Charity Commission 'should not receive further powers' in draft Protection of Charities Bill

Giving evidence to the parliamentary committee scrutinising the bill, Sir Stuart Etherington, head of the NCVO, says the regulator might try to restore powers not taken forward after the original consultation

Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament

 - This story was clarified on 26 November 2014; please see final paragraph

The government should resist any attempts by the Charity Commission to add further new powers to the draft Protection of Charities Bill, the committee scrutinising the legislation has heard.

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Gareth Morgan, professor of charity studies at Sheffield Hallam University and Debra Morris, a professor at Liverpool University’s law school, gave evidence in parliament yesterday to the Joint Committee on the Draft Protection of Charities Bill.

Published in October, the draft bill is designed to give the commission new, tougher powers, such as allowing it to disqualify individuals it considers unfit from being charity trustees and force the closure of charities in which mismanagement poses a threat to public trust in the sector.

Etherington told the committee his biggest concern was that the commission might try to restore to the legislation some of the powers that were not taken forward after the original consultation on the laws. "Our concern is not the powers that are in the bill," he said.

One example of a power that was consulted on, but not then included in the bill, is preventing someone who is disqualified from trusteeship from taking on another position of power in a charity. "I’m sure the commission will try to bring it back," he said. Etherington said the NCVO accepted this possible new power in principle, but would support it only if there were appropriate safeguards in place and further clarity on what was meant by a position of power.

Another is the power to order a charity’s trustees to take a specific action without having opened a statutory inquiry. Etherington said: "We think that it gives too much discretion."

He said he was concerned that the bill gave the commission too wide a discretion in some of the powers it did contain.

He said there were "a lot of circumstances in which the commission doesn’t apply the powers it has already".

Etherington said that he did not feel the power to give a charity an official warning would be useful, because the commission could already do so informally or implicitly: "I don't think adds value. If they can do it anyway, what does it add?"

Morgan said he was concerned that the making of official warnings was not appealable at the charity tribunal. "If you're going to give someone an official warning, it seems to me that you need to give the right to appeal to the tribunal," he said.

Both Morgan and Morris were asked if they agreed with Etherington that the powers not taken forward into the bill should be added. "I do not consider that any of them are necessary," Morris said. Morgan said: "I agree, I’m happy they’re not being taken forward." Morris was then asked if they were desirable, even if not necessary. She again said no.

Both said that the commission already had more or less the powers they needed, but that they needed to make better use of them. Morgan said making better use of existing powers needed greater resources; Morris said it would need cultural change. She said: "The commission’s culture has always evidenced a reluctance to use its most rigorous powers." She said that this culture might take a while to change.

Last week, the committee heard from the National Audit Office, which also said the powers contained in the bill were sufficient.

- This story was amended to clarify Sir Stuart Etherington's position on the power about preventing someone who is disqualified from trusteeship from taking on another position of power in a charity, which featured in the original consultation but not in the draft bill. 

- It was also amended to remove a line which said that the National Audit Office had said that additional powers for the Charity Commission would be unnecessary.


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