Regulator does not 'examine people's ideologies' before deciding whether to look into their concerns, chief executive says

Helen Stephenson also tells the Charity Commission's annual public meeting that the regulator assesses every matter fairly and consistently

Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission
Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission

The Charity Commission has warned charities against becoming too polemical as its chief executive defended its regulatory motives and denied its work was being politicised.  

Helen Stephenson addressed some of the recent criticisms levelled at the regulator during her speech at its annual public meeting today. 

She acknowledged that some of the commission’s recent compliance work had involved controversial, sensitive issues that could be described as relating to the “culture wars’”.

She said: “Some have criticised us for opening cases into these matters. They have questioned the motives of those who raised concerns. 

“Let me use this opportunity to be absolutely clear: the commission does not, and must not, examine people’s world views or ideologies before deciding whether they have a right to have their concerns examined by us.”

She said the commission would always take concerns raised with it seriously and would assess every concern fairly and consistently. 

When there are no problems the commission would say so, said Stephenson, who also committed to helping trustees who might have strayed off course. 

“Public debate in our society feels increasingly divided. It sometimes seems we can’t even agree to disagree,” she said 

“So it is vital that regulators like the commission steer a clear-headed, steady course through sensitive issues, guided by a legal framework set down by parliament, regulating on behalf of the public. 

“The commission will always strive to do that,'' she said. 

Stephenson stressed the importance of charities being alive to “legitimate views and sensibilities that exist within the public on whose support they ultimately rely”, but recognised this shouldn't mean “avoiding controversy or difficult issues”. 

But trustees must ensure their decisions and priorities are driven by their charity’s aims, said Stephenson, not by their own world view and outlook. 

During the question and answer session, the commission’s senior leaders were asked what they thought of attempts to politicise the commission, particularly in reference to recent comments by the now former culture secretary Oliver Dowden.

Dowden railed against what he described as “a worrying trend in some charities that appear to have been hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials”.

But Stephenson denied that was the case and warned the sector against becoming polemical and only listening to one side of a debate over another. 

She said in her speech that over the coming year, the regulator would begin a “fundamental review of the data we collect from charities, including through the annual return and charities’ annual reports and accounts”. 

Stephenson said the commission would also review and improve how it used that data. 

Other parts of her speech highlighted how the commission had already seen an increase in disputes within charities during the pandemic, the full result of which it planned to publish soon.

Other findings revealed that 97 charities reported that they were insolvent last year, as part of their annual return to the commission, up by one-third on the previous year.

But Stephenson said there were some grounds for continued optimism because only 10 per cent of respondents anticipated that financial difficulties in the months ahead would present a critical threat to their survival.  

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