This week the Cabinet Office closed a consultation on extending the powers of the Charity Commission. The document contained a wide range of proposals aimed at strengthening the Commission’s ability to crack down on malpractice and abuse within charity boards.
The end of the process comes after something of a horror month for the Commission, which was hauled over the coals by Margaret Hodge’s Public Accounts Committee and criticised by several people in the sector (including me) for its stance on the government’s Lobbying Act.
Given the flak the Commission has taken recently, as well as high-profile scandals such as the Cup Trust, you can understand its desire to strengthen its regulatory options. Many of the proposed new powers are perfectly sensible. It seems absurd, for example, that under the current regime a trustee can be disqualified from one charity, but can’t then be prevented from joining a different charity, or even starting up their own.
ACEVO supports the closure of loopholes such as this- we want a regulator that can come down hard on the small minority of individuals who abuse their positions and threaten to tarnish the sector’s reputation in the eyes of the public.
Curtail on sector’s independence
However, there is a danger that, in trying to respond to a difficult situation, the Commission may go too far, with the potential for unintended and undesirable consequences.
One or two of the proposals feel a lot like overreach. For example, the Commission has requested the power to pre-emptively block certain charity activities – including holding a particular event or hosting a particular speaker.
To me, that appears to set a precedent for regulatory pre-approval of charity operations, and raises some fundamental questions. Is a sector truly independent if a governmental body has power of veto over who it hears from and what they say? By what criteria will the Commission judge whether a speaker is acceptable? What does the idea mean for charities’ freedom of speech and action?
When coming up with this proposal, the Commission was no doubt thinking of how it could prevent charities from hosting political extremists, supporters of terrorism, and other undesirables.
In the consultation document it puts forward the example of a charity that kept on displaying photographs of terrorists in its building, which the Commission could not prevent.
Clearly, there is a discussion to be had about how the regulator responds effectively to such activity (I would like to know how it passes the public benefit test). But to curtail the independence of the whole sector in this way, in response to the misconduct of a tiny minority of organisations, is surely a disproportionate response. Yes, we need a strong regulator – but we don’t need a censor.
The Charity Commission is a regulator, not a censor was originally published in Civil Society on Friday 14 February