The Charity Commission should open more statutory inquiries rather than reserve the measure for the most serious cases, the committee scrutinising the draft Protection of Charities Bill has heard.
Richard Corden, director of the Southampton Hospital Charity and formerly a senior civil servant who was the bill manager for the Charities Act 2006, was giving evidence to the committee of MPs and peers yesterday, alongside Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the charity leaders group Acevo, and Lindsey Williams, director of external services at the Wales Council for Voluntary Action.
Corden pointed to the commission's annual report for 1991, which recorded the regulator as having opened 556 inquiries in the course of the year, compared with 64 in 2013/14, 15 in 2012/13 and 12 in 2011/12.
He said he thought the commission's existing powers were "more than enough" to deal with cases involving honest mistakes on the part of trustees, and also apt for dealing with more serious cases. "Even when trustees don't cooperate, the commission's powers, in my view, are quite adequate," he said.
Corden said the commission had given the impression that somehow opening a statutory inquiry involved a lot of bureaucracy, but in reality this was self-imposed. He said the commission had decided to stop opening as many statutory inquiries, even though once an inquiry was opened it had more powers to resolve the problems at hand.
"During the early 2000s, I think the commission made the policy decision to start saying that it would reserve the opening of a statutory inquiry only for the most serious cases," he said.
Committee member Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat MP for Brent Central, asked Corden if he was advocating more statutory inquiries. She said: "So your argument is really that they should use that more often?" Corden replied: "Yes."
Lindsey Williams then told the committee that the commission did not need to be given the power to make a direction to a charity's trustees ordering them to take a specific action outside a statutory inquiry.
This provision is not included in the draft bill, but the commission has said it hopes to have it added.
Williams said: "I understand inquiries can be relatively easily opened or closed, so I don't see the need for directions outside of inquiries."
Corden said the measures contained in the bill would be a "useful if modest addition the commission's range of powers". Asked by Nick Hurd MP, the Conservative MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner and the former Minister for Civil Society, whether the bill's measures were "a nice-to-have or a must-have", Corden said: "I think it's a nice-to-have."
But he said the new powers should be accompanied by a cultural change within the commission.
Responding to the same question, Bubb said: "I think it isn't a must-have; it's a nice-to-have." Bubb said he felt there were "much broader issues that must be addressed" in the commission's role and the broader regulation of charities – hence Acevo's recently announced review of the matter. Bubb said he felt the balance of the commission's work was tipping too far towards compliance and away from advice, and that both were necessary parts of regulation.
Also responding to Hurd's question, Williams said the powers to be introduced would be used only on "fairly limited occasions" and that the commission needed to make better use of its existing powers.
In the second part of yesterday's session, the committee took evidence from Dr Hany El-Banna, chair of the Muslim Charities Forum, Ben Jackson, chief executive of the NGOs membership body Bond, and Christopher Stacey, director of services at Unlock, the charity for people with criminal convictions.