Editorial: Back to basics for the commission

The regulator should focus more than ever on its core business, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

The Charity Commission has survived numerous critical reports by the National Audit Office in the past. This time, things feel different. Last week's report, declaring the commission to be an ineffective regulator that does not give value for money, could hardly be more damning, and comes in an unusually hostile political context. Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP who chairs the Public Accounts Committee that commissioned the NAO report, has already suggested throwing the commission on the bonfire. There are many who speculate that a majority Conservative government would oblige her.

It would be easier to defend the commission if the criticisms of the NAO were not manifestly justified. The affair of the Cup Trust is the clincher. Perhaps the worst misjudgement was the decision, on the grounds there was insufficient public interest, not to publish the results in 2012 of the regulatory case report that concluded the trust was legally a charity and there was little the commission could do. How wrong can you be? It was an opportunity to get into the public domain the eye-opening fact that a tax-avoidance vehicle was a charity - a fact that was eventually exposed by the press.

The commission defends itself with the assertion that it is already tightening its regulation and anticipates getting new legal powers. This does appear to be the case, not least because of the presence on the commission board of the former police officer Peter Clarke. It is on weaker ground when it complains that the NAO did not look at the commission's activities in the round: the brief was confined to its regulatory functions.

But the next step, surely, is to take an even harder look at those other activities and ditch once and for all the notion that was allowed to gain ground in the last decade that the commission's functions should somehow include being a champion of, and apologist for, charities. A withdrawal to its core regulatory and legal functions is the best way to both fulfil its statutory purpose of increasing public trust and confidence and to ensure its survival.

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