Analysis: Will charities bill amendments protect the vulnerable - or are they a knee-jerk reaction?

The government's proposed amendments to the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill have drawn a mixed response from the sector

Houses of Parliament: bill en route
Houses of Parliament: bill en route

On 11 July, after the Daily Mail and other newspapers had for the best part of two months been running stories about the fundraising methods used by some brand-name charities, the government announced that it would legislate to protect the vulnerable from "aggressive fundraisers" and "rogue charities".

It also announced that it had asked Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, to lead a review of the self-regulation of fundraising, which would make recommendations in September.

A few days later, the Cabinet Office published the detail of the legislation, which will take the form of several amendments to the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill currently going through parliament.

The proposed amendments mean that charities with incomes of more than £1m would have to include in their annual reports the number of fundraising complaints they receive each year, statements on their approach to fundraising, whether they are members of any voluntary scheme for regulating fundraising and details about the approaches they have taken to protect vulnerable people.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts says the proposed measures represent the first statutory regulation of fundraising since the Charities Act 1992. He says he has always believed statutory regulation should be a last resort and the measures will mean extra costs for charities. But they will increase the pressure on charities to behave responsibly, he says.

Michael King, a consultant and former chair of the law firm Stone King, says the measures are in danger of becoming the next Dangerous Dogs Act – a reference to a law often criticised as having been rushed through in response to a transient public mood. "We already have too many laws," says King. "I wish politicians wouldn't have such knee-jerk reactions."

King says it will be difficult to determine which donors should be considered "vulnerable". Joe Saxton, founder of the consultancy nfpSynergy, says any such amendment would be superfluous because most charities already follow the Institute of Fundraising's Code of Fundraising Practice, which includes recent rules about handling people in vulnerable circumstances.

Nicola Evans, a senior associate at the law firm Bircham Dyson Bell, says the draft measures look sensible but it is too early to tell if they will change the behaviour of charities. She says it might be difficult for fundraisers to interpret "inappropriate behaviour", described in the amendments as intruding on a person's privacy, "unreasonably persistent" approaches for money and "placing undue pressure" on donors.

But James Johnson, managing director of the telephone fundraising agency Pell and Bales, says he believes that obliging charities and agencies to record their policies in their reports will raise standards and boost a culture of transparency. "People will analyse what they're doing more and change their ways," he says.

Adrian Sargeant, professor of fundraising at Plymouth University, says it is illogical for the government to announce new measures just as Etherington begins his review of self-regulation. He also says it would be crass to have charities indicate whether they are Fundraising Standards Board members: "All charities should be part of the scheme. I hope Etherington will recommend that."

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