Peter Stanford: Charity regulation is out of date and needs renewal

The traditional solution of looking to government to lead us all in tackling the problem is increasingly threadbare, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

There aren't enough independent thinkers in the charity sector, which is one reason why Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, stands out. And he's been at it again of late, publishing a pamphlet, Voluntary Action: A Way Forward - a what-it-says-on-the-tin sort of title - and giving a lecture on the same subject at the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at Cass Business School. Both, it should be said, were done in his personal capacity, which is often the way with blue-skies thinking. It sits unhappily within corporate governance structures.

Some of the ideas he suggested will sound familiar - employers being encouraged to give employees time off work to become trustees, for example. I've just joined a new board that has its meetings on weekday afternoons, which is fine if you have a flexible freelance job - or portfolio career, as I am told I must now call it - but tricky if every three months you have either to eat into your precious annual holiday allowance by taking half a day off to attend, or beg a favour from your boss.

Bobby dazzler

However, the bobby dazzler among Sir Stuart's portfolio of proposals in the pamphlet is that we need a new regulator for not-for-profit organisations. Not only would this potentially be cheaper than the existing Charity Commission set-up, he argued, but it would also chop a way through that tangled thicket of different rules and regulations that apply at the moment to the variety of bodies in the sector: community associations, foundations, trusts, charities and social enterprises. It can be costly to navigate your way through all of them because only a lawyer has the necessary compass.

He might have added that the Charity Commission has, of late, had a bit of a habit of appearing to recruit too many political stooges to its governing board, but he is clearly a kinder man than me.

Changing world

What I like about the proposal is that it is geared towards meeting the challenges of a changing world. Looking for an example in the private sector, until the late 1960s we had one provider of telephone services in the form of the General Post Office. Now we have as many providers as there are phones, so a new, flexible regulator has been introduced.

And the same could apply to the third sector. It all used to be monotone, so a single commission sufficed. Now it is multi-coloured and multi-faceted, and the old-style commission can't quite keep up with the pace.

But there was a bigger point Sir Stuart was making that tied his whole package of reforms together: the need for what he calls "a renaissance of personal responsibility".

It is easy enough to identify where we are going wrong as a society - with fast- rising levels of poverty, child deprivation, homelessness and inequality - but the traditional solution of looking to central government to lead us all in tackling every problem is increasingly threadbare, with Brexit currently Whitehall's almost exclusive focus.

This is surely the time to make it easier than ever before for worried citizens, individually and collectively, to step forward and step up, but at present it can feel for many like too big an ask, too much red tape, too much cost to get started and too much paperwork once you do.

The system of regulation needs an overhaul to unleash the potential that is undoubtedly out there. If that means a new regulator, bring it on.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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