Editorial: What's the public's view of self-policing?

Stephen Cook, editor

Like most recent developments in the voluntary sector, the newly announced Regulation of Fundraising Unit, which will begin self-regulation of the industry later this year, has its roots in the 2002 Strategy Unit report Private Action, Public Benefit. Of good practice in fundraising, that report said: "It was clear from our consultations that fundraising organisations favour self-regulation, in contrast to the public appetite for stronger legal regulation." It recommended self-regulation with a reserve power for the minister.

The Active Communities Unit in the Home Office then set off round the country to consult on Private Action, Public Benefit, and of 1,087 respondents, 78 per cent were in favour of self-regulation of fundraising. The unit reported that most of those against it were local authorities, which argued that there were more rogue fundraisers than we like to admit, and such people would quite simply not join a voluntary scheme. Of the consultees, more than 600 were charities, and most of the rest were bodies with similar interests - which just confirms that turkeys don't vote for Christmas.

The next body to fall in line with self-regulation was the Parliamentary Committee that scrutinised the draft Charities Bill, although it urged the minister to publish the criteria against which self-regulation would be deemed not to be working. In its response, the Government said it would publish the criteria in time for the Parliamentary debate, and those will no doubt make interesting reading.

The point of this preamble is that nobody, in this protracted process, seems to have made a point of consulting the people who really count in all this - members of the public. All we have are passing references to the fact that the public, like the local authorities that have to deal with fundraising abuses, tends to be more keen on statutory regulation than charities. It all makes you long for some hard data.

The reception given to the Regulation of Fundraising Unit has been a bit sceptical, with some Cassandras predicting failure. Self-regulation doesn't have a happy history in British public life, but not all self-regulators fail - and this one has some promising ideas and should be given a chance to work.

However, clause 65 of the Charities Bill - the reserve power, and a fine piece of Parliamentary draughtsmanship - is recommended bedtime reading.

We might need it one day.

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