Extension of disqualifications in charities bill 'unnecessary'

Charities working with offenders say tougher disqualification rules are a 'direct threat' to their mission, and could see 50,000 people automatically banned from being trustees

Criminal justice charities have expressed concerns that measures in the charities bill to extend significantly the list of people automatically disqualified from becoming charity trustees could represent a "direct threat to the core mission of our sector".

The Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill, which has gone through the House of Lords and will be debated by MPs on 3 December, contains measures to extend the circumstances under which people are automatically banned from becoming charity trustees or taking up senior management roles.

Individuals are currently disqualified from being charity trustees only if they have an unspent conviction for offences relating to dishonesty or deception.

A briefing prepared for some MPs by the charity Unlock, which works with people who have criminal convictions, says clause 10 of the bill proposes to extend disqualification to anyone subject to the notification requirements of part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, even after the conviction is regarded as spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.

The same section of the bill also significantly extends the types of offences that would disqualify an individual from becoming a trustee, including money laundering, bribery and terrorism offences.

It would also prevent such people from being employed as senior managers in charities, which, Unlock says, would raise the prospect of significant numbers of existing charity employees being prevented by law from doing their job.

Clause 11 of the bill also creates a discretionary power for the Charity Commission to disqualify people from being charity trustees, which could include individuals who have received cautions for offences that are regarded as spent.

Unlock says about 50,000 people would be automatically disqualified from trustee and senior management positions under the proposals in the bill, adding that it could also have a long-standing effect on the career prospects of ex-offenders working in charities.

Unlock’s briefing says that the proposals are unnecessary and could, for example, lead to a person with an spent conviction for a sexual offence being barred from becoming a trustee for the many charities in which safeguarding of children or vulnerable beneficiaries is not an issue.

Anne Fox, chief executive of Clinks, the membership body for criminal justice charities, said: "At the heart of our sector is the principle of working with service users – supporting people to change their lives, rather than doing things to them.

"Many voluntary sector organisations have benefited from offering opportunities to former offenders, either as trustees or in senior management positions. Some are even set up initially as self-help groups by service users themselves.

"The extension of the disqualification framework as proposed by the charities bill could represent a direct threat to the core mission of our sector, its future sustainability, diversity and vibrancy," Fox said.

Christopher Stacey, a co-director at Unlock who wrote the charity’s briefing, said the bill represented a "direct threat to Unlock and a number of other charities that work to rehabilitate people with criminal records, many of whom employ former offenders either as trustees or in senior management positions".

He said the provisions in the bill would undermine the ability of those with criminal records to participate actively in society through legitimate voluntary and paid work for charities.

"The automatic barring of people on the sex offenders register from becoming charity trustees and senior managers is a crude and ineffective means of safeguarding children and vulnerable adults," Stacey said.

"It also defies rehabilitation legislation, because it would have the impact of taking into account convictions long after they become spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act."

He said that although the government pointed out the potential for waivers to be issued by the Charity Commission when an individual seeks to become a trustee of an ex-offender charity, his organisation’s experience showed the process to be "woefully inadequate and not workable in a way that allows charities like Unlock to fulfil their charitable purposes".

Unlock is calling for changes to the bill, including amending the disqualification framework so it does not affect people employed in senior management, subject to appropriate safeguards, and creating an opt-out from the legislation for charities that work with and/or employ people with criminal records as part of their charitable purpose.

Asked to comment on the concerns, a Cabinet Office spokesman said: "Adding people on the sex offenders register to the criteria for automatic disqualification was strongly supported in the House of Lords."

He also pointed out that the Charity Commission had approved 90 per cent of waiver applications in recent years. 

"There is also the safeguard that a decision not to grant a waiver can be appealed to the charity tribunal," he said.

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