Charity Commission whistleblower says more powers will not make the regulator more effective

In evidence submitted to the committee scrutinising the draft Protection of Charities Bill, David Orbison argues that the bill will only exacerbate the problems associated with limited resources

David Orbison
David Orbison

Legislation aimed at increasing the Charity Commission’s powers will increase demands on its resources and might not increase the effectiveness of its investigations, a former employee has told parliamentarians.

Written evidence submitted by David Orbison, a former commission case worker, to the joint committee that is scrutinising the draft Protection of Charities Bill, was published on the parliamentary website last week.

Orbison, a whistleblower who left the commission in 2010, last year concluded a long-running dispute with the commission by withdrawing an employment tribunal claim against it because he feared being ordered to pay costs if he lost.

His evidence argues that the bill will not improve the commission’s investigations and will only "exacerbate problems associated with the commission’s limited resources".

"The current approach to investigation by the commission has significant drawbacks and is unnecessarily resource-intensive," he says. "The draft bill does not address this issue. Indeed, by simply adding additional sections, it is more likely to increase the resource demand on the commission."

His evidence says that case workers at the Charity Commission are sometimes encouraged to "focus on rather trivial issues of compliance rather than investigate evidence of serious wrongdoing".

He says that the commission often responds to public criticism of it as a weak regulator by pointing to its lack of powers and resources. He goes on to say: "When under pressure, the commission is keen to remind parliament and the public that it is not a prosecuting authority. This sets the tone for how investigations are conducted. Case officers are sometimes encouraged to focus on rather trivial issues of compliance rather than investigate evidence of serious wrongdoing."

Orbison says its lack of prosecuting powers "does not prevent the commission from pressing for prosecutions". He says that the system of memorandums of understanding – which allows the commission to collaborate with the police and HM Revenue & Customs – does not work, and that police and HMRC staff do not understand the commission’s role. "In my experience, police officers and HMRC staff believe that the commission has much more extensive powers for ‘policing the charity sector’ than is the fact," he says.

Orbison says that the bill, which proposes extending the powers of the commission, is reactive rather than proactive and will provide for only incremental improvements. He also says that the commission and government could learn from the example of the Health & Safety Executive, which Orbison dealt with in a previous career in manufacturing; he says the executive commands respect and authority while maintaining a proportionate approach to regulation.

"A significant turnaround in the regulation of charities and the performance of the commission could be achieved by adopting many of the good practices that work well in the management and regulation of health and safety," he says.

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