The government should review the accessibility and ease of use of the Charity Commission’s section on the gov.uk website, the committee scrutinising the draft Protection of Charities Bill has recommended.
The cross-party committee of MPs and peers heard oral evidence on the draft bill between November and January, and also invited written submissions. Several of these complained they had found it difficult to use the regulator’s new website, which is now part of the government-wide portal, having transferred from an independent website in September.
Yesterday’s report, which gives broad support to the provisions of the draft bill, says: "We note the weight of evidence which suggests that providing the commission’s online advice within the current pared-down framework of the gov.uk website is unlikely to give charities, particularly the smaller ones, what they need and that it has become more difficult for users to navigate."
It recommends that the government "reviews the Charity Commission’s pages on gov.uk and works with them to improve the availability and accessibility of the commission’s information".
The commission has previously said that it never wanted to migrate to gov.uk.
Commenting on the report, a spokeswoman for the commission said it was aware of "some issues with people not finding what they want", but online feedback had yet to highlight any such problems. "We need people to use the online feedback forms to help us make improvements," she said. "We are absolutely committed to improving the accessibility of our guidance."
A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office, which oversees gov.uk through the Government Digital Service, said the department welcomed the report as a whole, but declined to comment on the Charity Commission's section of the website, saying the department would "carefully consider the report and its recommendations in detail before responding formally". This response should be finalised within two months.
The gov.uk portal was created in 2012, and 250 departments, organisations and agencies have so far moved over to it in a process that a policy document in 2013 said would "be far from easy".
The same section of the joint committee’s report says the commission "has to tread a fine line in its dealings with the sector" between being a regulator and an adviser and facilitator, but says it should not focus on the former to the detriment of the latter. It says the commission needs to do better at working alongside and sharing information with others, including HM Revenue & Customs, but acknowledges the substantial cuts that have been made to the commission’s budget in recent years.
Lord Hope of Craighead, the crossbench peer who chaired the Joint Committee on the Draft Protection of Charities Bill, told Third Sector that the bill made certain useful if narrow changes to the commission’s legal powers, but the criticisms of its performance could not be addressed by the law alone.
"This can’t be cured by the legislation; it’s cured by proper management, and the Charity Commission is well aware of these criticisms," he said. "I think the gradual pressure of National Audit Office reports and so on is producing much improvement."