OPINION: HOT ISSUE - Will the Charity Commission be effective in tackling fraud?

The Charity Commission announced last week that it is to take a more proactive stance on fighting fraud with a series of awareness campaigns aimed at tackling the issue. Flower sellers, door-to-door second-hand clothes sellers and street magazine sellers will be the first to be targeted in the crackdown campaign.

Belinda McKenzie, co-ordinator, Association for Charities

NO

The recent National Audit Office report commended some areas of Commission activity but identified weaknesses in its investigating capacity. Our experience bears this out. We do not have full confidence that if Commission officers discover fraud they will necessarily take the appropriate action.

We know of cases that have been reported but never investigated. Conversely, the Commission has overreacted to fraud and unleashed its powers against a charity or trustee without properly checking the credentials and evidence of the whistleblower. Catching fraudsters requires experience of criminal investigation and knowledge of the evidence needed to take a case to trial.

Policing the entire voluntary sector, including 180,000 registered charities and as many voluntary organisations, would require enormous resources.

We do not dispute the need to go after the protagonists of fraud, only the Commission's competence to fulfil the role of policeman.

Philip Cowen, director, Charity Check

NO

Even if the public were more aware of the problem, what could they do about it? What is needed is more help and information to those in local authorities and retail branches with power to allow collections. If that is the intention, the Commission could have backed the circular sent in June 2000 by the Local Government Association to local authorities about the Charity Check system, which where used has reduced the problem. A unanimous London Assembly Motion welcomed the use of the system by licensing authorities and retailers. The Charity Commission should have been invited long ago to follow the policy and methods of Companies House. For example, Companies House does not claim that registration implies respectability; it does not claim to advise the public which bodies on its register are honest; it welcomes the work of private information agencies and it has a long-established policy to prevent the use of over-grandiose names.

Phil Jarrold, deputy chief executive,Wales Council for Voluntary Action

YES

Whenever "charity

and "fraud

appear in the same sentence, some damage will be done to the sector's reputation. Much of our income comes from people who choose to give from their own purse, while millions of hours are freely given to innumerable causes. With so much at stake, anything that damages the public's confidence and trust in charities should be minimised. And surely it's better for the Commission to try and prevent bogus fundraising than to wait for a new "shock horror

incident, prompting the whole rigmarole of investigation, prosecution and attendant publicity? A more pertinent question, perhaps, is how the Commission can combine its twin - and somewhat contradictory - roles of supporter of charities, and regulator. It's not impossible to be both friend and police officer, but clearer distinctions would be helpful. The Commission must be aware of its limitations as a source of help. And we do need to ensure the sector's own intermediaries and support bodies are able to provide the kind of management and support services that charities and trustees need.

Andrew Watt, head of policy and standards, Institute of Fundraising

YES

Over the past couple of years, the Commission, in partnership with the police, has brought several successful prosecutions against fraudulent collectors. These have been relatively large-scale and well-planned frauds. When resource is applied to tackling them, the Commission is well placed to deal with this sort of offence. The problem lies not here but in smaller scale and opportunistic fraud. Why do these criminals get away with it? Because the sector and its regulator, the Commission, have not succeeded in developing any meaningful degree of public awareness about charities, fundraising and public collections. The police do not have the will or resource to tackle small-scale fraud. The sector is too fragmented to lead on this while the Commission is not. But policing by the Commission is not the issue; the real issue is whether the Commission is doing its job in promoting public confidence in and awareness of the role of charities in our society.

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