Debra Allcock Tyler: The real villain in the Cup Trust case is the Cup Trust itself

The Charity Commission has made some mistakes in its handling of the case but it is not entirely to blame, says our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

I heard a story recently, possibly an apocryphal one, about a police officer who was prosecuted for accidentally harming a civilian while pursuing a felon.

It got me thinking - whose fault was it, really? After all, if the felon hadn't committed a crime the police officer wouldn't have been chasing him and the civilian wouldn't have been harmed.

And that got me thinking about the Charity Commission. There are many things that I think it needs to do better, and I'm the first to weigh in when I'm cross with it. But to be honest, I feel a great deal of sympathy for the organisation over its current beleaguered state in relation to the Cup Trust.

The commission might not have acted swiftly or comprehensively enough, but it is acting, and there is a process now in place to deal with it. It says it didn't have the necessary tools to prevent an organisation like the Cup Trust from registering, so do we need to give it more tools? Maybe, but then the question is whether the price of new regulation will have a disproportionate effect on innocent charities.

This case needs to be set against the backdrop of major budget cuts and strategic change at the commission - all right, that's not necessarily causal, but surely it's relevant? People might argue that it's the commission's job to read accounts and identify potential wrongdoing. Well, yes, in theory. But in reality it can't possibly examine them all rigorously. I've been doing my sums. If the commission spent only 10 minutes examining the annual report and accounts of all 160,000 registered charities, that's 1,600,000 minutes; which is 26,667 hours; which is the equivalent of 3,333 working days; which adds up to 15 working years.

For me it's completely daft to expect the commission to do it. And even if it did - is that really what we want it to spend taxpayers' money doing? Although it's clear it needs to learn from this case and change its procedures to address future risk, we shouldn't get it out of perspective. And let's be realistic - where there are rules, there'll always be people who find a way to bend them, whatever the commission does.

For me, attention directed at the commission's role in this diverts us from the much more serious problem of the lack of accountability of those other regulatory agencies that should be looking into the businesses that set up these kinds of reprehensible arrangements, and the accountancy firms that support them. There may have been nothing inherently illegal, but it was clearly against the spirit of charitable 'trust'.

So who is really to blame in the Cup Trust case? For me, the answer is the Cup Trust itself, its corporate trustee, Mountstar, and its auditors, Hillier Hopkins. In my opinion, the Charity Commission is way down on the list of those to blame in this case. Between the civilian and the felon was the police officer who made a mistake. But he's not the real villain of the piece.

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

- Read our Big Issue on the Cup Trust to see how the story has emerged

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