Charities must get the basics right, the Charity Commission's head of compliance tells Paul Jump
When Michelle Russell was first asked to join the Charity Commission's compliance division, she admits she was reluctant. After spending many years in private legal practice and on the 'enabling' side of the commission, the thought of investigating charities' wrongdoings came as a bit of a shock to the system.
"If you are working in compliance you aren't generally wanted, because not many charities want an investigation," she says. "People can be quite rude to you, despite the fact you are trying to help."
Russell has to work hard to prevent her work negatively skewing her vision of the sector, particularly since she was asked to head the whole division in 2007 and her involvement became confined to particularly serious cases. But she says the division's work of assessing complaints, carrying out investigations and monitoring is interesting and challenging, and at the core of the commission's remit.
Compliance is also one of the commission's largest divisions, with 90 staff split between Liverpool and London. Russell admits it would be better if they were all on one site, but says modern communications mitigate the practical challenges. She also points out that, before a rearrangement three years ago, every commission office had a compliance unit. "We closed the Taunton unit and kept as small a unit as possible in London for high-risk cases where we need to liaise with a lot of other agencies or with senior management," she says.
Another recent change is the dramatic decline in the number of statutory inquiries carried out by the division, from between 200 and 300 five years ago to only 24 last year. But Russell says the fall indicates not that fewer misdemeanours are being investigated, but that investigations are formalised now only if the commission needs to use its statutory powers. "Two or three years ago, many statutory investigations arose out of technical breaches of the Sorp or not getting accounts in on time," she says. "We realised there were better ways of dealing with that."
One accusation that might be expected to trigger an instant formal inquiry is terrorist links to a charity. But Russell says that, despite receiving extra funding for investigating such allegations, the commission never feels pressure to open an inquiry if it is not merited. She also thinks the recent increase in investigations into inappropriate political activity by charities is partly down to public awareness of campaigning rules since the high-profile Smith Institute case.
But she still thinks charities have a long way to go, as indicated by Charities Back on Track, the report her division produces annually to highlight the lessons of recent casework. "Some of the failings in there are obvious things like lax financial controls, core governance failures and breaches of trust," she says. "It is disappointing because the key message we are trying to get out is that you have to get the basics right."