Westminster has toxic attitude to charities, says Martin Sime of the SCVO

The chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations says this hostile atmosphere is not replicated in Scotland

Martin Sime
Martin Sime

There is a "toxic" attitude towards the charity sector in Westminster that is not replicated in Scotland, the chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations has told the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities.

Appearing before the committee, which is carrying out an inquiry into the role of the charity sector and charity governance, Martin Sime said yesterday that critical comments from MPs in the House of Commons had at times "gone a little too far" and it was "impossible to ignore some of the attitudes of the UK government to charities that have been expressed".

Consequently, he said, this attitude had dissuaded SCVO members from wanting to get involved in UK regulatory structures, such as the Fundraising Regulator.

Sime said: "They thought the evidence that was coming to their mind was that the environment in Westminster was quite toxic towards charities, and they didn't feel that they wished to be associated with that."

In contrast, he said, there was a constructive relationship between Scottish MEPs and the charity sector. He said charities "contribute to the development of policy in Scotland in a way that is much more difficult for them to do so at a UK level".

Also appearing before the committee, David Robb, chief executive of the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, said he accepted there was a difference between the governments in Westminster and Holyrood in terms of the tone towards the charity sector.

He said: "We have a government of a different persuasion and I think some of the interactions between the body politic and civil society in Scotland takes on a different character as a result. That can change as government's change."

Sime also criticised the charity sector for failing to address public concerns about fundraising practices.

"There is no doubt there is a feeling abroad that it is industrial-scale fundraising that has caused a lot of the problems," he said. "And the failure to manage reputation within the provision of fundraising by the very large charities, most of which are not headquarted in Scotland, has generated a lot of those issues.

"There needs to be a more strategic view among the fundraising community, and charities themselves need to take responsibility for some of those issues, not just individually but collectively."

Robb and Frances McCandless, chief executive of the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland, also discussed recent fundraising scandals in the UK, with both accepting that the operations of UK-wide charities in Scotland and Northern Ireland had an impact, albeit limited, on public confidence in charities in the two countries.

McCandless said that, although Northern Ireland did not yet have an approach to fundraising regulation, she was keen for some system of self-regulation to be put in place.

"As the regulator, our view is that it is up to the sector to decide what self-regulatory mechanisms it wants, but there must be something," she said. "If confidence and trust are falling, some sort of self-regulation must be put in place."

Robb said he thought the Scottish public differentiated between UK-wide charities that "have a degree of remoteness" and local charities.

He also criticised media coverage of the charity sector, calling the press "a slightly distorting lens". He said "elements of the media have a sense that charities might be of interest, and a charity scandal story is always good TV or good copy".

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