach is enabling it to regulate the sector more effectively. It also needs to persuade other bodies to share information with it more readily. The Commission needs to actively manage public and charity sector expectations as to how it will perform its services and what issues it can realistically engage with and in what ways.”
Sarah Atkinson referred to this admitting that the regulator needed to do better at explaining its regulatory approach to the sector. I’d agree with that, the question is what is the Commission going to do about it?