Opinion: Hot Issue - Should the Charity Commission both regulate and advise?

The imminent draft Charities Bill is expected to clarify the role of the Charity Commission. However, there is disagreement in the sector over the extent to which it should offer an advisory service

YES - Lord Adebowale, chief executive, Turning Point

The role of a regulator is not only to tell us what we are doing wrong, it is to tell us how we need to change and what we need to focus on to provide better services to the people we work with. There is no doubt about it - the biggest task for the Charity Commission needs to be regulation.

The commission's main focus must be on enhancing, monitoring and ensuring compliance with charity law. This will not only have the effect of developing an effective, focused and vibrant charity sector, but will help to build public confidence and provide more understanding of, and faith in, the professional nature of the modern not-for-profit sector.

However, that regulatory role has to go hand in hand with providing advice and support to respond to regulation, otherwise it is going to prove very difficult to get charities to improve compliance and performance. The commission, and the sector as a whole, will be working within a regulatory framework, and a new one at that. I am willing to bet that the success of the commission's regulatory job and the performance of the sector will depend heavily on communicating with charities about their obligations and how to fulfil them.

YES - Anne-Marie Piper, partner, charity and community team, Farrer & Co

Although at first sight the arguments for separating the advisory and regulatory functions of the Charity Commission seem compelling, I am firmly of the view that such a split would be disadvantageous for many charities.

For a start, any split would necessitate the repeal of section 29 of the Charities Act 1993. This section allows charity trustees to seek the commission's formal written advice and, provided they supply the commission with all the relevant facts (sometimes a difficult concept for lay trustees to assess), to rely on the advice received from the commission in response.

This is effectively statutory protection from any differences of opinion or interpretation between the advisory and regulatory teams at the commission.

If the advisory function were removed from the commission, it is highly likely that there would be more, rather than fewer, such differences. I am sure that once they were identified, such differences could be sorted out by high-level discussions, but they could cause a great deal of uncertainty for charities caught in the cross-fire.

NO - Campbell Robb, director of public policy, NCVO

The NCVO is a member of the Coalition for a Charities Act, formerly known as the Charities Bill Coalition. The coalition believes that the Government's imminent delivery of a draft Charities Bill offers a significant opportunity to refocus the Charity Commission on its job as regulator.

In what increasingly appears to be its current guise as regulator and adviser to the charitable sector, there is an existing lack of clarity in the status of the advice given. Infrastructure agencies and umbrella bodies are better placed to provide advice and support to sector organisations, and many already do so very successfully. The sector is well placed to extend this role, provided it is properly funded so do to.

The Charity Commission has finite resources, and with additional responsibilities set to be imposed on it by the new legislation, such as testing for public benefit, we need it to focus these resources on strengthening its regulatory role.

The implementation of a new Charities Act should help define its role within a clearly communicated regulatory framework, which will go on to enhance public trust and confidence.

NO - Veronica Karrinton, head of advice and development services, Community Matters

As the number of charities continue to grow, the commission is ever more stretched to provide advice, fulfil its regulatory duties and help preserve and modernise the reputation and thinking of the charity sector. The danger of stretching itself too thin is already apparent. There is plenty of inconsistent advice between and within the commission's offices, with some charities playing the system to get the answer they're looking for.

The biggest problem with a dual role, however, is the temptation when advising a charity to blur the distinction between what it ought to do and what it must do. This particularly impacts on smaller volunteer-run charities that have no ability to challenge or even verify the advice given.

But because the commission is the major source of expertise on charity matters, it should not lose its advice function completely. There is scope for second-tier organisations to provide more advice on charity matters.

A separation of roles must become part of its institutional culture and staff must be trained to distinguish between good practice and regulatory requirement.

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