Opinion: Hot issue - Should the Charity Commission limit itself to being a regulator?

The commission's recent strategy document proposes that it should be a promoter and champion of charities as well as a regulator. But some sector commentators have said this could take it beyond its proper remit.

NO - Lord Hodgson, Conservative spokesman on Home Affairs

Certainly not. Of course the role of the Charity Commission as a regulator is important - that is why we have tabled amendments to ensure that it is insulated from governmental pressure.

However, it needs to be more than that if it is to play a full role in maintaining the vibrancy of the voluntary sector.

Small charities in particular need help and advice. Without the resources or experience available in larger charities, answers might be harder to find. Who better to provide advice than the Charity Commission with its wealth of experience? The risk of regulatory creep could confuse the role of the commission as a source of both advice and regulation. So it is important that the commission always makes it clear when it is regulating and when it is advising.

No less important is its role in encouraging charitable work. Our world is changing fast and charities are responding to new demands. A risk-averse, box-ticking, regulation-focused Charity Commission would rob the sector of its dynamism. The voluntary sector as a whole would benefit far more from a commission that advises, champions and facilitates charities rather than one that simply limits itself to enforcing guidelines.

NO - Penny Chapman, head of charities, Bircham Dyson Bell

One of the commission's objectives, as stated in the Charities Bill, is to "increase public faith and confidence in charities". There is no better way to promote the sector than by satisfying the public that charities are models of good governance, through effective and supportive regulation.

If the commission's only role is to regulate the already significant burden of compliance that the sector bears, it is likely to alienate charities and lessen its ability to deal with their concerns constructively.

But should it go further and actively champion the sector? To do so consistently and with conviction, it is vital that it achieves its aim to be independent of government, but public policy constraints are bound to limit its effectiveness.

Umbrella organisations such as Acevo and NCVO, magazines such as Third Sector and charities themselves are perhaps better placed to beat the drum.

The commission's aim to champion the sector is laudable, but with the Bill anticipating an increase in its regulatory responsibilities and the commission anticipating a drop in income in real terms over the next three years, the one question that is not addressed is how this intended increase in activity by the commission is to be paid for.

YES - Luke FitzHerbert, senior researcher, Directory of Social Change

Regulation should remain its main job, although in achieving this it needs to continue to give advice and support to charities to meet their regulatory requirements. However, the commission's ambitions, such as becoming the champion of the sector and encouraging innovation and effectiveness, go much further than this.

While we are impressed with the determination and capability of the commission's new chair and chief executive, they inherit an organisation that has not wholly mastered its present role. There is a massive job to be done just to fit the commission for its existing regulatory tasks, let alone the enhanced responsibilities it is being given through the new Charities Bill.

The recent debates in the House of Lords have shown the need for modesty in ambitions for the commission. Take Lord Sainsbury speaking this month in the House of Lords: "The House has heard evidence that suggested the commission was, at times, excessively bureaucratic and inefficient" and needed "more capable staff".

Let the commission settle down in its enhanced regulatory role, in which it will have the support of almost the whole sector, before it considers expanding its brief more widely.

NO - Richard Fries, visiting fellow, Centre for Civil Society, London School of Economics

The regulation of civil society is a paradoxical concept. Civil society is based on free association and expression. It should not be regulated; certainly not by a government department. Charity, if it is to continue to have relevance in the modern world as a legal framework, must support voluntary action in the public interest. Independence, diversity, initiative - they are essential characteristics of charity.

Subjecting charity to regulation threatens its wellbeing. Charities are not privatised utilities. Regulation has to be sensitive. The commission is right to put public trust and confidence in charity at the heart of its mission. If charity is seen as an agent - a tool of government - it loses that trust. Charitable status brings public reputation and fiscal privileges. The commission must provide the right (proportionate) framework for transparency and accountability. It must promote standards, disseminate the lessons of experience, and, of course, it must have powers to remedy malpractice.

But that is working with the sector, promoting its values. In that sense it must indeed be the champion of the concept of charity, but not of individual charities.

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