Charity Commission investigations need investigating

As the regulator for the charity sector, the Charity Commission is responsible for ensuring registered charities comply with all the legal requirements placed on them. Charitable status is a privilege that brings with it a host of tax benefits and high levels of public trust, but also comes with significant responsibilities, both statutory and ethical. An important part of the Commission’s role is to investigate complaints about charities and to ensure that these high standards are upheld.

The vast majority of charities act with integrity, honesty and propriety. A small minority do not and it is the Commission’s responsibility to investigate and – where necessary to act. Quite sensibly since they’ve not been immune from the savage cuts to public spending, the Commission takes a risk-based approach to investigation. They start by determining the risk and deciding whether a statutory inquiry is required – often this will be done through an investigation. When there is sufficient public interest or lessons for the charity sector, the Commission may publish an Operational Case Report.

In the last few months I’ve read two of these Operational Compliance Reports. The first was an investigation back in October last year into the Big Society Network and more recently they reported on the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

In addition to their brevity and simplicity (which is usually a good thing but when regulatory investigations are concerned it’s not necessarily quite what you are looking for) they share one thing in common: a willingness to seemingly accept a lack of evidence as proof of something. They both say that no evidence can be found, as if they expected to find a smoking gun (or perhaps WMD?). No one with any experience of politics – and let’s face it the founders of both BSN and the Blair Foundation know a thing or two about politics! – would so naïve to expect that.

The investigation into the Tony Blair Faith Foundation appears to have been triggered by an article by former employee Martin Bright which made serious allegations of how the charity was run. I know Martin [full disclosure, he and I are both Governors of a local school] and I know that he did not make any complaint to the Charity Commission. Perhaps someone else did, I don’t know, but I do know that the Charity Commission did not talk to him, or even attempt to talk to him, as part of their investigation. They did, as I understand it, talk to staff and trustees at the Foundation. And after they had done so, they concluded that there was no evidence of wrong-doing. Everything was fine. Nothing to see here.

Now, I don’t know about what went on at the Foundation, I have not spoken to Martin about it and nor do I particularly care. That’s not the issue here. My concern is that the regulator of the charity sector – that is responsible for ensuring the high levels of public trust in charities are upheld – in investigating serious allegations of impropriety did not see fit to speak to anyone other than the people who were accused of acting inappropriately. And they did not speak to the former employee who had made the allegations.

What would happen if the police carried on like that? Or the fraud investigation service? Or the Parliamentary Standards Committee? Or the Financial Conduct Authority? Or anyone else that we rely on to investigate and ensure that legal standards are maintained and take action if they are not?

Is this how the Charity Commission always work? If so, serious questions need to be asked about their modus operandi. Or if it is unusual then we need to know why it differs from standard practice.

It may be that the Commission have had to reduce the resources they can put into these sort of regulatory investigations as a result of having their budget slashed. I could understand that. But if that’s the case, then we really ought to ask whether we feel saving that money is really a false economy on the public purse. Either way I would like some answers to these questions.

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