The Charity Commission’s new, tougher regulatory regime could hurt public trust in the sector – and there is no clear evidence that the new approach is necessary, yesterday’s NCVO/BWB Trustee Conference in London heard.
Philip Kirkpatrick, joint head of charity & social enterprise at the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, said in his keynote speech on the subject "Is regulation out of hand?" that the commission should have stood up to the political pressure that was forcing the change.
"We often hear that there is too much red tape," he said. "To be frank, most of these claims turn out on inspection to be unfounded." Even the examples of absurdities caused by over-vigilance in applying health and safety legislation were on the whole swiftly dealt with, he said.
Kirkpatrick referred to Public Trust and Confidence in Charities, an Ipsos Mori report commissioned by the Charity Commission and published earlier this year. He said it found that 68 per cent of the public felt that charities were regulated fairly or very effectively and that charities enjoyed high levels of public trust.
He said only 2 per cent of respondents to that survey said they trusted particular charities less than other institutions because they believed the sector was not well regulated. But William Shawcross, the chair of the commission, said at the time that its results indicated public support for stronger regulation, Kirkpatrick said.
He told the conference: "Apparently what everyone wants to see is a less compromising face of the commission and more robust regulation. What is really the evidence of need for this tough approach?" He said the evidence was not there, but that political pressure was forcing the commission to change.
Kirkpatrick said the commission risked diminishing public trust in the sector. "It is accepting and supporting the view that all is not well in the charity sector and that something must be done," he said. "The public would have much more faith in charities if the Charity Commission stood up to the political pressure, stood up to the suggestion that abuse is rife.
"I would like to see a subtle change, a sense that the commission is standing up for the sector, not being blown around by political winds."
After the speech, Martyn Lewis, chair of conference host the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, reminded Kirkpatrick that in a speech immediately prior to the keynote address, Shawcross had praised the sector.
Kirkpatrick responded: "Yes, it is clear from William Shawcross that he wanted to praise the sector, but that isn’t coming through strongly enough."
Speaking from the audience, Neal Green, senior policy adviser at the commission, said it was striking a balance between tackling serious abuse and dealing with more commonplace concerns.
He said: "If the commission doesn’t sound tough enough about dealing with the downright criminal, then perhaps we’re encouraging people to be sloppy."
Kirkpatrick replied: "We’re not saying the commission shouldn’t come down on abuse, but there is a need for balance. The commission is being pulled away from being the friend of the sector to being its regulator."