Charity Commission's slowdown on inquiry reports likely to continue

Regulator has published only eight this year

The trend for the Charity Commission to publish fewer inquiry reports looks set to continue in 2009.

The regulator has published only eight reports so far this year, compared with 23 by the same point last year.

It published 40 reports in total last year, compared with 40 in 2007, 46 in 2006 and 74 in 2005. But it has published only four reports in the past six months.

A spokeswoman for the commission said there was no identifiable reason for the decline because the regulator's policy on opening inquiries had not changed since its new ‘risk and proportionality framework' was introduced after its strategic review in 2005.

The framework says the commission will investigate only those complaints it thinks imply a "serious risk of significant harm to or abuse of a charity, its assets, beneficiaries or reputation".

The spokeswoman said: "The principle was not using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and was widely acknowledged as more appropriate by sector commentators at the time."

She said the commission had had to postpone a number of recent inquiries while criminal investigations were proceeding.

Ros Harwood, a partner at legal firm Dickinson Dees, said the recent steep decline in the number of inquiries might have been caused by a lack of resources at the commission, whose budget is subject to 5 per cent year-on-year cuts in the current spending round.

She said: "With all the work it is doing on public benefit, charitable incorporated organisations and registering previously exempt and excepted charities, the commission's reduced budget must be under severe strain."

James Sinclair Taylor, head of charities at law firm Russell-Cooke, said only time would tell whether that was the correct explanation.

"If one looks back a few years to old Section 8 statutory inquiry reports, quite a lot of them dealt with situations of muddle - albeit quite serious muddle - rather than wrongdoing," he said. "It may well be that the current fall in the number of investigations is a sign of a better and more focused response."

Rachel Holmes, a solicitor at law firm Farrer & Co, said the decline was not a cause for concern. "Section 8 inquiries are quite disruptive for a charity, so provided the commission reasonably considers that it can discharge its duties without using its more intrusive powers, I don't see a problem with it," she said.

She also pointed out that the regulator has begun publishing regulatory case reports, which report the results of selected informal investigations. 

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