'Regulation by red top simply does not work', says NCVO chief

Sir Stuart Etherington has called on Baroness Stowell, the new chair of the Charity Commission, to set a new tone for its regulatory work

Sir Stuart Etherington
Sir Stuart Etherington

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has called on the new chair of the Charity Commission to set a fresh tone for its regulatory work, saying "regulation by red top simply does not work".  

In a speech delivered at a charity regulation conference in Salford this morning, Etherington said Baroness Stowell, who took up the role of chair of the commission from William Shawcross last week, should "establish her own agenda, a different one to that of the Shawcross years".

Etherington said: "Some of the change that the new chair needs to make is about tone and messaging.

"Regulation by red top simply does not work. I would like to see some recognition that responding primarily based on the 24-hour news agenda or the obsessions of a few social media provocateurs is not the same as plotting a strategic course and sticking to it.

He said he hoped new strategic priorities would be consulted upon, refined and kept to.

"The new strategy must consider what the commission cannot do either through lack of resources or expertise, and the commission has to be clear about where it considers the greatest real risks to lie and prioritise action accordingly," he said.

Etherington used his speech to talk about issues arising from the commission’s intention to charge some charities for its services.

He said the sector was well aware of the pressures on the regulator’s budget, "and a strong commission is in everyone’s interests".

But he said budgetary pressures were acute across the voluntary sector and charities would rightly want to know exactly what the commission was asking for extra funding for.

"They certainly won’t want it to be used to replace funding from the Treasury," he said. "Additional revenue for new services or functions that are based on evidence and complementing what sector bodies can do, not duplicating it, is a very different discussion from simply tapping up charities to fund core work."

Etherington also revealed he had asked Peter Riddell, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, for a meeting to discuss reforming the appointment process for the position of chair of the Charity Commission.

The NCVO has repeatedly said that the appointment process is open to political interference and creates the perception that the regulator is not independent from government.

In his letter to Riddell, Etherington says the regulator’s independence from party politics is vital for its effective functioning "and for its credibility in the eyes of the general public and the charities it regulates".

He says: "A charity regulator perceived to be political risks undermining perceptions of charities more generally. And it is worth emphasising that perceived independence is just as important as actual independence."

Etherington references a discussion paper published by the NCVO in 2015 that put forward suggestions for reform to the process, including given parliament an effective power of veto over the appointment or widening the membership of the parliamentary committee responsible for the pre-appointment hearing to include peers as well as MPs.

In his speech, Etherington reiterated his welcome for Stowell’s appointment but said the NCVO’s concerns about the process remained.

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