Debra Allcock Tyler: It's getting harder to support the Charity Commission

Joe Public would be forgiven for thinking that the commission is subliminally telling them not to give to charities, writes our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

Should I feel sorry for the Charity Commission? It has become a whipping boy of late. It employs some hard-working folk and its means of self-defence is limited - so usually I would defend it. But it is cocking so many things up so badly that it's hard to find what's defensible.

So what's gone wrong? Is it the impact of the funding cuts? Is it the government interfering and pressuring behind the scenes? Is it simply an overwhelmed PR team? Or could it be the leadership?

Joe Public would be forgiven for thinking that the commission is subliminally telling him or her not to give to charities. The hidden message seems to be that we're engaged in tax dodging, wasting donations on flash executives or supporting terrorists.

It's starting to look like a pattern, rather than a set of isolated examples. There's the commission's testimony to the Public Accounts Committee about the Cup Trust debacle, calling it a "disaster" for charities, despite the fact that this was a single case and was the responsibility of a number of authorities, including HM Revenue & Customs.

The commission should be squashing over-hyped press reports about charity chief execs' salaries by explaining that most charities don't even have a bloody chief exec, let alone one who earns more than £100,000. Instead, it inadvertently substantiates those attacks.

And in yet another media management malfunction, it failed effectively to rebut allegations that some donations were going to terrorist groups. It could have said that any risk was theoretical and unsubstantiated by evidence, or that the number of charities ever found to be involved with terrorist activities was minuscule and that it dealt with those cases. But it didn't. All this is compounded by the appointment of commissioners who specialise in anti-terrorism activities and fraud.

One case of fraud, or excessive pay, or misdirected funds does not a trend make. The opinions of uninformed journalists and MPs with an axe to grind are not evidence of a substantive problem. The regulator should speak from robust data, not collude weakly with supposition, conjecture and cynical political posturing. The public deserves evidence - a conversation a commissioner has with a neighbour in the village shop is not hard data.

Of course we want a regulator that holds charities to account and is tough when we get it wrong. But we also need it to challenge assertions that are not supported by evidence and to stand up for the sector when it is right to do so. Because when it doesn't, damage is done, prejudices are buttressed, ignorance is reinforced and flames are fanned.

The commission is there to serve the public, not charities. But the public is not served by it pandering to false and misinformed debates about charities - unintentionally or not. I don't know where the fault lies - but I miss Dame Suzi Leather.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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