Lord Low of Dalston
Lord Low of Dalston

Charity campaigning is being given an undeserved bad name by people "promoting the notion that it is a dirty word", according to the crossbench peer Lord Low of Dalston.

Low, who is leading a review of sector regulation for the charity leaders group Acevo, was speaking at the Directory of Social Change charity law conference in London at a session about the priorities of the Charity Commission.

Low said one of his five priorities for the commission was to understand the importance of campaigning. "My view is that campaigning is being given an undeserved bad name by people who are trying to set the agenda, promoting the notion that campaigning is a dirty word, a suspect activity that is increasing and ought to be diminished," he said.

In reality, Low said, campaigning "is nothing more than giving people information that it is essential for them to have".

The peer said his other priorities for the commission were its change programme, getting the balance of advice and compliance right, securing the funding of various social sector regulators and "better partnership working with other regulators, and/or shared data standards, especially with Companies House and HM Revenue & Customs".

Low, whose review will be published next month, said that the commission should stick up for the sector. "I think a bit of friendship, support and batting for the sector wouldn't go amiss."

Speaking at the same session, Karl Wilding, director of public policy at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said that charities should take charge of transparency rather than have it imposed on them by the regulator. "It looks like we’re naughty children and the commission has told us to do that," he said. "But if we do it ourselves, I think we can take back that transparency agenda."

Wilding said he had three priorities for the commission: ensuring that it was seen as independent; delivering its ongoing change programme, including through investment in technology; and adopting a more positive narrative to promote the sector and public trust in charities, rather than the existing position in which most of its public statements were strongly worded announcements of statutory inquiries.

"I hope that the commission will find a better language and, at times, a greater recognition that charities cannot survive without the volunteer effort of trustees or the gifts of donors," he said.

Wilding said it should not be a priority for the commission to review its guidance on campaigning, CC9. "At the moment I do think a detour on charity campaigning would be a distraction," he said, because the commission had bigger priorities. He said he thought campaigning was "a matter of self-regulation".

Paula Sussex, the regulator’s chief executive, told delegates at the same session that encouraging greater transparency and accountability by charities and enabling trustees to run their charities effectively were among the Charity Commission's key priorities.

Sussex outlined a list of the regulator's four priorities: protecting charities from abuse or mismanagement; enabling trustees to run their charities effectively; encouraging greater transparency and accountability by charities; and operating as an efficient, expert regulator with sustainable funding.

On promoting transparency, Sussex said that the commission had recently launched an updated version of its register of charities and was continuing to review potential changes to the annual return.

On enabling trustees, she said that the commission was working on improving and expanding the commission's online services for trustees.

Improved technology would be important, she said, for helping the regulator make progress on these priorities given recent cuts to the commission's budget. "There's no way that 300 people are going to manage without smart systems," she said.

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