News in Focus: An unexpected outbreak of peace

Stephen Cook

The Charity Commission and the Association for Charities are in agreement - almost.

Whenever there has been mention in recent years of the Charity Commission's appointment of receivers and managers to administer charities thought to be going off the rails, you could guarantee that the Association for Charities would be there, snapping at the commission's heels. It became a 'dog bites man' story - of no great surprise.

The AFC's main activity has been to campaign outspokenly for reforms to the commission's powers and procedures because of what it considers to be the high-handed and expensive conduct of a number of receiver-manager cases, most notably that of the Little Gidding Trust, a former Christian community in Cambridgeshire.

So it was a surprise when the AFC came out with some approving remarks earlier this month when the commission revealed details about the £20m it claims to have safeguarded through the appointment of receiver-managers in the past year. This was 'man bites dog' - definitely not what you would expect.

Cost of receivers

For a moment it seemed the approval might be in peril when the commission initially said the cost of putting in receivers and managers at the Kings Ministries religious charity was £200,000. Prompted by the AFC, however, it quickly produced the full figure of nearly £1.25m.

So John Weth, chairman of the AFC, defied some reluctance from associates and went ahead with a public pat on the back for his old adversary. He followed it with a letter to Third Sector saying: "May I once again welcome the publication of such information, which confirms Andrew Hind's reported comment that the commission wants to be wholly transparent about the facts surrounding receiver and manager cases."

Weth is now letting it be known that he considers Hind, the commission's chief executive for the past eight months, to be "a breath of fresh air" because of the efforts he and chairman Geraldine Peacock are making to recognise problems and produce improvements.

Hind is pleased that the hatchet has been at least partially buried, and puts it down to three developments: the prospect of a new charity tribunal as proposed in the Charities Bill, increased openness by the commission about the costs of receiver-manager cases and commission backing for a change in terminology in such cases.

The tribunal, for which the AFC has campaigned, will allow trustees and others who feel wronged by the commission to appeal to an independent body, saving the time and expense of going to the High Court, which at the moment is the only recourse.

"It will allow people to get a fair hearing and feel that justice will prevail," says Hind. "The absence of independent assessment of this kind has resulted in some very strong reactions against the commission."

On transparency, Hind has overruled some internal opposition and decided, as in this month's case involving the Kings Ministries, to publish in a single document the details of all expenses incurred in completed receiver-manager cases - not just the remuneration of the receivers and managers. The heavy additional expenses in the Kings Ministries case involved paying legal, financial and other advisers.

Hind's third factor is that the commission is supporting the move, now contained in the Charities Bill, to stop referring to 'receivers and managers' and instead call them 'interim managers', thus getting away from the connotation of insolvency in the word 'receiver'. Charities in trouble are not necessarily bust and often have a viable future.

Weth is encouraged by these factors, but is also hopeful about Hind's stated view that the commission should try to use methods other than installing receivers and managers to sort out difficulties in charities, including arbitration and the use of experienced managers from other charities.

Creative thinking

Hind says:"We accept the need to be more creative in our thinking about the right solution in such cases. The law doesn't say we always have to put in receivers and managers. There are sometimes other ways to do things, and it's worth noting that we've only appointed receivers and managers in two cases in the past 12 months."

However, it would probably be wrong to think that all this amounts to a love-in. It's clear in conversations with the AFC that the flame of grievance still burns strongly, and the commission also feels singed."I welcome any constructive criticism," says Hind, "but would ask that when we're doing the right thing, that can also be credited and commented on. In the past the AFC has been rather one-sided, always ready to criticise rather than praise progress."

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