The Charity Commission might need to do more to monitor the types of charities into which it is opening cases to ensure there is no religious or other bias, its chief executive told the Public Accounts Committee yesterday.
Paula Sussex was giving evidence to the committee of MPs a week after a report on the commission by the National Audit Office said it had made good early progress in addressing criticisms of its performance.
Margaret Hodge, chair of the PAC and the Labour MP for Barking, questioned Sussex about perceptions of anti-Muslim bias at the commission, whether there were any grounds for such accusations and what the commission was doing to combat these.
Sussex said the commission had "no tagging of charities against religious orientation" at the point of opening a case into a charity. "We’re deliberately blind," she said.
The commission does analyse the religious affiliation of charities once cases are closed, however. The December 2014 report Tackling Abuse and Mismanagement said that just under a quarter of compliance cases opened by the operations team in 2013/14 involved religious charities, of which more than half were Christian and a fifth were Islamic.
A spokeswoman for the regulator said that the Tackling Abuse report gave some assurance that there was no bias in this regard. She added: "We are not complacent and intend to keep analysing our data for over or under-representation."
Hodge said that the commission should consider tagging charities in this way when cases were opened to be sure there was no bias. "What you need to make sure of in a monitoring process is that there isn't any bias," she said. "You need to satisfy us that there isn’t."
Sussex replied: "We are very conscious of the media interest and the media inference that there is bias, but I’m very comfortable that there isn’t. At the same time, we know we need to do a better job of communicating that.
"You may well be right, chair, that we need to set up a system where we do actually code against particular segments of the register."
The PAC also asked about the long-discussed idea that the commission charge charities for registration and regulation. "It’s a very common model for other regulators and one that we’re exploring," Sussex said. When asked by Hodge what the timeline for this was, Sussex said the plan was still at a very early stages but, if it were found to be feasible, would take one or two years to be launched because it would probably require legislation.
Hodge asked Sussex what she made of the NAO report’s concern about the high level of engagement by board members in the regulator’s work, and whether this put their independence at risk. Sussex said: "I’m very comfortable that I know what my job is, that I have the room and support to do it and I that know what success looks like as the chief accounting officer of the Charity Commission."
She was also asked what she thought of comments made in an interview given to Third Sector by Gwythian Prins, a member of the commission’s board, that "the public expects charities to stick to their knitting" – a phrase that was later echoed by Brooks Newmark, the previous Minister for Civil Society. "I can only speculate as to the intent," said Sussex. When pressed by Hodge as to whether such comments impinged on the independence of charities, Sussex said: "I have no doubt that that was not the board's intention."
Responding to a question by Anne McGuire, the Labour MP for Stirling, Sussex said she was concerned by the results of a recent survey that showed falling employee engagement at the commission. "Staff morale is something that I’ll come absolutely clean about with this committee – we need to do better," Sussex said.
She said the commission needed to do better at telling staff what changes at the regulator meant for them. This was particularly so in the regulator’s Liverpool office, she said, where she was "keen to get the board going around what will become the new offices, being more visible and sharing their vision of what the commission should look like".