Sam Burne James: Lots of people approve of something they'd not heard of before...

The extension of the commission's powers and the proposal to charge charities for regulation aren't necessarily as popular as its latest research indicates, writes Third Sector's senior reporter

Sam Burne James
Sam Burne James

Every day, goes the hackneyed phrase, you learn something new. Yesterday was a particularly successful day: I learnt two new things, both from the Charity Commission-commissioned report Trust and Confidence in the Charity Commission. First, most of the 1,001 members of the public surveyed think that charities should at least partly fund the commission; and, second, that an even greater proportion of the public has not only read through the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill, but approves of its contents.

I’ll admit to having made a heavy assumption in coming to the latter conclusion – but then again so did the commission. What the report shows is that 83 per cent of the public support the regulator being able to ban people with certain criminal convictions from trusteeship and to shut down charities after inquiries into misconduct or mismanagement – that is to say, two of the 12 powers for the commission contained in the bill.

The commission’s press release reacting to the report paints a rather different picture: its headline that claimed it showed the public "overwhelmingly support new powers for the Charity Commission" was a particularly puzzling conclusion given that only 47 per cent of survey respondents said they had even heard of the commission – although 88 per cent agreed that its role was an important one, and 65 per cent said they thought charities were effectively regulated. The report itself went further and described the support as "universal". Might I suggest a more appropriate headline: "Public wants two new powers for important thing they don’t know existed".

Short of the government being about to announce that all charity law will be crowdsourced from now on, I’m not entirely sure why the commission felt the need to use this report to press its case for getting these new powers so strongly. What if the public had decided they didn’t think the new powers were a good idea – would the bill have been scrapped immediately? The powers clearly have strong government support and are generally regarded as uncontroversial and enjoying cross-party support.

Separately, I’m also unsure how relevant it is to policymakers that 75 per cent of the public think the commission should be partly or fully funded by charities, but what I am relatively convinced of is that it is only a matter of time before this happens.

The commission is clearly keen on the idea, and has pointed out that various other regulators do this, but charities are far less convinced: only 23 per cent of the 1,129 charities surveyed said they would be happy to pay any or all of the commission’s bills.

How might such a system work? Companies House charges £13 for online filing of annual documents – if the 164,000 registered charities all paid this each year, the commission’s coffers would be boosted by £2.1m, or a healthy 10 per cent of its total budget. Another possibility is charging for registration – although with fewer than 5,000 new registrations last year, this would not seem likely to yield much income. The commission suggested last year that fees would be charged only to charities above a certain size, but given the bottom-heavy nature of the sector this also substantially cuts down the number of contributors. There is also the possibility of charging fines to charities that fail to submit their annual accounts or are found guilty of some kind of misconduct – but again this will be relatively few charities, and there seems something of a conflict of interest in the body responsible for ensuring that charities meet their legal requirements standing to gain financially from charities failing to do so.

A Companies House-style list of charges, which range from £8 for a name change to £100 for same-day registration, does not seem entirely unreasonable, but, whatever happens, it seems clear that charities will protest – although people are rarely happy when they start having to pay for a previously complimentary service. The commission will have to win over charities’ hearts and minds in order to make this change happen smoothly, and in order to do so it must directly show why charging charities will result in a better service and be of benefit to charities’ beneficiaries.

That said, it is not immediately obvious from the survey that charities think the commission needs to get better. Of the 1,129 charities surveyed, 92 per cent were supportive of the two new commission powers; they were also asked to rate out of 10 how much trust and confidence they had in the commission. The result – 8.25 – hardly hints at the prevailing narrative of a regulator in crisis. I think the commission should be congratulated for achieving that score, but then again that’s just my opinion, so it’s probably not worth anything until you ask a further 1,000 members of the public what they think.

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