OPINION: Hot Issue - Does the Charity Commission fully investigate malpractice?

While fraud inquiries are a matter for the police, the Charity Commission has wide powers to look into allegations of 'deliberate abuse' and liaise with the police about possible criminality. But does the commission investigate malpractice rigorously enough when alarm bells start ringing in organisations?

Edward Leigh, MP, chair, Public Accounts Committee - NO

The Charity Commission has increased the effectiveness of its investigations but there is room for improvement.

Last year, the Public Accounts Committee reported on the commission's regulation. We found progress had been made since our last report when we were concerned that the commission was not giving enough attention to its investigations into potential abuses of charitable status.

We are always looking for ways that government bodies can improve the efficiency of their work. In this case, we recommended that the commission should plan investigations more systematically, complete them more quickly and make greater use of statutory powers to expedite problem cases.

We and the National Audit Office will be following our own advice and keeping a careful eye on the commission to be sure that it continues to improve.

Lindsay Boswell, chief executive, Institute of Fundraising - NO

Fraudulent fundraising has a ripple effect that does deep unseen damage to donors' trust and confidence that is beyond measurement. Because the Charity Commission has finite and limited resources, the only possible answer to this question has to be "no".

However, there has been an increase in its activities over the past few years and the tougher line taken at the commission is very welcome.

However, there is one key area where the commission really has its hands tied and this is the level of priority given to charity fraud by the police.

Despite some of the high-profile success stories, such as the link-up between the commission and Thames Valley Police last year, the main problem is persuading the police to take a closer interest in this area of activity. In this respect the reputation of the sector is put at risk by the lack of police resources to make charity and fundraising fraud a priority.

Belinda McKenzie, co-ordinator, Association for Charities - NO

The commission's head of investigations recently commented on radio that cases of fraud in charities are relatively rare. The emphasis here, then, is on the word "rigorously".

Investigating fraud and deliberate abuse is a complex task, requiring high levels of skill, patience and a capacity to distinguish between carelessness and dishonest intent.

Our experience is that the commission has on occasions failed to react properly to cases of wrongdoing reported to it, while at other times it has turned on 'whistle-blowers' and others, who have been wrongly indicted or slandered publicly, causing charities and their beneficiaries to suffer sometimes irreparable damage.

Again, the commission tends to choose 'soft' targets for investigation - often small or peripheral charities without the means or professional support to defend their activities, while the larger, well-established ones are rarely scrutinised.

The creation of an independent charities tribunal would help ensure that the commission is consistently rigorous in its investigations and would increase public confidence in the system of regulation.

Judith Rich OBE, chair, Diabetes Foundation - YES

The commission does investigate rigorously enough, but what saddens me is that they seem unable to follow things through to the end after an investigation.

This is an area where both charities and the public have high expectations but are often let down.

For example, the commission thoroughly and properly investigated Arthur Bennett, the ex-trustee of the Diabetes Foundation, who was recently convicted of fraud. At the end of the investigation they suspended him and instated myself and others as trustees.

However, Bennett was still living in the house that had been the registered address of the charity and was intercepting our mail. The foundation established a mail forwarding service with the post office, but Bennett managed to overturn that, and the commission was unable to help us any further.

Unfortunately, the problem is caused by a lack of resources. The commission's lawyers do as much as they can but are unable to finish things off, and that can have disastrous consequences in cases like ours.

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