Former chief urges total commission autonomy

Nathalie Thomas

The Charity Commission's reputation with the general public will be damaged by the Government's failure to grant it total independence, according to a former chief charity commissioner.

Richard Fries, who headed the commission between 1992 and 1999, has warned that the public won't have confidence in the commission's ability to make critical decisions unless it is given total autonomy under the Charities Bill.

"The Charity Commission ought to represent the public interest at large," said Fries. "It ought to reflect that wider commitment and not be an extension of the Government."

Fries said provisions in the Bill that address the issue of independence do not go far enough and that the Bill as a whole "keeps the commission as a government department". It should either become totally autonomous, like the Office for National Statistics, or return to its origins from the courts, Fries added.

His view has been supported by legal experts who argue that explanations of the commission's status are contradictory. Simon Weil, head of charities at Bircham Dyson Bell, said: "The Bill says that the function of the Charity Commission shall be performed on behalf of the Crown.

"It then says that, in the exercise of its function, the commission shall not be subject to the direction or control of any minister of the Crown or government department. That's an interesting paradox."

Weil said that in its current form the Bill actually increased the Government's stronghold over the regulator. The Charity Commission itself, however, remains unconcerned.

"We think the Bill gives us sufficient independence, and we are pleased that this view was reinforced by the charities minister Paul Goggins in the Lords," it said in an official statement.

However, it added that "the Bill includes provision for a review of the Act after five years, and we'll be interested to see what the situation is then".

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