Regulating the affairs of 160,000 organisations is not easy, and the demands made on the commission are immense. Back in 2006 it told the government that it couldn’t deliver everything in the Charities Act 2006 with the resources available – and some of this was before the 40 per cent cut in its budget.
At stake is the reputation of the most trusted sector of British society, a reputation already shaken by recent careless comments: the red herrings about charity chief executives’ pay and charitable funding of terrorism came from the commission.
We now need a clear statement of what the Charity Commission thinks its priorities are and what its resources allow. If new resources and improved skill sets cannot be provided, then others must take over some roles and some tasks must be publicly downgraded. The NAO recommendations on improving value for money are sensible.
The Cup Trust experience indicates that the commission is ill-equipped to tackle large-scale and deliberate campaigns to exploit charity law. Who can reassure us that no others are waiting to be discovered?
Some will say the commission is no longer fit for purpose and question its future existence. They are wrong: we need a commission and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Although much of its routine work was excluded from the scope of the NAO study, this is its fifth critical analysis in 26 years. Of course, it is difficult to justify spending more on regulation as front-line services are cut. But unless the commission is clear and realistic with both clients and paymasters, then the ensuing confusion will damage all concerned.
Tom Levitt is a consultant and until 2010 was Labour MP for High Peak and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Community and Voluntary Sector