I’m usually a fan of the Charity Commission. In my experience it is full of hard-working, clever people doing their best. But of late I’m really, really worried. The tone of its PR, the increasingly narrow way it is interpreting the law and some of its public statements seems to indicate that it is being driven more by this government’s patronising and antiquated attitude to charity than by its own independent view.
Presumably running scared because of bad PR over a few regulatory failures, the commission opened compliance cases into the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Roddick Foundation over their funding of the advocacy group Cage. We don’t know the details of the investigation, or even what really happened with Cage (I for one never believe what I read in the papers). But both organisations withdrew funding, with the JRCT saying recently it came under "intense regulatory pressure" to pledge not to fund Cage again. These are long-standing charities of good repute, so it’s fair to assume that both charities’ trustees took the funding decisions in good faith and with due regard to the law and their own processes. But is it right for the commission to seek to influence a charity’s funding decisions because of a media storm or because it seems to be unpopular? It is not the job of charities to court popularity. They need to do what they believe to be right, regardless of the public mood.
Sadly, this isn’t the only example of the commission apparently going beyond its brief. It recently castigated Oxfam for its "perfect storm" tweet, saying "it should have done more to avoid any misperception of political bias". This is a ridiculous statement and impossible to comply with. Human beings are sometimes biased and unreasonable, and occasionally completely bonkers, so it’s impossible to prevent yourself being misinterpreted by them. The commission’s position amounts to saying that Oxfam should not have given the MP Conor Burns any excuse to confirm his preconceived opinions about the charity. But if someone is sufficiently prejudiced, they will seek anything that confirms their world-view, no matter what you do.
Charities take the commission’s advice very seriously, even about non-regulatory matters. I wonder if we still should? The idea that public trust and confidence is threatened because there have been a few ranting politicians or some overblown media stories isn’t backed up by the evidence. I fear that the current direction of travel will result in charities becoming more risk-averse, especially those willing to engage with controversial or difficult causes. The real tragedy is when a brave and bold funder such as the JRCT is bound and gagged by the commission’s interventions. What hope for the rest of us?
I do sympathise with the commission’s increasingly horrible position under this government, and I have been hugely supportive of it over the years. But I feel that the battle lines being drawn between the commission and our sector are going to force me to take sides. I’m on the side of beneficiaries, who need charities to take risks for their benefit, not to kowtow to political pressure exerted on the regulator.