Debra Allcock Tyler: Transparency is non-negotiable in the voluntary sector

And private sector businesses that compete with charities should be similarly open to scrutiny, says our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

I've been a fan of Andrew Marr for years - I loved two of his books, A History of Modern Britain and My Trade. However, my view of him has changed somewhat since the revelation that he took out an injunction in 2008 to keep his private affairs out of the public domain. To be clear, I loathe salacious gossip about people's private lives. I haven't the slightest interest in which famous footballer, celebrity or politician is shagging someone they shouldn't be. In my experience, people's personal decisions are often much more complex than they appear on the surface. Frankly, I agree with privacy laws - however they are constituted.

But I profoundly dislike double standards. What Marr did was to demonstrate that there is one rule for him and another for those people whose affairs he presumably had absolutely no compunction about discussing in his own newspaper. Now, of course, he's getting kudos for belatedly deciding to be transparent. Well - in my opinion - too late, mate! He ditched his supposedly journalistic principles for personal advantage.

The issue of transparency is a difficult one to negotiate in the voluntary sector as well. I sit on the Charity Commission's Sorp committee and one of the issues we have discussed is the challenge that charities face in competing with the private sector, where charities are required, not just by charity law but by a moral obligation to their donors and funders, to disclose details of their financial activities - many more than the private sector. This, many argue, gives the latter an unfair advantage: the argument for less disclosure is, in the view of some charities, a strong one.

It's a bit of a Hobson's Choice sometimes. During my own quite long career, I have had to abide by the terms of confidentiality agreements that I didn't agree with, but was left with no choice but to comply with. So I can't tell you what they were about, but I can say that sometimes, despite the best of intentions, we are forced into secrecy.

It isn't always easy, but I maintain that the principle is simple enough. When it comes to the work of funding charities, transparency should be non-negotiable. It is not appropriate to abandon our core charitable principles simply to beat a private sector provider at their own game.

So rather than trying to change the rules so that charities can be more private about their business in order not to give the commercial sector an edge in contract negotiations, I believe we should be campaigning loud and hard for the opposite. We should demand that any private sector business that competes with the voluntary sector to deliver public services should be obliged to have their affairs open to the same level of public scrutiny as ours. And if they don't like it - tough titbits! They can always take their business elsewhere.

Because - and please forgive the pun - we in the voluntary sector do not want the good opinion the public has of us overall to be marred by inappropriate secrecy.

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