Regulator can't intervene just because of public disquiet, says legal director

Kenneth Dibble tells a London seminar that the Charity Commission should intervene only if, for example, bad press caused a real risk to the sector's reputation

Kenneth Dibble
Kenneth Dibble

The Charity Commission should avoid intervening at charities with which some members of the public are unhappy unless there is a real risk to the sector’s reputation, according to Kenneth Dibble, the regulator’s legal director.

Speaking at a Westminster Legal Policy Forum seminar in London yesterday about charity law and governance, Dibble highlighted areas where the commission would not take action against charities unless there was a serious risk to the organisation and to the sector as a whole.

He said these included cases where there was significant bad press about a charity’s actions and policies, such as recent media stories about allegedly controversial policies and campaigns run by the National Trust and the RSPCA.

"Many people just don’t like what a charity is doing, whether it is the National Trust, the RSPCA or smaller charities," Dibble said.

"But provided the trustees are operating within their framework, they are exercising their discretions properly and are operating under their powers, it is not a matter for the commission."

He said these types of dispute should be dealt with by the charity without commission involvement, unless the case was deemed to pose a significant risk to the voluntary sector as a whole.

"Charities are independent entities – they may make mistakes, and they do so invariably," Dibble said. "They are run by volunteers in the main. But that is a matter for the charity to resolve. It is not a matter for the commission to intervene just because people do not like how a charity is exercising its powers and its objects.

"But where there is a big issue about where its reputation is on the line, the commission may feel it should at least engage with the charity, because that is a general risk to the whole of the charity sector."

Dibble said that the commission often received complaints about service delivery at charities, which would normally be dealt with by an ombudsman in other sectors. The commission, he said, could not do anything in these cases "unless the service provision is so inadequate that there is a systemic issue within the charity and its reputation is in doubt".

The commission also tried to avoid intervening in arguments between factions within a charity, Dibble said, and intervened as a last resort only if the charity could not operate constitutionally and the dispute could not be settled internally.

He also told the conference he wanted to see more diversity on trustee boards across the sector.

"It is quite clear the demographics are that there is a lack of diversity in trustee boards, particularly for younger people," Dibble said.

"Being on a trustee board for a younger person is a real opportunity to understand business and how business operates.

"We would want to assist the sector to have more open, diverse and younger trustee boards where that is appropriate, and that is a big issue for the sector generally."

In response to a question on companies giving employees time off to volunteer and act as trustees, Dibble gave support to the idea and said it could enhance companies’ reputations as good employers.

He also accepted that work was needed to make the commission’s guidance "much more available, focused and accessible", perhaps by tailoring it to specific sectors and sub-sectors of the charity world.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced last month that Dibble would be stepping down as legal director at the commission in March to join the regulator’s board.

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