Editorial: Battle of styles at the Charity Commission

The advent of the tribunal formed a watershed between an old-style commission that went in hard on cases and a new-style commission that treads more carefully, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor
The case of African Aids Action was a showdown between two styles of regulation at the Charity Commission. On one side was David Orbison, the case officer who argued for strong action even though the allegedly misused sums of money were small. He was backed by other former staffers who think the regulator is now dangerously risk-averse.

On the other side was the board and senior management, who made the decision three years ago to close down the statutory inquiry into AAA, unfreeze the charity’s bank account and draw up an agreed voluntary action plan for the trustees instead.

Orbison’s objections to this "U-turn" ended in an Employment Tribunal, which recently ruled he was constructively dismissed but rejected other claims. The commission may yet appeal, prolonging a bitter conflict that has damaged both sides.

The crucial determinant of the commission’s stance, as Michelle Russell explains in our feature, was the 2009 judgment by the charity tribunal in the Sivayogam temple case. In essence, this has been interpreted to mean that it is not enough to have evidence against a charity – it must also be demonstrated that the proposed action is proportionate.

Is this, then, the prime illustration of how the advent of the tribunal formed a watershed between an old-style commission that went in hard on cases – knowing that only a slow and expensive appeal to the High Court was available to the aggrieved – and a new-style commission that treads more carefully, mindful of recent developments in human rights law and easy, low-cost recourse to that tribunal?

The debate about how a handful of officials can regulate more than 160,000 charities effectively will rumble on. Of more immediate importance, perhaps, is the evidence from the commission’s own staff surveys that Orbison was not alone in his unhappiness with its management style. The focus now is on its action plan, designed to increase engagement and improve "treating each other with respect". Will this herald a change of culture?

- Read our analysis on the Charity Commission's staff survey

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