NEWS IN FOCUS: Fundraising - Home Office proposes to smooth out licence laws

Emma Maier

Face-to-face and house-to-house fundraising has lacked a clear regulatory framework, but the Home Office plans to clarify local authorities' roles in licensing.

Last week's release of Home Office proposals for a universal licensing system that aims to iron out the regulatory inconsistencies in face-to-face fundraising and house-to-house collections should have been music to fundraisers' ears.

After all, there remains an uneasy relationship between their proven track record as income generators and the annoyance that they cause some donors.

Charities, fundraising agencies and local authorities have all expressed concerns about the finer details, but the proposals have generally been accepted as a positive gesture.

This is not the first time that such an undertaking has been made, and after the failure of the 1992 attempt, charities are waiting to see if these proposals will make it onto the statute book and, if so, in what form.

The current confusion has seen smaller organisations clambering to join their larger counterparts in hiring an army of clipboard-wielding 'charity muggers', while several high-profile charities have been forced to rethink their approach in the face of media and public pressure.

The NSPCC broke the mould in May by bringing fundraisers into private sites, such as shopping centres (Third Sector, 28 May), while medical aid charity Medecins Sans Frontieres UK suspended its face-to-face fundraising activity for fear of alienating its donors (Third Sector, 28 May).

Charities have also faced logistical problems. The approach of local authorities to granting permission for face-to-face activity has been patchy, mainly because the legislative framework from which they draw their guidance is incomplete and complex. Consequently, some streets and towns have become overcrowded with collectors because other authorities have banned street fundraising altogether.

The Home Office proposals, a response to public concerns about fundraising practices uncovered by the Strategy Unit Review, Public Action, Private Benefit, have been drawn up to tackle some of these problems.

"We welcome the Home Office's acceptance of the need for clear guidance for local authorities," says Timothy Hornsby, chair of the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association. "But the association will look closely at the proposals to ensure the approach can be delivered on the street and door to door."

The proposal to replace national exemption orders with a lead authority model has provoked particular debate. At present, 43 organisations that have held house-to-house collection licences with more than 70 local authorities for the past two years have been excused from having to apply for further local assessments.

The orders have amounted to a national 'passport' to fundraise, but the Strategy Unit report recommended their abolition on the basis that they favour larger national charities. Instead, there would be a lead authority model that applies to face-to-face as well as house-to-house collections.

This suggestion has not been universally welcomed.

"The orders provide major national fundraising campaigns with effective management of costs and other resources," says Cathy Sullivan, managing director of Caring Together, a fundraising service owned by the Cancer Care Foundation. "To abolish them without ensuring there is an equally effective replacement system would be going backwards."

Under the new proposal for a lead authority system, charities would nominate a local authority to check their eligibility for a fundraising licence and issue a statement about their status, which could then be taken to other local authorities. It is designed to prevent duplication of local authorities' efforts, but it falls short of calls for a national licensing body.

"There is a danger that those local authorities known to be co-operative will be selected by fundraising organisations to be their lead council," says Sullivan. "This will result for some in over-burdening administration."

However, the local authorities have no such concerns. "We already have the lead authority concept in other areas of regulation and it has worked well," says Trish O'Flynn, executive manager for public protection at the Local Government Association. "An extra burden should not fall on specific authorities provided the legislation is well drafted."

The suggestion that licensing should be extended to cover private-site, face-to-face fundraising has also met with resistance.

"There is already a contractual agreement between the site owner and the fundraiser and it is possible to implement best practice without legislation," says Mick Aldridge, director of external relations at Push Consultancy, which worked on NSPCC's face-to-face drive in shopping centres.

The guidelines have also failed to quell charities' fears about how authorities will determine the number of fundraisers an area can accommodate.

Charities, agencies and the LGA will now be using the three-month consultation period to consolidate their views on the proposals before submitting their responses to the Home Office.

HOME OFFICE PROPOSALS: KEY RECOMMENDATIONS

- Face-to-face direct debit solicitation will need a licence - under current rules it is unclear whether a licence is required. House-to-house fundraising already requires a licence

- National exemption orders removing the need to apply for a local licence for charities with an extensive track record of responsible collection in many areas would be abolished

- A lead local authority system would be created whereby any charity wishing to collect in more than one area would nominate one lead authority to decide whether they are eligible for a licence

- Local authorities will be able to refuse licences if the area cannot accommodate the collection

- Collections on private property will need to be licensed

- A right of appeal against the revocation or refusal of a licence would be created.

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