Opinion: Hot issue - Would a Charities Ombudsman be a good idea?

The independent reviewer of complaints about the Charity Commission, Jodi Berg, said in her report last week that there was 'a strong argument' to set up an ombudsman to deal with complaints about individual charities.


In January 2003, Lord Patten initiated a debate in the Lords, questioning why there was no Charities Ombudsman. The chief charity commissioner had already suggested one, arguing that an independent tribunal, as recommended by the Strategy Unit, was unnecessary.

We have campaigned vigorously for greater commission accountability, which is now represented by formal complaints procedures, an independent reviewer and the proposed charity appeal tribunal at which commission decisions could be challenged. Sadly, at the report stage of the Charities Bill on Wednesday, the Government opposed the creation of a suitor's fund, which would have provided reasonable access to the tribunal.

Greater commission accountability should be matched by measures to secure greater accountability on the part of charities.

It is better, surely, to ensure the commission exercises its regulatory powers on cases that require its attention, leaving the onus on charities to themselves deal fairly with complaints about their conduct, with a Charities Ombudsman in reserve.

He or she could play an important role in protecting the integrity of charity - and of charities.


It's not at all clear what such a person would do. How would their function sit with the work of the Charity Commission? The existing complaints reviewer and the proposed charity appeal tribunal already provide means of checking the commission.

The commission has wide powers to enable it to protect charities' funds and its administration to avoid misuse of charities. Subject to that constraint, charity trustees are, and should be, free to pursue their objects in ways that seem best to them.

That is entirely right and proper and leaves the trustees' freedom, within their objects, to decide what they will do. To have another layer of 'government' would dissipate charities' efforts and funds and waste them in largely non-productive ways.

In the UK, people do not always appreciate how much freedom they have to set up and run charities. That freedom did not always exist here, and does not exist in other countries. We should rejoice in and protect the freedoms we have - and protect charities from enforced waste.


You don't have a dog and bark yourself. If we have a Charity Commission, surely its job is to monitor complaints against individual charities - let's not create another body.

We've already seen a confusion of bodies sprouting up across the sector - please don't let duplication spread to the regulatory arena as well.

Perhaps the real issue is one of ensuring that the Charity Commission has the funds, expertise and confidence to investigate individual complaints with the wisdom of Solomon, the efficiency of easyJet and the speed of a Ferrari. We already have an independent reviewer of complaints, which was a sensible improvement to the process of natural justice. An ombudsman would bring choice where it is neither needed nor necessary.

More useful would be a service akin to Ofsted's, with the commission providing a standard scrutiny report that helps charities and their stakeholders understand what they do well and how they could improve.


Charities must be open and accountable to their users and their donors.

This is exactly why we support several initiatives aimed specifically at doing this: the self-regulation of fundraising; the ImpACT coalition; the governance code; and the work of many of the Change-Up hubs. Strengthening the capacity of the sector to support such developments will have a wide and lasting impact on the quality of services and decision-making of charities.

In addition, charities are formally governed by their objects and articles of association, and the requirements of charity law. It is the role of the Charity Commission to ensure that they abide by these.

Where charities provide a public service, they are regulated by contract - for example, to local authorities, which routinely monitor the services provided on their behalf and are better placed to investigate complaints.

External regulators such as the National Care Standards Commission exist to protect the needs of vulnerable service users. But we must not forget that charities are part of the independent sector and should be monitored and regulated accordingly.

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