The Charity Commission has an unenviable role attempting to regulate upwards of 15,000 charities with limited resources and powers. That does not, however, excuse it from inconsistent or weak application of its guidance. The activities of some charities have a direct impact on our members and supporters, so the Countryside Alliance has a direct interest in seeing the Charity Commission exercise its role as regulator with efficiency and effectiveness.
Since the Commission’s guidance on political campaigning changed in the early 2000s that role has only become more difficult with more and more campaigning organisations adopting charitable status.
In the animal welfare sector alone there has been a huge growth in the number of charities and a significant change in the activities many of them carry out. 25 years a go we knew what an animal charity was. It looked after the welfare of dogs, cats or donkeys, for instance, in a practical way. The RSPCA was about as controversial as a charity got because of its political engagement and prosecuting function, but most of us would have accepted that the vast majority of its work was charitable.
Now, however, there are many animal ‘charities’ which provide no practical care to animals at all. Groups like the League Against Cruel Sports which is purely a political campaigning organisation and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) which describes its aims as the promotion of animal rights, despite the fact that the promotion of animal rights is not a legitimate charitable object in the law.
Many of the activities of such charities impact directly on the interests and lives of our members and supporters which regularly leads us to challenge their behaviour in relation to charitable guidance.
Unlike other regulators, getting the Charity Commission to agree that a charity has breached its guidance is not that difficult. This may be, in part, because such breaches are so frequent and so blatant, but it is welcome that the Commission does not deny the reality of the behaviour of some in the sector. The Commission has regularly upheld complaints that the League Against Cruel Sports, for instance, was involved in party political campaigning and has breached guidance on factual accuracy. The Commission has recently raised serious concerns about the RSPCA’s governance with its trustees.
Getting a complaint upheld is one thing. Getting any reasonable sanction is, however, another.
The Commission is limited in what it can do. For instance, as its Chairman Baroness Stowell recently confirmed, even repeated breaches of Commission rules and guidance cannot result in the removal of charitable status from an organisation. It does seem unbelievable that the charity regulator cannot enforce its rules by stopping an organisation being a charity, but that does seem to be the legal situation.
One action it could definitely take, however, is to clearly publish the findings of any complaint it upholds and the instructions it has subsequently issued to that charities' trustees. The impact in exposing the Commission’s response to breaches of its guidance on the future behaviour of the charity, and others, would seem obvious. The Commission does not currently, however, publish any details of the complaints it upholds and more than that refuses even to reveal the findings of its investigations or the sanctions it takes to those who are responsible for the original complaints.
Given the Commission’s limited resources this is particularly bizarre. Essentially it is saying that it does not have the resources to scrutinise the operation of all charities, but if someone else identifies a charity operating in breach of its guidelines it is not going to reveal why it upheld the complaint or what it expects the charity to do in future.
Apart from being inefficient we also think the refusal to publish the conclusions of its investigations is unlawful for a statutory body under freedom of information legislation. We will be challenging this refusal if the Charity Commission continues to resist exposing those charities which have breached its guidance to public scrutiny.
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