Editorial: Public trust and the Charity Commission

The regulator's statutory duty to increase confidence in charities raises some tricky questions, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

It looks as if what you might call the fluffy era in the recent history of the Charity Commission is, for a variety of reasons, well and truly over.

The process began two years ago when its budget was drastically cut by the incoming government and a strategy emerged that prioritised regulation and the public interest and encouraged others to provide the advice and hand-holding.

This message has been reinforced by the commission's chief executive, Sam Younger, who last week warned that the balance was shifting towards the introduction of penalties for charities that fail to file their accounts on time.

Meanwhile Nick Hurd, the charities minister, has pitched in, saying in an interview with Third Sector that the commission needs to "hunker down in the role of an effective regulator of charities". The regulator is, of course, independent of ministers, but both appear to be travelling in the same direction.

Hurd also sang the praises of the regulator's new chair, William Shawcross, who starts this week, does not look like the fluffy type and is presumably aligned with the hunkering-down agenda.

All this is clear enough. But now the sector consultant Joe Saxton has come up with a suggestion that complicates matters. At the commission's annual meeting last week, he said it was not doing enough to promote public trust and confidence in charities and proposed it should lead a steering group set up to pursue that aim.

This is a tricky one for the commission, given that one of its statutory objectives is to increase public trust and confidence in charities. But there are different ways to achieve that.

The indirect approach is hunkering down: if regulation improves, increased public confidence should follow. A more direct approach is going out and promoting the brand, asserting that charities are in and of themselves a good thing.

It's hard to see the commission getting involved with the latter option in the present context. But there's no reason why the sector shouldn't do it off its own bat, without the regulator being involved.

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