Hot issue: Is the Charity Commission raising its standards?

Independent complaints reviewer Jodi Berg revealed that complaints against the Charity Commission are down by 40 per cent. Serious complaints referred to the parliamentary ombudsman, however, rose from one to four.

YES - Julian Smith, partner in the charity and community team, Farrer & Co solicitors

We all have a favourite Charity Commission war story, and I'm not sure that one set of figures from the complaints reviewer suddenly makes everything rosy in the commission garden.

But there is no denying that it has changed out of all recognition in the past 15 years - the 'upskilling' described in the commission's corporate plan is happening and real efforts are being made to improve service standards.

This isn't just about getting the answer you don't want to receive more quickly - the current watchwords of 'proportionality' and 'pragmatism' do seem to me to have substance. An application for registration that we put in this week took three days to process - not bad for the holiday season. Also encouraging are the rather more relevant - and demanding - key performance indicators in the commission's Service Delivery Agreement.

That said, drawing conclusions from the reviewer's report for last year is all a bit premature. Once in force, the Charities Bill will hand the commission significant additional functions without significant new money. But by its own calculations, overall staff numbers at the commission will continue to fall. The real test will not be this year, but the next two or three.

NO - Joe Saxton, co-founder, think tank and research consultancy nfpSynergy

Not yet, but there's no doubt that the Charity Commission is a reforming body.

The commission is much more responsive than ever before - its recent agreement to produce a Q&A on its campaigning guidance is testament to that. It is also much more prepared to listen than ever before, but this doesn't mean that standards and responsiveness at the coalface with charities have changed.

For example, it still takes an average of 87 working days to register a charity, according to the commission's own figures. It takes fewer than 15 working days to register a community interest company and a company limited by guarantee can be registered within one day (so the websites tell me).

Why should a charity take so long to register?

In our regular polling of MPs about charities and public bodies, the commission has seen a leap in the number of MPs saying it is very effective. But the negative comments still heavily outnumber the positive.

In the raising of standards, the real test is not how the commission behaves, but what charities do. And here the jury is still out.

YES - Belinda McKenzie, co-ordinator, Association for Charities

After seven years of a formal complaints procedure and the Association for Charities' public campaign on this issue, it would be odd had there been no progress at all.

The commission has certainly become more customer-friendly. The quality of its website and guidance materials greatly reduces the need for live contact with the ever-changing personnel. There remains, however, a real problem regarding serious complaints, which are met by a wall of resistance from within the commission.

At the same time, though, there is no practical way of getting them resolved externally. The High Court route has proven futile and expensive, and the ombudsman might be unwilling to help because a means of appeal (the High Court) already exists. It is the job of charity law, not the Charity Commission, to redress this imbalance and impose practical accountability on the regulator.

It should be noted that the new Charity Appeal Tribunal will consider only the commission's legal decisions, not its administrative ones, and will have no power to award compensation for harm done by disporpotionate use of commission powers. MPs debating the Charities Bill in October must plug this remaining hole in the law.

YES - Penny Chapman, head of charities, Bircham Dyson Bell

As a legal practitioner, I believe that the Charity Commission has recognised the need to raise its technical standards, particularly to deal with the increasingly complex issues with which many charities are trying to grapple, often encumbered by outdated or inadequate constitutions.

The standard of its legal team is very high, but there are simply not enough of them. Too often, the caseworkers lack the experience, confidence or authority to deal with relatively minor issues - the result of this is that the lawyers are overworked and not always able to respond speedily to matters that often have an important commercial significance for our charity clients.

On a practical level, certain initiatives aimed at raising standards have backfired. A case in point is Charity Commission Direct, a system that requires all mail to be sent to Liverpool for distribution to the relevant caseworker - it now takes five days for a letter to reach the right desk rather than two.

So my response is a qualified yes. The intention is undoubtedly there, but, as is so often the case, insufficient resources have meant that the commission is unable to fulfil that intention.

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