Lawyer says he fears regulator's work will be dictated by the media

James Sinclair Taylor of Russell-Cooke says comments by the new Charity Commission chair, Baroness Stowell, suggest the 'core focus of regulatory behaviour will be whatever features in the news'

James Sinclair Taylor
James Sinclair Taylor

A charity lawyer has expressed concerns about the regulatory approach set out by the new chair of the Charity Commission, saying he fears a new bar will be set based on the "fickle driver of media concern".

James Sinclair Taylor, a partner at the law firm Russell-Cooke, questioned whether the approach set out this week by Baroness Stowell would mean the regulator’s approach was dependent on which charities and issues featured in the news.

Stowell, who was appointed by the government as chair of the Charity Commission in February despite a committee of MPs recommending she should not be given the role, gave her maiden public speech at the annual conference of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations on Monday.

The former Conservative peer told the conference that as yet unpublished research by the commission showed that the public trusts charities only as much as the average stranger on the street and said the regulator’s fundamental aim was to increase or rebuild trust in charities.

"This is about more than careful and faithful application of charity law," she said. "It is about setting the bar that we believe charities can be expected to reach based on what we know about the factors that drive trust."

But Sinclair Taylor questioned whether the sector could be confident that the regulator knew the factors it could influence that would increase public trust in charities.

"This continues a theme of the previous chair, William Shawcross, who worked on the basis that media interest was a proper indicator of public concern," he told Third Sector.

"What I fear is that this new bar will be formed out of responses to the fickle driver of media concerns. It seems as if the core focus of regulatory behaviour will be whatever features in the news.

"The standards will be driven by the welter of media stories that will, I am sure, continue to grace our headlines. No doubt that will be accompanied by commission interventions based around these new standards and focused on areas of media concern."

Sinclair Taylor questioned whether a move from enforcing legal duties to enforcing media concerns would increase public trust.

"Is it rather simply going to mean that problems in charities retain their place alongside category B personalities as the media’s favourite fall-back topic?" he said.

"Shawcross took us a long way from what was a neutral, non-governmental department into the media and political arena. Is this going to take us a lot further?"

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, last month called on Stowell to set a fresh tone for the commission’s regulatory work, saying "regulation by red top simply does not work".

He said: "I would like to see some recognition that responding primarily based on the 24-hour news agenda or the obsessions of a few social media provocateurs is not the same as plotting a strategic course and sticking to it."

A Charity Commission spokeswoman declined to comment on Sinclair Taylor’s remarks.

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