Representatives from the sector bodies rounded on the Charity Commission in the House of Lords yesterday, accusing it of undermining trust in the sector and acting as a "lightning conductor" for society’s anxieties about charity.
Speaking in front of the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities during its second evidence session yesterday, Karl Wilding, director of public policy and engagement at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said the regulator used to be more of a friend to the sector but now behaved very much like a regulator.
"Having a good regulator is important for trust in charities," he said. "The problem is that it has interpreted strong as tough, and tough by a red-top’s standards.
"There are times when it has undermined public trust."
Richard Jenkins, head of policy at the Association of Charitable Foundations, who also gave evidence to the committee, said charity trustees were terrified of the Charity Commission coming to call because it saw itself as the sector’s police force.
"The commission has moved from being the champion and cheerleader of the sector to being the policeman," he said. "There is anxiety about the way that is happening, a feeling that it’s not quite appropriately calibrated.
"If the commission wants to be the police force for the sector, that’s not inappropriate, but it should be community policing, not a fully weaponised enforcement agency. It’s tending towards the latter."
Jenkins said: "The commission is perhaps a lightning conductor for anxiety in society. It’s channelling it without too much mediation to the sector and, with that degree of voltage, particularly around reputation, organisations are very anxious. The fact is that, at the minute, we need charities that are very risky, very proactive and very subversive."
Wilding also reiterated concerns expressed in April by Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, about the nature of the commission’s board, saying the umbrella body believed the regulator needed a chair that was independent.
Asheem Singh, interim chief executive of the charity chief executives body Acevo, told the committee yesterday that the Charity Commission often behaved more like a think tank than a regulator. He described the commission’s announcement last month that public trust in charities had fallen to its lowest level since monitoring began in 2005 as "bombastic".
Rebecca Bunce, policy and engagement manager at the Small Charities Coalition, said the commission should be more supportive of smaller charities because lately it had often fallen to her organisation to provide answers to queries about governance to charities, including how to register a new charity.
Committee member Baroness Barker also criticised the regulator, saying: "Some years ago it was agreed that the Charity Commission had to be a regulator, but it’s long been a criticism of the commission that it proceeds with its business in a way that is very remote and aloof."
The Charity Commission gave evidence to the committee last week.