Highs and lows of six years with the charity watchdog

Dame Suzi Leather reflects on the commission's achievements and disappointments

Dame Suzi Leather
Dame Suzi Leather

Setting aside the controversy about private schools, Dame Suzi Leather doubts there is a general feeling that there is a problem with the regulation of charities - on the contrary, she says, the commission may well have been a victim of its own success.

She points out that considerable resources tend to be thrown at regulators of areas where there is perceived to be a problem, such as when the Food Standards Agency was set up in the wake of the BSE scare. The commission, by contrast, is losing almost a third of its budget over four years.

The dominance of the schools question has also allowed some charities to think the public benefit requirement is not an issue for them, she says: "But this is for everyone - all boards need to explain better what they do. It will take a number of years for this to be fully embedded in the psyches of charities."

The public benefit guidance is the main landmark of Leather's six years at the commission. She says parliament could have been more helpful in defining what public benefit should mean, and thinks the commission did a good job on the guidance, which was subject to judicial review in the Upper Tribunal last year.

"To the average member of the public, to have all our guidance upheld in the Upper Tribunal except the requirement in it for a reasonableness test was not a bad result - and certainly not an overturning of everything the commission had said."

'Inexcusable delay'

She says the main frustration of her time in office has been the failure of the Cabinet Office so far to make available the charitable incorporated organisation legal form, brought into being by the Charities Act 2006 and already used in Scotland. "I don't know why there's a delay," she says. "It's inexplicable - inexcusable."

She would also have liked to continue the work of the Faith and Social Cohesion Unit, which lost funding after working for more than two years to improve the governance of religious charities, including mosques and temples. "It tackled a potentially sensitive area wisely, with a great emphasis on positive relationships," she says.

Guidance and support

Leather sees the greatest success of her six years in the way the commission does its basic regulatory work. Processes have become more efficient, the website has been upgraded and engagement with the sector has vastly improved, she says; compliance and enforcement work has become more consistent and risk-based. "We've also improved at the tough end of counter-terrorism, working more closely with the police and the security agencies."

Guidance and support for charities has improved and makes better use of the website, she says. Clearer guidance has also been produced in "difficult areas" such as campaigning by charities and social investment and more timely guidance such as that on what trustee boards need to do during the economic downturn.

Leather says the commission should be proud of having done all this at a time when its resources were declining, which they have since 2007. She regrets having had to drop activities she considered useful, such as review visits to charities and research reports.

'Invidious choices'

Does she think the cuts to the commission after the 2010 general election were disproportionate? "I don't think it was a vindictive cut, although it was highly regrettable that so much of what the commission does was described as 'admin'," she says. "It would be hard to say we were singled out for specially aggressive treatment, but I've emphasised that, were we to get another cut, we couldn't fulfil out statutory obligations and invidious choices would have to be made."

She thinks that the strategy review completed last year in response to the budget cuts was conducted in an exemplary way. "To come out of such a challenging process with the organisational confidence we have now and good internal relationships - very productive relationships - is something we should be proud of," she says.

"We've become more focused, we're standing on ground that only we can stand on, I believe we are well respected by the sector and I believe the sector wants us to continue to be strong.

"I think some of the direction of travel - such as putting more emphasis on public accountability, more emphasis on the web, increasing trustees' autonomy and maximising self-service in interactions with us - has been not only in our interest but also in the interests of charities, in the sense that they can run themselves as they see fit."

- See Editorial

- Read our related interview with Dame Suzi Leather

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