Clash over heritage accounting

Heritage charities have clashed with the Charity Commission over the way it plans to value heritage assets in charities' accounts.

Charities such as the National Gallery had hoped that the commission's current review of the accounting statement of recommended practice (Sorp) would iron out inconsistencies in how heritage assets, such as works of art, are valued.

Charities that exist to preserve huge collections of art or buildings are loath to list any such assets on their balance sheets because it makes them appear wealthy and may put people off giving them money.

Such charities had hoped that the Sorp review would relieve them of the requirement to list any such assets, even recently acquired ones. The National Gallery, for instance, believes its collection is priceless and cannot be meaningfully valued.

The existing Sorp had two categories: historic assets, such as artefacts and memorabilia; and inalienable assets, normally buildings or land given as gifts with severe restrictions on use. Charities had discretion on whether to list these assets in their accounts.

The revised Sorp replaces these with a single category called heritage assets. These must be held for preservation or conservation objectives. New heritage assets must be capitalised at cost. Heritage assets acquired in previous accounting periods can be excluded from the balance sheet if reliable cost information is difficult or expensive to obtain.

A spokesman for the gallery said: "The proposed treatment distorts the balance sheet. This is misleading not only for those who have a legitimate interest in an institution's financial management, but also for potential donors."

The Charity Finance Directors' Group (CFDG) supports the National Gallery's position.

But the commission holds the opposite view, and would prefer that charities list all their assets. However, it knows that trying to impose such a requirement would meet huge opposition, and so the revised Sorp simply firms up the status quo, that some assets will be capitalised and some won't.

There is disagreement over whether international accounting standards allow for non-capitalisation of heritage assets. The CFDG claims they do and points out that the commission has agreed that, in time, the UK Sorp will converge with international standards.

But Charity Commission policy accountant Ray Jones denied that international standards address heritage assets.

"There is no clear agreement on this issue and it's recognised as a problem internationally."


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