The Charity Commission is to be congratulated for its dogged efforts down the years to get charities to file their annual documents on time. Over a decade, the proportion of those who toe the line has gone up from 69 per cent to the current level of 85 per cent.
It is now having another push, this time into new territory. A class inquiry has begun into a group of charities with incomes above £500,000 that have failed to file their documents twice in the past five years; the commission's chief executive has warned that some of them could be prosecuted, and even gone so far as to say that people should not give to charities that are late.
One of the justifications the commission gives for this heavy concentration on late filing is that it can often be an indicator of wider mismanagement or even misappropriation of funds. At the moment, there seems to be little hard evidence or research about this, but perhaps the class inquiry will yield more. It may be that charities where serious fraud is going on are likely to take extra care to file on time to avoid suspicion.
As for sanctions, there has not been a single prosecution for the criminal offence of late filing since the power was introduced in 1993. Fines for late filing are being "explored" with the government, but this too has been threatened for years without reaching the first base of drawing up a proposal, let alone a costing. It also seems unlikely that the government will find the legislative time. The most effective measure so far has probably been the red border that appears on a charity's page on the commission website if it files late.
Sound and fury about late filing are something of a hardy annual and this year are being produced partly as evidence that the commission is serious about getting tough and being an effective regulator. But how far does it really go towards cracking the central, needle-in-a-haystack problem - finding a reliable and effective method of picking out, from the great, chaotic pile of 180,000 charities, the ones that are up to no good?