Moral Mandate?

When it comes to morals, the Charity Commission shouldn’t be an arbiter, says Paul Parker

The chair of the Charity Commission for England & Wales, Baroness Tina Stowell, makes much of her belief that her role is to reflect back to charities what the public expects of them. In her March speech to the Charity Commission annual public meeting, she said:

“I believe charities, and the Charity Commission share, collective responsibility for meeting legitimate expectations the public have of charity…We must fulfil our statutory regulatory functions, of course. But we must amount to more if we want to make a real difference.  Crucially, we must be the voice of the public, and the public interest in charity.”

In a statement made in early April about the Garden Bridge Trust, she went as far as to say “Londoners and taxpayers will legitimately feel angry and let down by the waste of millions of pounds of public money on a charitable project that was not delivered. I understand that anger and am clear that this represents a failure for charity that risks undermining public confidence in charities generally. While the charity was not mismanaged, the public would also expect, as I do, that the right lessons are learnt from this case, so that we don’t see a similar failure arising in future.”

So even though the Trust’s trustees were found by the Charity Commission’s own enquiry to have acted within the law, they were subject to criticism from the regulator’s most senior figure.  As it happens, I agree with her that this charity behaved reprehensibly.  But beneath her widely-shared outrage that charitable funds could be wasted on this unwanted project lie more serious questions which are not being asked:

Who exactly asked the Charity Commission to become a moral arbiter of charities’ activities?  On what authority is the Commission exercising this role?  And whose morals are they choosing to apply?

If the Commission is to sit in moral judgment on charities and their trustees, even if it is doing so on behalf of the ‘public’ whose expectations it has decided to reflect, how does it know what values the public expects? What mechanisms does the Commission have for checking what the public’s expectations are? Does it rely on commissioners’ own judgment, that of its staff, or simply the latest moral outrage to be commented on in the press?

The organisation I run is a Quaker one. Quakers have their own clear sense of the values they want it to espouse, and I am held rigorously to account by them for how the organisation is run.  Each charity has its own ‘public’ and has ways to find out whether it meets its public expectations. I don’t think we need the Charity Commission to do that for us. It is for our trustees to determine what our stakeholders expect of us, and to ensure the organisation behaves accordingly.

If I want an opinion about whether a charity’s behaviour conforms to wider ‘public expectations’, there are plenty of them out there.  The media, online commentators, donors and public bodies don’t hold back from telling the charity sector what they think of us.  I can find a range of commentaries on every newsstand.  And ultimately the public can decide, when they dip their hands in their pockets, how much they trust a particular charity.  Surely the regulator’s role is to provide them with the assurance they need that charities are properly governed in accordance with the law.

It makes sense to call out charities which behave in unacceptable ways.  The question is who decides what is, and isn’t acceptable.

Suppose a charity decides, in the interests of its beneficiaries, to spend charitable funds on campaigning to change government policy.  The charity is acting within the law, but some members of the public, media commentators and politicians think that’s unacceptable; that is their right.

Suppose a charity decides, in the interests of its beneficiaries, to refuse to return a legacy it has received against the wishes of the deceased’s family. The charity is acting within the law, but some members of the public, media commentators and politicians find that unacceptable; this too is a valid opinion.

Suppose a charity decides, in the interests of its service users, to use its funds to support people who are in the UK without proper immigration documents and protect them from destitution.  The charity is acting within the law, but some members of the public, media commentators and politicians find that unacceptable.  You get the idea.

All of the above defy the expectations of some of the public. So who should decide which to apply when making a moral judgment on the charity’s behaviour?  In the March speech, Tina Stowell stated:  “there is near universal agreement as to the basic expectations people have of charity”. She offers no evidence for that claim nor does she set out what she believes these basic expectations to be.

Meanwhile Parliament, in the various charity laws it has passed, has set out a clear set of acceptable charitable purposes, and the regulator has clear guidance on the duties of charity trustees. These are all reasonable and have arrived through proper consultation and democratic processes.  The Charity Commission is, rightly, bound to regulate charities according to these standards. Where it strays beyond this, into subjective judgments based on its chair’s own assessment of the ‘public interest’, the Commission is acting outside its mandate, and we should call it out. Making those judgments is best left to others.

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

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