We want charities to be more self-reliant, says Office for Civil Society's Ben Harrison

The policy manager at the OCS tells a Westminster Social Policy Forum event that another key aim is to strengthen the Charity Commission

Ben Harrison
Ben Harrison

Allowing charities to be more self-reliant and potentially more self-regulating is a priority for government, according to the Office for Civil Society's policy manager.

Ben Harrison was speaking at a Westminster Social Policy Forum event on charity law, regulation and finance in London yesterday.

He said that priorities for the OCS fell into four areas: the first, and "the one that I would consider the most important", Harrison said, was strengthening the Charity Commission. Number two was "more charity-self reliance, freedom and self-determination", he said. The others were encouraging transparency while ensuring this did not become an excessive burden, and innovation, according to Harrison.

Concerns have been raised in various quarters that the commission's independence is under threat, including the fourth and final report from the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector.

But Harrison, speaking before the launch of that report today, said it was "key that the Charity Commission remains independent from government".

He said he expected the commission to enter into more partnerships with sector bodies to help deliver the advice service the regulator could no longer fund.

On self-reliance, he said it was necessary to create "more freedom for charities to do things themselves without having to go to the Charity Commission". One example, he said, was giving charity trustees a statutory power to make social investments – Harrison said a forthcoming Law Commission consultation on powers relating to land and permanent endowment would look at other ways in which charities could be given more freedom.

"The question is how can we simplify things and make it easier for charities?" Harrison said. He told the gathering that this could also relieve the burden on the commission.

The event later heard about fundraising self-regulation from Alistair McLean, chief executive of the Fundraising Standards Board, and Peter Lewis, his counterpart at the Institute of Fundraising. Taking the platform for a second time at the end of the day, Harrison said in his concluding remarks: "The challenge for the charity sector is whether self-regulation can work elsewhere – why restrict it to fundraising?"

Speaking from the floor, Janet Turner QC, head of not-for-profit solutions at the law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, said the commission's registration function was frustratingly slow and had "ground to a halt".

She said: "It's hopeless. This government needs to decide what it wants from the Charity Commission and fund it appropriately." This was greeted by a small round of applause, after which Turner suggested that future Libor fines should be used to fund the commission.

The topic of transparency and accountability was taken up by Jonathan Brinsden, a partner at the law firm Bircham Dyson Bell. Speaking in another session, he said: "It seems to me that there is some regulatory confusion between these two concepts." He said the commission and others seemed to have an "insatiable 'more is more' approach" of asking charities to disclose ever more information, and that regulators needed to understand "the difference between qualitative and quantitative data".

Brinsden said that asking more questions was likely to result only in tripping up well-run charities that had small deficiencies, while charities that were badly run or those abusing charities would simply find a way of avoiding those questions or not confessing to any abuse.

Zöe Willems, a trustee of the Small Charities Coalition, spoke on the same panel and used the platform to call for a lighter regulatory burden for smaller charities.

She used the analogy of greyhounds – it was a little-known fact, she said, that they were a species distinct from other dogs and needed to be handled very differently. "If you treat a greyhound like any other dog, you will kill them," she said, asking for proportionate regulation for smaller charities. "Yes, charities should be regulated, yes they should be accountable, but in proportion to the risk they pose," she said.

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