Peter Stanford: Fining charities for the late filing of returns won't help

Our columnist asks if this new proposal is part of an attempt to make charities pay for their own regulatory body

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

I've never been much of a fan of fines. They are certainly better, when handed down for minor offences by our courts, than sending yet more people to our overcrowded prisons. But when the purpose is basic housekeeping they seem like a desperate remedy.

This is what libraries have found. At a time when we are straining every sinew to get more children to read, routinely handing out fines for the late return of books is counter-productive. Yes, it means the next person in line for the book stands a better chance of getting it on the appointed day, but the recipient of the fine is put off borrowing. That's why most libraries now use fines rarely, if at all.

Perhaps the Charity Commission might study their example as part of its new consultation. It has unveiled its latest bright idea - to fine trustees when they are late in submitting annual returns. To be fair, I should add that it also suggests rewarding them when they get them in early. But carrot and stick has the logic of the playground. It is hardly designed to make us feel like responsible adults capable of overseeing complex organisations.

I've only once been part of a board that filed its annual return late - and was duly shamed by the compliance chart that the commission put next to our name on its website. I wonder how many donors that put off.

The reason for our failure was simple. We were a tiny, fledgling organisation and our willing but disorganised treasurer fell ill just at the crucial moment. It took the rest of us a while to understand her filing system and bring order to the chaos. Not what anyone would want, of course, and not appropriate for larger multi-million-pound charities, but just part of the learning curve for a small local trust and a bunch of volunteer trustees as we struggled to find our feet.

Would receiving a fine have made us act any differently? No. By the next year, we had sorted it out. It never happened again. Would being fined have caused us to throw in the towel? Possibly. It would have seemed hugely disproportionate to our crime and a slap in the face after all the time we had put in.

You have to wonder how this proposed new regime of fines will change behaviour. There seem to be two models: the courtroom fines that work reasonably well (better, at least, than custodial sentences) in tackling some sorts of offending behaviour; and parking fines. I get plenty of the latter, sometimes richly deserved. But this sort of fining regime has almost no interest in changing offending behaviour, no interest in mitigating circumstances and every interest in raising revenue. It is another tax on motorists.

The Charity Commission, of course, is short of cash right now. Suspicious thought, perhaps, but is this part of an attempt to make charities pay for their own regulatory body?

And who, exactly, will pay the fines? The trustees themselves? If that is the risk, look out for recruitment to boards to drop off a cliff. Are we really meant, in the midst of busy lives, to ring the finance department or treasurer at our charities every week to check on the progress of the annual return? Yes, it should happen on time, and, yes, good governance requires that we keep an eye on it, but glitches occur. And surely there are bigger matters to look out for.

Or will it be the charity itself paying the fine? This is similar to the government's half-witted scheme to fine hospitals and schools for underperformance. Why are they underperforming? Usually because they don't have enough money in the pot to do everything the government insists they should do. So taking yet more money from them to pay a fine is simply going to mean yet more underperformance.

A regime based on fines is a backward step. If a late return is the result of unfortunate circumstances, cut the miscreant a bit of slack and like as not it won't happen again. If it is the result of chronic mismanagement, or worse, then the Charity Commission needs to roll up its sleeves and help that organisation address the core failings of which a late return is just a symptom. Handing out a fine is no solution.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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