Regulator to 'gently raise the spotlight again' on its enabling function, says Michelle Russell

The Charity Commission's director of investigations, monitoring and enforcement acknowledges the regulator has had a heavier focus on its compliance work in recent years

Michelle Russell
Michelle Russell

The Charity Commission is set to increase its focus on supporting and enabling the work of the charity sector, Michelle Russell, its director of investigations, monitoring and enforcement, has indicated.

Russell told Third Sector the commission had not stopped offering support and advice to charities in recent years but acknowledged there had been a heavier focus on the compliance and enforcement side of the regulator's remit.

She said it was "time to gently raise the spotlight again" on the commission’s enabling function.

"We’ve always had the enabling function: the guidance and advice - it has always been there. We’ve just been forced to do it differently over the past few years," she said.

"And I think for that particular time quite rightly we had to focus on compliance aspects of our work."

Russell made the comments after chairing a panel at the second annual charity fraud conference in central London on Friday.

She said the conference, run by the commission and the independent anti-fraud group the Fraud Advisory Panel, was an example of work that straddled both sides of the commission’s remit.

"The prevention and the guidance and advice is actually an integral part of the compliance aspect of our work," she said.

"Where we need to we’ll use powers and open inquiries and take action to get money back but actually we’re equally concerned about charities learning the lessons and making sure that it doesn’t happen in the future."

She said the commission had also been trying to be proactive in identifying and promoting good practice, something she said charities had been calling on the commission to do so they could learn not just from mistakes charities made but also when organisations were doing well.

The reason for the commission’s increased focus on enforcement had been partly due to financial constraints, she said. The commission’s budget has fallen by £8m since 2010 and will be frozen at £20.3m until 2020.

But she said the commission had also been reacting to a changing environment for charities, in which she said the public often expected them to comply with the spirit, not just the letter of the law.

"Over the past two to three years, there has been much more public scrutiny and higher expectations – if you think about some of the things that have happened, in the eyes of some of the public, it’s no longer enough to comply with the strict legal requirement of the rules," she said.

"There are additional expectations about standards, ethics and good practice and I think that environment has changed."

Russell’s comments echo those made in a blog in August by Paula Sussex, chief executive of the commission, in which she said the regulator would move away from "reactive casework" and become more proactive over the coming year.

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