This year, the Charity Commission for England and Wales got new funding and a new chief executive, and the promise of new powers in the draft Protection of Charities Bill – and it vowed to be more proactive. The sector has been trying to work out exactly what this, and the new provisions brought in by the lobbying act, will mean.
As the year began, the commission announced in January that it would allow the Preston Down Trust, a congregation of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church that adheres to a doctrine of separation, to register as a charity.
If that led to criticism in some quarters, then a far less popular announcement came at the end of the month – the passing into law of the controversial lobbying act, seen by some as an attempt by government to crack down on the campaigning voice of charities.
The following week brought further criticism of the commission from the Public Accounts Committee, which said in a report that the commission lacked a coherent strategy or the ability to address its shortcomings.
In April, the Charity Commission’s chair, William Shawcross, told The Sunday Times that Islamic extremism was "potentially the most deadly" problem faced by the commission. The interview has been cited again and again in the months since, as the commission grapples with the difficult issues of charities being abused for terrorist ends – in Syria in particular – and alleged anti-Muslim bias on the regulator’s part.
These plans were boosted by the announcement of £9m in additional funding for the commission and the publication of the draft Protection of Charities Bill, which will give the commission new powers if passed – both of which were framed by the government as anti-terror measures, with the latter being warmly welcomed by the police.
The terror threat might be a governmental priority, but many in the sector have been more concerned by threats to their independence and their campaigning role. In June, a complaint about a tweet from Oxfam, made by Conor Burns, the Conservative MP for Bournemouth West, brought the issue – called an "attempt to stifle charities" by a group of sector leaders – to national attention. The Charity Commission’s decision on the complaint is yet to be announced.
In late summer, there were concerns about the usefulness of the Electoral Commission guidance on complying with the lobbying act. Plans, since postponed, to add a new question about how much charities spend on campaigning to the annual returns required by the Charity Commission, and the news that the commission will assess its CC9 guidance on campaigning after May’s general election, have kept the issue on the agenda.
Other activity from the commission included the publication of the new Sorp accounting standards and handling a high-profile allegation of fund misuse at the Society Network Foundation. After such a busy and, at times, bruising year, one might not be surprised that commission staff reported declining levels of employee engagement in a survey published this month.
While independence was on the agenda for Scotland, independent schools were on the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator’s radar. In its final report on the seven-year investigation into the public benefit provided by fee-paying schools, it said it would "maintain a higher level of vigilance" over these charities. Also under the microscope was the OSCR’s treatment of the Catholic adoption agency St Margaret's Children and Family Care Society, with the regulator accepting the Scottish Charity Appeals Panel’s decision to overturn the regulator’s order that the agency stop prioritising heterosexual couples.
The Scottish charity sector now awaits the implications of an OSCR consultation that proposed, inter alia, publishing Scottish charities’ accounts on the OSCR website.
Northern Ireland – and Jersey
The UK’s newest charity regulator, the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland, has been busy building up its online register and taking on its full range of powers. It has also faced tribunal hearings over its handling of a falling out of members at the lifeboat charity Lough Neagh Rescue and its opening of an inquiry into the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The CCNI will not be the baby of the UK charity regulation family for long – in July, a law was passed that will create a system of charity registration in Jersey.