Editorial: another TV documentary has a go at charities

Exposure on ITV last week was not what the Charity Commission needs as it seeks to improve its credibility as a robust regulator, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook
  • This article has been clarified: see final paragraph

In the current climate it seems that no self-respecting TV documentary series can be without its own charity-knocking edition. Panorama on the BBC did a number on Comic Relief’s investments, which led to the charity changing its policies. Dispatches on Channel 4 put an undercover reporter into telephone fundraising, which led to renewed but inconclusive debate about solicitation statements; and now Exposure on ITV has recorded people in or close to three charities making rash and inflammatory remarks.

There are plenty of charities of all stripes that are up to no good and worthy of investigation. But the low-hanging fruit at the moment is perceived to be Muslim-run charities, and it was perhaps predictable that one of the three featured in Charities Behaving Badly was the Global Aid Trust, which says it promotes education among the underprivileged and helps orphans, catering for their "religious, moral spiritual and physical needs". One man resigned as a trustee and acting chief executive before the broadcast of the programme, which showed him making comments that could be construed as anti-semitic.

The second charity was the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh UK, where a speaker was recorded making derogatory remarks about Islam; and the third was the Steadfast Trust, where supporters were caught shouting things like "white power" and "victory to the Aryan race". The inclusion of the Steadfast Trust in the programme was presumably intended to restore some kind of ethnic, if not specifically religious, balance. No doubt there is a Christian charity somewhere whose adherents could be heard denigrating other religions, but Exposure didn’t find it.

Where was the Charity Commission in all of this? In the case of the Steadfast Trust, it clearly wasn’t paying enough attention when it put the trust on the register in 2004, because it has now decided that beneficiaries described as "members of the Anglo-Saxon community living in England" are not "a sufficient section of the public", as required by charity law. It would be interesting to hear m’learned friends knock that one about in a tribunal, but it’s unlikely to happen. The commission has decided the trust is not a charity and removed it from the register, so that one is apparently sorted.

The commission says it already "had a case open" on GAT, but the information about HSS was new to it. On the day Charities Behaving Badly  was broadcast, it opened statutory inquiries into both charities on the grounds that there were serious regulatory concerns. We will see in due course what comes out of them.

It can’t have been very comfortable for the commission to appear on the programme and evince shock and concern at secretly recorded remarks that, while unacceptable in many ways and possibly indicative of more serious matters, are relatively small beer alongside, say, the chants of some Chelsea fans or certain conversations in the average pub. Whether or not these cases are particularly serious in the scale of things, the commission could be seen as being behind the curve, which is the last thing it needs as it seeks to reestablish its credentials as a robust regulator. (The same applies in the case of the Durand Academy Trust, of which Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said in a recent letter to the Department for Education: "It should not have needed an evidence session with the PAC to trigger action from the Charity Commission.")

It is, of course, asking almost the impossible to expect an underfunded regulator with fewer than 300 staff to stay reliably on top of the misdemeanours of more than 160,000 charities. It will be interesting to see if the risk-assessment framework it is working on at the moment makes the task more do-able, but for the moment that is by the by.

In the present episode, the commission made what was apparently an attempt to turn the matter to its advantage when Michelle Russell, the director of investigations, monitoring and enforcement, said on the programme and in a statement afterwards that these kinds of incidents "illustrate why it is important for the regulator to have the right tools to do the job. There are currently loopholes in the existing regulatory framework which we are seeking to close by looking for increased powers in the draft Protection of Charities Bill."

Russell’s remarks were immediately challenged by Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, who of late seems to have added "hammer of the Charity Commission" to his job title. "The commission’s existing powers are more than enough to deal with the cases highlighted in the documentary," he said. Russell did not go into detail about which provisions in the bill would help, and how, in the cases concerned: perhaps she had in mind the proposal to give the commission power to direct a charity to wind up. But if she was seeking to suggest that the commission could have done more about these two charities only if it had already possessed the new powers, that is surely not the case.

  • This article orginally said it had not been clear whether the Charity Commission's case on Global Aid Trust had been open before it heard of the Exposure documentary. The commission says the case had already been open.

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