Editorial: There is no monopoly on offering advice

Stephen Cook, editor

When the parliamentary committee on the Charities Bill was taking evidence two years ago, it was still a common complaint that dealing with the Charity Commission was a risky business: it was hard to tell the difference between its rules and its advice, and if you came asking for advice you might unexpectedly find yourself - to use the military metaphor - on a charge.

The commission accepted that there was some validity in the complaint, and set about changing its documents and its ways of working to make the distinction between legal requirement and best practice absolutely clear.

Those changes are under way and the commission feels they are beginning to have a positive effect.

It could, of course, have decided to deal with the problem differently and withdraw from the business of offering advice. It could have said, in effect: "OK, it's up to you to find out for yourselves what you should and shouldn't be doing, and if you get it wrong we'll put you in the glasshouse." This whole question came up during discussion at a conference on governance in London last week.

The debate was on the new code issued recently by the governance hub, one of the set of six ChangeUp initiatives to help the voluntary sector improve its performance. The code offers advice on good governance and compliance with regulation, and is in some senses a rival to the commission's own guidance. Not surprising, then, that the opportunity was taken in the cut and thrust of debate to suggest the commission should clear off.

You could equally suggest, since the commission got there first, that the hub should be the one to clear off. But the commission is not taking that line and says instead that the different kinds of guidance should complement and reinforce each other. The more guidance the merrier, although the risk is a certain confusion for the punter about whose advice is kosher.

The clincher is probably last year's report by Philip Hampton for the Treasury on effective inspection and enforcement. On page seven of this sits this fairly unambiguous sentence: "Regulators should provide authoritative and accessible advice easily and cheaply."

If the commission backed away from doing advice, it would be swimming against the tide. There's no doubt that the Charity Commission should do guidance and advice. It just needs to prove that it can make a better job of it than it did in the past.

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