Opinion: Hot issue - Is the Charity Commission really independent?

Last week, Richard Fries, chief charity commissioner between 1992 and 1999, said the public will not have confidence in the commission unless it is given total autonomy from government under the Charities Bill.

NO - LORD HODGSON OF ASTLEY ABBOTTS

In its present form, the Charity Commission is not independent. With the new responsibilities and powers it will be given by the Charities Bill, this is not sustainable and its future independence needs to be assured.

The charitable sector is concerned with the interests of society as a whole. For it to be subject to political interference would not only weaken it but, more importantly, would fatally undermine public confidence in it.

That is why during the committee stage in the House of Lords we insisted on two key changes to the Bill. First, the new sub-clause that stated: "In the exercise of its functions the commission shall not be subject to the direction or control of any minister of the Crown or other government department." Second, the amendment that made it clear staffing levels and remuneration were for the commission, not the Government, to decide.

Is this enough? I believe so. Those who argue to the contrary have not, to date, produced a practical structure that offers greater safeguards.

Whatever approach is adopted, it will require the men and women who serve on the commission to be sufficiently tough-minded to stand up for what they believe to be right. If they lack sufficient resolve, no structure will save them.

YES - ROSIE CHAPMAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, POLICY AND EFFECTIVENESS, CHARITY COMMISSION

We exercise the will of Parliament in carrying out our functions and duties. The Charities Bill couldn't be more explicit in saying that we shall not be subject to the direction or control of ministers.

In fulfilling our role, we may well take decisions that the Government of the day does not like. We take these decisions based on charity law and case law, in the light of modern social conditions and often as the result of reviewing our previous decisions at the request of charities.

We may need to make more of a push to raise public awareness about our independence but that's an issue of education, not of our status.

Neither the commission, the sector nor the public want a charity regulator in thrall to government. We're confident of our ability to exercise our independence, both now and when the Bill's provisions come into force.

Equally, however, we know that the environment in which regulators are operating is fast-changing, and we welcome the Bill's provision for a review of our status as a non-ministerial department in five years.

YES - HARRY HARE, SOLICITOR IN THE CHARITIES DEPARTMENT AT BIRCHAM, DYSON AND BELL

The commission is a non-ministerial government department. Structurally at least, it is free from any shackles to government and it is vital that this position is enshrined or extended in the Charities Bill.

Much as the Government would apparently like us to believe otherwise, the work of the charitable sector is not an extension of the services provided by the state, and any moves by the Government to bring the sector within its ambit should be resisted.

If the commission were subservient to government, government would be in a position to pressurise the commission into trying to shape the sector and the work done by charities, pushing both into areas on which government wished to concentrate, rather than areas where the charities themselves saw need. The commission's freedom to act in ways it considers best would, inevitably, be constricted.

There is no question that the regulation of charities is a good thing.

It is clearly necessary to maintain public confidence in charities and weed out the few rogue organisations that would give the sector a bad name. It is equally important that the regulator be regulated, but this is the job of the courts, themselves independent, and not the Government.

NO - RICHARD FRIES, CHIEF CHARITY COMMISSIONER, 1992-99

The Government insists that the commission should remain a government department. Can it have the credibility to fulfil its responsibilities under the Charities Bill, even statutorily protected from 'direction or control' of ministers, as a government department?

The commission has to hold charities to their legal obligations. The Government's emphasis on voluntary sector partnerships increases the sensitivity of charities' independence from government. The commission must hold charities to their public benefit purposes and uphold their right to campaign for them, including the right to challenge Government policies.

This is a constitutional issue. Charity law must support public-spirited people to tackle issues of concern. The public benefit purposes, now set out in the Bill, must not be equated with the policies of the Government of the day.

The Chancellor has come to see that confidence in national statistics depends on the Office for National Statistics being independent of government.

The Charity Tribunal, to which the commission will be accountable under the Bill, could take on the 'establishment' functions (appointment of members, efficient use of resources and so on) that government currently exercises.

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