Protection of Charities Bill strong enough to address failings of regulator, says Victoria Keilthy

Keilthy, who led the National Audit Committee review of the Charity Commission last year, tells the committee looking into the draft bill that the powers it includes are sufficient

Victoria Keilthy
Victoria Keilthy

- This story was amended on 27 November; please see final paragraph

The draft Protection of Charities Bill contains enough new powers to address the Charity Commission’s ineffectiveness, according to the National Audit Office director who led the 2013 review of the commission.

Victoria Keilthy, director of private & third sector delivery at the NAO, led the team that wrote the report The Regulatory Effectiveness of the Charity Commission, published in December last year. It said the commission was failing in its key roles and not providing value for money.

Keilthy was giving evidence yesterday at the first session of the committee of parliamentarians looking into the draft Protection of Charities Bill, which is designed to give the commission new, tougher powers, such as allowing it to disqualify individuals it considers unfit from being charity trustees.

"I know that the Charity Commission would like there to be additional powers beyond that that made it in to the bill, but from my perspective the issues that we identified in our report, I am satisfied are covered in the bill," said Keilthy.

Regardless of the powers it did or did not receive, she said, the commission needed to make better use of the tools available to it. "In our report we didn’t find powers being used inappropriately – in fact, almost the reverse," she said. "We found powers not being used."

Keilthy said that the new power for the commission to give charities an official warning would be useful: "This would be a very helpful measure; this would allow a stepped approach rather than just advice and guidance, and then the nuclear option." She later conceded that calling the opening of a statutory inquiry "the nuclear option" was inappropriate.

Keilthy said that being openly tough on abuse and mismanagement in charities did not necessarily damage public trust in the sector by over-emphasising the problem. "I don’t think that being a strong regulator is contrary to the commission’s statutory objectives," she said.

The committee also heard from Ben Harrison, policy manager at the Office for Civil Society, and Kenneth Dibble and Michelle Russell, respectively the commission’s director of legal services and director of investigations, monitoring and enforcement.

All three stressed that the level of abuse in the sector was low overall, although Russell said the commission was uncovering more. "The more we look and the more we act and become proactive, the more we find there is," she said.

Dibble and Russell both said the commission was disappointed not to have been given the power to direct a charity to take a certain action without first having opened a statutory inquiry. Russell said that the commission could currently only give a charity not subject to an inquiry an action plan, which it was not obliged to follow, and that about a quarter of these plans were partially or fully ignored by the charities.

The committee will take further written and oral evidence before producing a report by the end of February. Written evidence should be submitted by 16 December.

- This story was amended to more accurately reflect what Victoria Keilthy said about possible additional powers for the Charity Commission.

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