Editorial: Getting tough on rogue trustees

The Charity Commission's request for more powers to remove trustees will likely be welcomed by parliament and the public, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

In one of the less remarked-upon sections of the review of the Charities Act 2006, Lord Hodgson pointed out that the only criminal offences that meant automatic disqualification as a charity trustee involved deception or dishonesty.

"It may be worth considering whether conviction of a terrorism offence should have the same effect," he concluded.

In its response to Hodgson, the government agreed there was a need to consider loopholes in the powers of suspension and removal of trustees. The Law Commission had been asked to consider the Hodgson recommendation, it said, but it might act sooner if there was a suitable legislative opportunity.

The Charity Commission is now running hard with this proposal as part of the get-tough initiative under its new board, appointed recently after the arrival of William Shawcross as chair a year ago. Its chief executive, Sam Younger, said last week that it had long been calling for new powers and had suggested them to Hodgson.

Younger said the commission sometimes began using its existing powers of disqualification, but the requirement to issue formal advance notice meant trustees could avoid sanction by resigning. "A power to disqualify trustees is essential, we believe, for us to be a modern, effective regulator," he concluded.

Shawcross went further in a speech later in the week, expressing astonishment that someone could be convicted of a terrorism offence or money laundering and still be a charity trustee. "We have asked the government for a general power of disqualification that allows us to stop unfit people flitting from charity to charity," he said.

The commission's existing powers of removal are patchy and complex. Tightening the law would no doubt go down well with parliament, the public and former commission staff who argue that the commission has given trustees the benefit of the doubt for too long. But the government should beware emulating the often arbitrary-seeming "fit and proper persons" test, which permits HMRC to deny tax benefits to charities. As Shawcross said: "We must not become the Stasi of the charitable world."

- Read our Big Issue on the government's response to the Hodgson and PASC reports

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