Paula Sussex promises telephone helpline for regulator's revamped digital services

The chief executive of the Charity Commission tells a public meeting in Southampton that financial constraints mean an 'outgunned' regulator cannot meet its objectives without technology

Paula Sussex
Paula Sussex

A telephone helpline service will be available to trustees and charity staff who use the Charity Commission's revamped digital services, Paula Sussex, the regulator’s chief executive, has revealed.

Speaking at the commission’s public meeting in Southampton yesterday, Sussex sought to reassure delegates they would be supported through the commission’s efforts to move many of its services online, a process she said was necessary to make it more effective and efficient.

The commission’s budget to regulate the 165,000 charities in England and Wales has been cut by 50 per cent since 2008, and Sussex admitted the financial constraints meant the regulator was "outgunned".

She said: "We cannot meet our statutory objectives and strategic priorities derived from it without technology."

But she added: "One constant theme I want you to bear in mind is that we will be and are building a system of assisted digital support – that is, people on the phones who will talk you through using this technology as it starts to come on stream."

The new technology will include a portal through which trustees will be able access historical data about their own charities and commission guidance. Sussex said she hoped this would be more user-friendly than the central government website that currently hosts the information,

The portal should be up and running in six months, she said, and a new, simpler and quicker registration portal for charities that wanted to register or change their legal form would be available by the end of April.

Sussex said the new systems would give increased reliability but trustees would always be able to speak to human beings if they had any concerns.

"We will never do without human intervention, but we need a robust system behind it," she said.

In relation to the successive cuts to the commission’s budget, which has now been frozen at £20m a year until 2020, William Shawcross, chair of the commission, has previously said it was "inevitable" that the charity sector would be required to pay for its own regulation.

At yesterday’s meeting, delegates were asked for their views on the prospect of funding the commission, and Jane Hobson, head of policy, said these views would be fed into a planned consultation on the idea.

But she said she was unable to say when the consultation would officially start.

One audience member warned that charging charities for regulation would "throw away the Charity Commission’s reputation and independence". Another urged the commission to seek further funding from the Treasury, saying charities were "already doing the government’s work as it is" and were struggling pay their own administration costs.

Both comments were met with applause from the audience.

Shawcross said at the meeting that he had been in talks with the Cabinet Office last week about replacing some members of the Charity Commission’s board.

He said there would be "at least two" vacant positions on the board in the coming months – one that opened up after the departure of Peter Clarke, whom Shawcross praised as a "magnificently brilliant board member", to head HM Inspectorate of Prisons; and "one or two" spaces where current board members were unable or unwilling to sit for another term.

"We will soon be putting out an advertisement for new trustees to apply for the Charity Commission," he said.

He said the current board contained "lots of expertise from within the charity sector" and the commission would seek to continue that.

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