Sam Burne James: A full-on fortnight for the commission

The release of a National Audit Office report, an appearance by Paula Sussex at the Public Accounts Committee and the reappointment of William Shawcross offered some interesting insights, writes Third Sector's reporter

Sam Burne James
Sam Burne James

As a professional commission watcher, it’s been a bit of a full-on fortnight what with all that’s been going on with the Charity Commission.

Headlines have been the release of the National Audit Office report on the commission and its resulting analysis by the sector, the appearance by Paula Sussex, chief executive of the regulator, in front of the Public Accounts Committee to be grilled both on said report, and on its action in the bizarre case of the Durand Academy, a school with a dating agency registered to the same address, and the reappointment of chairman William Shawcross.In one of the moments of the past fortnight when I wasn’t engaged in commission watching, I learnt a new word, albeit one I don't much like: listicle. It refers to an article written in list format – think Buzzfeed, think many blogs, it’s all the rage nowadays. So, beyond the main conclusion that the commission is going in the right direction, but that more work is needed, what are some of the things to learn from this full-on fortnight?

Sussex is a cool cucumber. Her commission entourage were somewhat jubilant as we paraded out of parliament following the PAC session, and she certainly put in an assured performance in front of the often-spiky committee. She was clear, humorous, unflustered and fared a whole lot better than her predecessor Sam Younger, when he was hauled over the coals by the PAC in December 2013. She appeared a little flummoxed when pressed on the Durand Academy issue, but Sussex might be glad that an hour of grilling internet big cheeses on rural broadband directly before their session on the regulator might have doused some of the fire in the PAC members’ bellies. Otherwise, in Sussex’s first big public engagement she showed herself to be a smooth, professional character and a good public face for the regulator.

Paid-for regulation seems a half-step closer. In October, Sussex told a conference that although the regulator was taking part in discussions on the possibility of charities paying for regulation, the idea was only likely to move forward "at the speed of a glacier". When asked again about this by the PAC, Sussex remained cautious, but markedly less so, saying that if it were found to be feasible, the new regime might be launched within a year or two – although the commission is keen to play down the idea that she is warming to the prospect. Following the reappointment of Shawcross, also a champion of the idea, it is at the very least clear that the cash-strapped commission will not be dropping the topic any time soon.

Communicating with the sector as a whole is a challenge. As Dame Anne McGuire MP, one of the PAC members said, it’s all very well liaising with Acevo, the NCVO and like when the commission has something to consult on, but they don’t represent the whole sector. Far from it. Trying to capture the views of and have any sort of conversation with 164,000 charities is a massive challenge. It’s one the commission has taken certain steps to address, but it’s hard to get away from the facts that most charities will be small and might not consider themselves as part of a broader, collaborative, cohesive sector, and most trustees are busy people. But as the NAO report says, the commission needs to get better at showing its stakeholders what it is doing and why. Finding ways to get and keep the sector on board will be crucial as the commission’s transformation programme continues, and its relationship with the sector continues to evolve.

The Muslim charity question isn’t going away. Margaret Hodge, chair of the PAC, pressed Sussex on the issue of bias and perceptions thereof. Sussex admitted that the commission could do more in this area. The commission are understandably sensitive about such allegations, and have already been gathering statistics with the aim of monitoring the situation and disproving such allegations – but by Sussex’s admission, they need to do more and be better at communicating this. No matter what that involves, the issue isn’t going away; more reputed links between the sector and Islamist extremism could well come to light in time, and the government narrative of cracking down on the perceived problem through the draft Protection of Charities Bill and other schemes will remain prominent.

Nor is the fall-out from the Preston Down Trust. Stephen Phillips MP put in one of the grumpier performances of PAC members, and the commission’s long-winded decision to register the Preston Down Trust is clearly still frustrating him. "How much money was wasted on the Preston Down Trust debacle? It was such an appalling debacle," he asked Sussex, in true "have you stopped beating your wife"-style. The commission will no doubt be beaten about the head by this issue again in the future, but more concerning would be if the ‘debacle’ makes for poor processes in the commission’s future registration of controversial charities.

...or the ghost of the Cup Trust. The week before the PAC, we reported on the written attack by Andrew Hind, a former head of the regulator, on the commission’s role in the Cup Trust tax avoidance scandal. Again, will that bruising affair have made for excess caution? It can’t be a total coincidence that later that week, a tax expert told me that the commission’s new tax reliefs policy was over-cautious.

Staff morale at the commission is a concern, or, in the words of Sussex in front of the PAC, "something that I’ll come absolutely clean with this committee, we need to do better". We already knew about the commission’s poor showing in the Civil Service People Survey, and it’s worth remembering that commission staff went on strike in both 2014  and 2013. Sussex also admitted to the PAC that the commission needed to do better at communicating with its staff about what its change means, and hinted at particular morale and engagement difficulties in its Liverpool outpost.

Shawcross’ heart is in it (presumably). There was a rumour going around that Shawcross was ready to call it a day when his term came to an end in October. Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative MP for Essex North, corroborated this in a session of the joint committee on the draft Protection of Charities Bill earlier this month, saying that Shawcross "says he thinks he might have had enough by then". Jenkin also said that despite being contracted for two days a week, Shawcross "probably does about five". Well, under his reappointment he’s got three days a week, although he won’t be earning any more as a result.

The thing that binds quite a few of those issues together is criticism of the commission’s internal and external communications ability. It’s an odd thing the enormous proliferation of information and means of communication available to us today – it often seems to making communicating more rather than less difficult. And it has also given us the word "listicle". Yuck.

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