Editorial: The advantages of clean underwear

The expenses row proves that charity leaders must be seen to have nothing to hide, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector
Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector

Three factors combined to make the MPs' expenses scandal a humdinger: a dodgy system, devised to increase their income through the back door; a culture of secrecy; and a last-ditch defence of that secrecy. Now expenses are under scrutiny in the voluntary sector and the various public bodies associated with it.

Dodgy expenses regimes are likely to be a rarity in the sector. The auditing of charity accounts should draw attention to any abuse. Trustees should ensure systems are sound and justifiable, and last week the Charity Commission reminded them of this responsibility. The checks and balances are strong, though not infallible.

The main risk to the sector's reputation lies in secrecy. The current atmosphere of sensitivity and suspicion about expenses means that it is not enough to have nothing to hide - you have to be seen to have nothing to hide. Prevarication or resistance on the subject is likely to be taken as an indication that there is something going on that won't stand up to public examination. Perception can be paramount.

That's why the chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations was right to publish his expenses as soon as he was challenged. The chief executive of Barnardo's points out that donors' money is public money, too, and advocates complete openness over expenses. There is a case for the larger charities to publish the expenses of senior staff in their annual accounts. Transparency is already an Achilles heel for the sector.

In the old days, mothers would enjoin their daughters to wear clean underwear in case they got hit by a bus and were attended by strangers. It's advice the sector should heed. It means taking the time now to check that expenses are in order and the figures are accessible. One chief executive of a major charity spent four hours doing that last week, just in case. Aggravating - but time well spent.

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