Opinion: Third Voice - Crunching the numbers for a Scots charity register

Jane Ryder, chief executive of the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator

Exactly how many charities are there in Scotland? When the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator was set up in 2004, no one agency held the definitive answer. At that time, the only formal record of charities in Scotland was a database of 26,000 charity names and contact addresses held by what was then the Inland Revenue. This figure represented the total number of charities recognised in Scotland over many years, but did not identify or take account of charities that were no longer functioning.

A charity population of 26,000 has for some time been widely acknowledged as inaccurate, and our own estimate, based on an attrition rate of about a third, was that a more accurate figure might be about 18,000 'live' charities. Since we were established, we have published on our website the HM Revenues & Customs list of live charities as the Index.

Our recent annual return mailing marks the first stage of proactive charity regulation, leading to an up-to-date list of Scottish charities, including information on charitable purposes, activity, beneficiaries and income levels - information that has not existed to date. In identifying the true charity population in Scotland, this has been an essential first step - and, when analysed, the information will provide a valuable profile of the sector as a whole.

It is disappointing to note that the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations perceives this initial exercise as "half-hearted", perhaps because of a misconception that all 26,000 charities were live and might therefore respond. We have always known this could not be the case. Indeed, it is part of our planning process that we follow up on non-returns to ensure our final published list is as accurate as possible in time for April 2006.

Once the Charities Act is in force in Scotland, all charities that have been granted charitable status in the past will automatically transfer to the new charity register, but OSCR will have a duty to remove those that do not meet the charity test. The work we do now will serve as the platform for OSCR enquiry and early removal of 'dead' charities where this is appropriate. Only by taking such a robust approach can we assure the public that Scottish charities are monitored in a fair and proportionate way, creating a culture of confidence and supporting a flourishing sector.

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