NEWSMAKER: In defence of the commission - Michael Carpenter, Chief legal commissioner, Charity Commission

JOHN PLUMMER

Had Michael Carpenter wanted a leisurely wind-down to retirement, he could hardly have chosen a worse time to announce his departure as chief legal commissioner of the Charity Commission.

The news came two days before the Government review of the voluntary sector, which has been described as the most significant reform of charity law for 400 years.

Neither announcement was unexpected: the review had been almost a year in gestation while Carpenter, who turned 60 last week, was approaching time on his five-year commissioner's warrant.

It meant, however, a busy final few days in office. But did the Government's proposals to rename and redefine the Charity Commission mean that the work championed by Carpenter, as head of the regulator's 25-strong legal team, could be undermined?

The review praises the commission for being a modern regulator, devoting more resources to investigations and skilful use of the internet in widening public information.

But there are also criticisms. Compared with bodies such as the Law Society and the Consumer's Association, the commission makes little impression on everyday life: only one in seven can name it as charity regulator.

The gateway registration procedure needs refining. The commission's "legal powers and duties and its framework for accountability need to be modernised to allow 21st century needs to be more directly addressed and faster progress to be made".

Then there is the suggestion that the commission should be renamed the Charity Regulation Authority. Carpenter regards this, like many of the proposals, as the Government responding to changes that have been led by the commission rather than the Government taking the lead because of a lack of effectiveness on the commission's part. He says the new name recognises the evolution to regulator but doesn't sound entirely convinced of its merit. "I'm not sure it adds very much,

he says.

Similarly, he describes the suggestion to extend the number of purposes from four to 10 as the Government erecting a framework around the commission's growing willingness to interpret the law on what defines a charity into the areas laid out in the draft.

Carpenter admits he is perplexed by the logic behind extending the number of charity commissioners from five to nine. "I don't know why it's nine,

he says. "We have a relatively small board of governors which means we can be tightly focused."

But just when you think a criticism is coming, Carpenter is quick to add an alternative view. More commissioners would mean chances to be more than representatives of sectional interests, as they are now. His statements often include a prosecution and defence. "The present model has worked well, but the one going forward has lots of opportunities."

Carpenter is more forthright on the idea to establish an independent tribunal to hear legal appeals against the commission's legal decisions.

"Charity commissioners are capable of making really good decisions,

he says. "But I'm biased. We welcome it as an idea and won't shy away from it."

Overall, he thinks the review is good and has taken on board many of the commission's ideas. Not that Carpenter will be around to implement the proposals. He has handed over the reigns to Kenneth Dibble, a member of the commission's legal team for more than 20 years, who as director of legal services is responsible for the management of legal services.

Dibble is quick to praise Carpenter as "a source of strength

and says he intends to carry forward his legacy, which perhaps is characterised most by his deregulatory approach to charity law. But Carpenter suggests the review might have taken deregulation too far in its proposal to raise compulsory registration from £1,000 to £10,000. "Deregulation around small charities needs a lot of discussion,

he says. "It removes them from the register. If you are a small charity seeking grants, you will no longer have a charity number to display to the world."

The Government, however, believes a charity number assigned to small bodies by the Inland Revenue would do the same job with less bureaucracy.

Dibble describes his biggest challenge as "continuing our work in making charities relevant and meaningful in contemporary society". "Relevant

and "meaningful

are clearly at the front of Carpenter's mind when asked to outline his proudest achievement.

"I don't see it as a personal achievement. We have moved as an organisation to the point of being held up as an effective regulator and an organisation that uses court substitute power constructively.

"I see an organisation that is confident in the decisions it takes and is in tune with the needs of the sector and society at large. If I have contributed to that process, I'm happy to have done so.

As for regrets, he says "the process of change never seems to happen fast enough".

He insists it's the right time to go. "There are always more things to do but I've tried to bring my experience from a more commercial environment into the commission,

he says. "I would rather go feeling there are more things to be done and have a few miles left in the tank rather than everybody wait for the old fool to go."

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