OPINION: HOT ISSUE - Has weak charity law made Scotland a hotbed of fraud?

A second Scottish charity in six months has had its assets frozen after it was revealed that not all the money raised found its way to the cause, as the public might have expected. This has sparked warnings that without tighter regulation in Scotland's charity law these examples could be just the tip of the iceberg.

YES - Morag McIntosh, head of fundraising, Scotland, Sargent Cancer Care for Children

The need for the Scottish Executive to establish a regulatory framework is now of the utmost importance and urgency, if public trust in charities in Scotland is to be restored.

In recent weeks, two charities have been exposed as operating under alleged fraudulent conditions and a further 56 charities are under investigation.

Public faith in Scotland in charities is at an all time low and the Executive must shoulder some blame in its reluctance to prioritise reforming charity law.

In September, Sargent joined with 14 cancer charities to found the Scottish Cancer Coalition to call the Scottish Executive to action on various cancer issues. Thanks to the generosity of the Scottish public, member charities spend £40m in Scotland annually and attach great importance to openness and accountability.

We welcome new measures to introduce more rigorous independent scrutiny in Scotland in order to stamp out unscrupulous fundraising.

NO - Martin Sime, chief executive, SCVO

This is a proposition that cannot be proven. Since there is a weak framework for regulating and supervising charities in Scotland, it is not possible to assess whether fraud levels here are higher than elsewhere.

We lack even the most basic data about many charities, such as their current address - let alone copies of their accounts. Even the recent high profile cases, Breast Cancer Research and Moonbeams, have not yet proven to be fraudulent.

The wider question is more interesting. Does proactive monitoring and the broader 'policeman and friend' role of the Charity Commissioners reduce levels of fraud? We need to know as Scotland drafts its first comprehensive charity bill. Everyone agrees that more support to trustees is crucial in raising standards, but does this impact on the bad apples? There are apocryphal stories of dodgy fundraisers heading north and of dubious telesales operations targeting Scotland, but that might just be because we're more generous in the first place!

YES - Jackie Baillie,Labour MSP

Parts of the charity statute in Scotland is 400 years-old, so if ever there was a law in need of modernisation this is it.

Beyond that, the definition of a charity is very loose. There are quangos and non-departmental public bodies that have charitable status, while outfits such as Amnesty International, that people assume are charities, do not have charitable status because they are deemed to be political organisations.

The Scottish charity sector needs a modern definition and an independent regulator with a full range of statutory powers. Scotland to date has taken a laissez-faire approach. My private members bill to reform charity law has provoked a positive response from the Executive but now it must act with speed. The draft bill is expected to be published in 2004, but without the commitment to legislate, it could lie on the table gathering dust for another ten years.

Now it has acknowledged the policy framework is the right one, there needs to be a real commitment to see it through otherwise we will see more examples of fraud.

NO - Jean McFadden, chair of the Scottish Charity Law Review Commission

There is no doubt that Scotland's current regulatory structure is weak.

It does not meet the needs of charities in the 21st century, nor does it meet the expectations of people who expect their donations to be properly used for charitable purposes.

The recent scandals affecting several Scottish charities point to the crying need for legislative action to put in place a body, similar to the Charity Commission of England and Wales, to protect the interests of the public, monitor and supervise the activities of charities in Scotland, ensure the public accountability of charities and provide a support service to trustees and other volunteers.

However, it is going too far to say that the current system has made Scotland a hotbed of fraud. Such an assertion only damages the sector by undermining public confidence. The vast majority of Scottish charities operate properly, as do the thousands of trustees and volunteers working selflessly for the public good. But the Executive must know that action must be taken now to strengthen Scottish charity law.

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