The Charity Commission has become a "whipping boy" for charities’ misdemeanours and should be defended more by the sector it regulates, according to the academic Gareth Morgan.
Speaking at a charity governance conference last week, Morgan, an emeritus professor of charity studies at Sheffield Hallam University and a senior partner at the charity consultancy the Kubernesis Partnership, also expressed concern that the Charities Act 2016 conferred too much power on the commission, power that could be abused if it came into the wrong hands.
He said parliament had shown much more interest in about what the commission was doing than in the past, and was offering more criticism.
"That’s giving us something of a crisis in which the commission is seen as a whipping boy for everything that is wrong with charities," he said.
Morgan said much of the concern about the commission’s perceived underperformance was not the commission’s fault and could be explained by the 50 per cent cut made to its income over about five years.
"We as a charity sector need to stand up for the commission," he said. "Of course we will say at times when we disagree with what it is doing, but we need to stress the importance of its work and its role as a guardian of charity as a whole."
Morgan said he believed the Charities Act 2016 was announced as part of the government’s anti-terrorism agenda, which the commission was supporting with the few resources it had. "I’m very concerned about charity regulation being somehow subsumed in the anti-terrorism agenda," he said.
"I’ve got great respect for the commission and I don’t think it’s going to abuse its powers. "But were these new powers to be abused and the government to appoint much nastier people than we have at the moment to the Charity Commission board, the powers to intervene are absolutely enormous."
Responding to Morgan’s comments, a spokesman for the commission said the regulator’s powers had been bolstered after the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson identified weaknesses in its previous powers in his review of the Charities Act 2011.
The spokesman said a strengthening of these powers had long been called for. "These powers will largely be used in the most serious cases and are vital in order to protect charities from abuse. New and existing safeguards are in place to ensure their use is appropriate," he said.
He said that terrorism was one of three priority risk areas identified by the commission, which also included safeguarding, and fraud and financial abuse.
Morgan said another significant threat to charity governance was the fact that many organisations that were legally charities were not on the charities register in England and Wales.
He said he found it "absolutely nutty" that exempt charities did not have to abide by the Charities Act 2011 and in most cases the commission could not use its powers to directly intervene in them, while excepted charities – such as scout and guide groups, certain armed forces charities and churches – were subject to the rules but did not have to register with the commission.
"One hears there are abuses going on in faith-based organisations, so would you really want to leave them off the register?" he asked. "All sorts of abuses are going on in excepted charities and it never comes to the Charity Commission’s attention unless someone files a complaint, because they’re not submitting annual returns. I find it extraordinary."
He said there were about 90,000 excepted charities in England and Wales.