Editorial: Charities must be clear on expenses

Those that spend public money should be prepared to account for it, writes Stephen Cook

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

The independent expert group on expenses has concluded that "no justifiable case has been made for the wholesale publication of expenses beyond the current requirements".

Instead, it says, charities should make sure they have sound expenses policies for their staff and the Charity Commission should make sure charities comply with the accounting Statement of Recommended Practice on publishing the expenses of trustees.

This is surely the right conclusion. As the review points out, there is no evidence of a significant problem in the sector over expenses. Any concern about the issue was a nine-day wonder, whipped up at the time of greatest excitement over the scandal of MPs' expenses.

But has the group reached its conclusions for the right reasons? Unfortunately, part of its rationale reveals the sector up to its bad old tricks. The group appears to accept the argument that more disclosure might result in "misinterpretation or even suspicion, leading to damage in public trust and confidence". Expenses could even, it continues, become an inappropriate measure of charity effectiveness, diverting attention from more appropriate measures such as outcomes and impact.

Implicit in this argument is a worrying belief that charities that are transparent about what they do will not be able to persuade the public it is justified, and information must therefore be kept secret.

There may even be a fear that some of what they do is not justifiable. But charities mainly use the public's money, from donations or taxes, and are duty bound to say what they do with it - and if they can't justify what they do, maybe they shouldn't have it. It won't do to cite incomplete public understanding of what charities do - it's up to charities to make sure the public does understand. Mandatory disclosure of expenses is a step too far, but transparent charities will disclose them on demand.

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