I'm usually a fan of the Charity Commission, but...

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In her ‘Last Word’ column in the April edition of Third Sector Magazine, Debra Allcock Tyler, the Chief Executive of DSC, discusses her view of the Charity Commission in the wake of its handling of the CAGE affair.

Posted 16 April 2015

The idea that public trust and confidence in charities is threatened because there have been a few ranting politicians or some overblown media stories isn’t backed up by the evidence.

I’m usually a fan of the Charity Commission. In my experience it is full of hard-working, clever people doing their best. But of late I’m really, really  worried. The  tone  of  its  PR, the  increasingly narrow  way  it  is interpreting the law and some of its public statements seems to indicate that it is being driven more by this government’s patronising and antiquated attitude to charity than by its own independent view.

Presumably running scared because of bad PR over a few regulatory  failures, the commission opened compliance cases into the Joseph Rowntree  Charitable  Trust and the Roddick  Foundation over their  fund- ing of the advocacy group Cage. We don’t know  the  details  of the  investigation,  or even what  really happened  with  Cage (I for one never believe what I read in the papers). But both organisations withdrew funding,  with the JRCT saying recently it came under  “intense  regulatory  pressure” to pledge not to fund Cage again. These are long-standing charities of good repute, so it’s fair to assume that both charities’ trus- tees took  the  funding  decisions  in  good faith and with due regard to the law and their own processes. But is it right for the commission to seek to influence a charity’s funding  decisions because of  a media storm or because it seems to be unpopular? It is not the job of charities to court popularity. They need to do what they believe to be right, regardless of the public mood.

Sadly, this isn’t the only example of the commission apparently going beyond its brief. It recently castigated Oxfam for its “perfect  storm”  tweet,  saying “it  should have done  more  to avoid any mispercep- tion  of political  bias”. This is a ridiculous statement  and impossible to comply with. Human beings are sometimes  biased and unreasonable, and occasionally completely bonkers, so it’s impossible to prevent yourself being misinterpreted by them. The commission’s position amounts  to saying that Oxfam should not have given the MP Conor  Burns any excuse to confirm his preconceived  opinions  about  the  charity.

But if someone  is sufficiently prejudiced, they will seek anything that confirms their world-view, no matter what you do.

Charities take the commission’s advice very seriously, even about non-regulatory matters.I wonder  if we still should?  The idea that public trust and confidence is threatened because there have been a few ranting  politicians or some overblown media stories isn’t backed up by the evi- dence. I fear that  the current  direction  of travel  will  result  in  charities  becoming more  risk-averse,  especially those  willing to engage with controversial or difficult causes. The real tragedy is when a brave and bold funder such as the JRCT is bound and gagged by the commission’s interventions. What hope for the rest of us?

I do sympathise with the commission’s increasingly horrible position under this government, and I have been hugely supportive of it over the years. But I feel that the battle lines being drawn between the commission  and our sector are going to force me to take sides. I’m on the side of beneficiaries, who need charities to take risks for their benefit, not to kowtow to political pressure exerted on the regulator.