Editorial: An unedifying spectacle before a committee of MPs

The rivalry between the Institute of Fundraising and the Fundraising Standards Board dominated this week's hearing in parliament, says the editor of Third Sector

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Even in front of a committee of MPs, it was the same old story – the Institute of Fundraising and the Fundraising Standards Board taking every opportunity to have a pop at each other, with the Public Fundraising Authority looking on and tending to side with the IoF.

You might have expected the three organisations to use Tuesday’s hearing before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to acquaint parliament more closely with the self-regulatory system for fundraising and the role it might or might not have played in the excesses and abuses that have recently come to light.

There were, of course, the now customary apologies and pledges to do better, and a certain amount of critical analysis of what has gone wrong, but much of the session consisted instead of special pleading, jockeying for position and point-scoring. It was not what you would call an edifying spectacle.

It was also hard to discern what the MPs made of it and whether they fully appreciated the unwieldiness of the present structure of self-regulation or the depth of the rivalries involved. Perhaps they even thought what most people might misguidedly think – that the three bodies involved in self-regulation are on the same side. Either way, the members did not seem to fully register that the dearest wish of the IoF, sitting at one end of the table, is the abolition of the FRSB, sitting at the other; and that the FRSB wants to curtail severely the involvement of the IoF in the regulatory process.

Richard Taylor and Peter Lewis, chair and chief executive respectively of the IoF, explained to the committee that they now wanted a new, stronger, independent regulator for all charities, not just those that elect to be regulated, as at present (their conversion to this approach, it has to be said, is relatively recent). They argued that the new system should involve strong representation of fundraisers on any body that would set the code of practice, although they did not specify that this should be a majority. And they called for something called co-regulation, in which the Charity Commission, with its statutory powers, would act as a backstop. They also contended that the existing code of practice – drawn up by the IoF and used as a benchmark by the FRSB – was robust and had always gone further than the law required.

This prompted Alistair McLean, chief executive of the FRSB, to tell the committee about instances where it had made recommendations for improvements to the code that had been "kicked into the long grass" by the IoF. Why, for example, had it taken 18 months for the IoF to decide to include in the code a ban on fundraisers ignoring "no-cold-calling" signs? Lewis explained with a straight face that it was because it was incumbent on the IoF to do painstaking research before making such an important decision.

Andrew Hind, former chief executive of the Charity Commission, who has just been appointed chair of the FRSB, declared that the current, "ridiculously confusing" system would not work without fundamental change, that the code of practice, set by fundraisers, was too weak, and that the code-setting body should have a majority of lay members and be housed outside the IoF. Like the IoF, he said that a new system should apply to all fundraisers and rely on the Charity Commission’s statutory powers as a backstop.

It was hard to know if either group was working with some knowledge of the evolving views of the review of fundraising regulation currently being led by Sir Stuart Etherington, or was trying to pre-empt or influence its findings. What became clear, however, was that the IoF is desperate to be seen not as a mere trade association that elevates its members’ interests above those of the public, but as a professional body that will proactively raise standards through measures such as increased training and mystery shopping.

So where does this leave us? Until the Etherington review is published and ministers have reacted to it, we won’t know whether the FRSB will be replaced or developed, whether the Charity Commission will play a role in a new system, and whether there will be fresh statutory powers inserted in the charities bill that is going through parliament.

Whatever happens, it would be perverse to exclude the expertise of fundraisers from any future code-setting body. But the most likely outcome of the Etherington review is that the code will be taken out of the direct ambit of the IoF. Taylor was right to tell the committee that the existing code is not "the driver of poor behaviour", but the FRSB is also right to imply that the default position of the code has hitherto been, at the expense of public concerns, to place the very minimum of restrictions on fundraisers. A better code-setting system, with proper public representation, won’t of itself prevent bad practice; but it will be a key part of a new system that should also involve universal application and more meaningful sanctions.

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