Editorial: Could the complaints system be improved?

Stephen Cook, editor

The adequacy of our system for dealing with complaints about charities is brought into focus this week by the publication of the annual report of the Charity Commission's independent complaints reviewer, Jodi Berg.

She raises two important questions - should there be an ombudsman for charities, and should her own non-statutory office be replaced by a statutory office with greater powers?

The first question comes in the context of the lament that she cannot help many people who approach her because their complaints are about the behaviour of charities rather than how the commission has exercised its regulatory powers. Such people are, in effect, told to take their cases to the High Court - which most of them, of course, cannot afford. Berg's conclusion is that there is a strong argument for setting up an ombudsman to consider complaints about charities and provide redress without the courts.

She is less chipper about replacing her own office. She says people who aren't happy with the commission's complaints procedure can approach her, and if they're still not satisfied they can go through their MP to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, who can order financial compensation.

This set-up was pulled to pieces in earlier stages of the Charities Bill by Lord Swinfen, who pointed out that Berg is appointed and paid by the commission, which also sets her terms of reference. Those terms allowed her to recommend, but not to insist on, 'consolatory payments' to a limit of £5,000, he said; and he dismissed as "fiction" the idea that the Parliamentary ombudsman deals with cases of abused charities.

Berg's abstract of the year's complaints give the impression of a rather soft ride. In one, she found that the commission's behaviour was curt and insensitive, but the complaint was not even partially upheld. There is no information about whether recommended apologies or payments were actually made by the commission.

There is some force in her argument that working in an agreed framework and having a constructive dialogue with the commission is more likely to produce improvements. But an outside investigator, with powers to order not just consolatory payments but proper financial compensation, would surely concentrate the mind more quickly on improving the shortcomings that some complaints reveal. Perhaps the debate will be taken further once the Charities Bill begins its report stage in the House of Lords today.

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