A low point in relations with the Charity Commission

The announcement of a review of the watchdog's guidance on charity campaigning comes in the context of a series of expressions of discontent in the sector, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

A leading charity lawyer tells a conference that the Charity Commission’s new get-tough regime is prompted not by evidence but by political pressure. An anti-Islamophobia think tank publishes a report alleging that the commission is targeting Muslim charities. Sir Stephen Bubb of the chief executives body Acevo warns in The Times of "zero-tolerance machismo" at the watchdog. These are all developments of the last 10 days or so.

No more than straws in the wind, perhaps: there are plenty of less liberal charity lawyers who would say different, and few people have hitherto heard of Claystone, the organisation that produced the report. Sir Stephen has a habit of writing controversial letters to the Thunderer and is known to be disillusioned with the commission under its current leadership.

All the same, was this the best moment for Paula Sussex, the commission’s chief executive, to say to a group of parliamentarians that "we will, just after the election, review the current guidance" on campaigning by charities? This move has been widely anticipated given the pledge in the commission’s last annual report that it will be alert to "improper politicisation." But to parts of the sector smarting about the lobbying act, this might have felt like salt in the wound.

The following day, the commission showed signs of unease by issuing a clarification that said the findings from its election case work would have to be reviewed after the election and that such a review may or may not recommend changes to the CC9 guidance, which would be the subject of consultation. It added that the commission had set up a "rapid response case-handling system" to allow it to follow up swiftly any concerns that are raised about charities’ activity during the election campaign.

The rapid response system, the clarification said, was to give charities confidence about what was "acceptable", which was particularly important in the light of the lobbying act. The danger, however, is that this dramatically named initiative will instill not confidence but, rather, create additional uncertainty in charities that might see it as yet another layer of potentially punitive, and therefore chilling, official invigilation. Already the lobbying act has prompted Acevo to call, in its new Free Society manifesto, for protection in law of free speech for the third sector. This latest commission announcement will be seen by some as further evidence of the need for such protection. There is talk of the need to rally to the defence of CC9.

All things considered, it is hard to think of a time in recent years when there has been so much unease in relations between the commission and sector representative bodies. Even the ultra-sensible National Council for Voluntary Organisations has set up an inquiry to assess whether it considers the commission’s governance is potentially vulnerable to political interference. It is hard to gauge the feeling in charities more widely, but anecdotally it is clear that many feel the balance has swung too far from advice and guidance towards hard-line regulation pure and simple.

There will be those who will feel that this slide in relations may be unfortunate but should not deter the commission from its apparent mission to put the charity house in order. There will be others who feel that, if things go on like this, public trust and confidence in charities – the promotion of which is a statutory duty of the commission – will be in danger of being undermined. Either way, the sense of strife is palpable and seems unlikely to settle down soon.

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