Accountability in the Charity Commission

Blog by Kristiana Wrixon, head of policy at ACEVO

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page.

One of the purposes of the Charity Commission’s annual general (AGM) is accountability. It is therefore unsurprising that there was criticism of September’s AGM before it even took place with news that the Charity Commission’s chair, Baroness Tina Stowell, would not be taking questions.

Baroness Stowell added to concern about a lack of accountability by giving a speech in which she doubled down on her previous rhetoric on public trust and claimed the first lesson that charities should take from the last six months was the need to show ‘more humility and accountability’. Being asked to show more humility after what has been for many people the most exhausting, scary and challenging time of their professional (and personal) lives marks the lowest point yet in the relationship between the chair of the Charity Commission and the sector it regulates. Having a more modest view of the role of charity in society is not going to reopen charity shops; it isn’t going to allow trading in museums, cafes and heritage sights to resume; it isn’t going to bring back thousands of cancelled fun runs and coffee mornings. Humility is not what is going to keep services running and doors (virtual or not) open amid the largest UK health crisis in 100 years and a global recession.

The CEO of the Charity Commission Helen Stephenson also gave a speech at the AGM, and while it was not without reference to the ‘special status’ of charities, it also contained some welcome announcements and reflections on the previous year’s work. Stephenson referenced several successes over the last 12 months including the updated and more user-friendly charity register, and the success of a Charity Commission and UK Community foundation programme that releases funding from dormant charitable trusts.

Looking forward to the next year, Stephenson said that the Charity Commission would continue its work on creating stronger internal support functions, focus on improving operational efficiency and make sure it was ‘getting the basics right’. She also committed to “define, scope and begin to build services that better support trustees in a format that is clear and easy to understand.” It appeared to me that there was a noticeable difference between the priorities of the executive and that of the non-executive.

The other announcement of note at the AGM was that the Charity Commission would be “developing proposals for new powers to address deficiencies in the current legal framework.” Proposals for new legal powers could be a cause for real concern in light of current questions about regulatory overreach. As was raised in the Q&A section by Chris Stacey, co-director of Unlock, the Charity Commission isn’t always as transparent as it could be about the impact of new legislation (Chris’ question related to decisions around the criminal conviction waiver process).

However, ACEVO also knows from its research into bullying and racism in the charity sector that the Charity Commission often doesn’t step in to address complaints on these subjects when they are reported by volunteers or staff. So, there may be appetite for proposals that will strengthen the Commission’s power to intervene in cases of serious wrongdoing relating to persistent bullying, harassment or discrimination. The question in this case though is whether that requires legislative changes or, to borrow Helen Stephenson’s phrase, it is about ‘getting the basics right’ within the existing legislative framework.

Neither speech addressed a question that has been posed repeatedly to the CEO and chair in recent years – what is the Commission’s role in challenging unfair or unrealistic expectations from members of the public? In the introductory vox-pop one interviewee said that he did not believe that charities should have paid employees, that ‘people should just give their time’. This is an expectation that many of us have heard before and is the result of a misunderstanding about the role and purpose of charity. There is work that needs to be done to address this misunderstanding, but it is not an expectation that could or should be met.

The AGM offered shoots of positivity but clearly also cause for concern. There is an important question to be answered about how accountability and transparency of the Charity Commission board can be improved. Such a question must include consideration about reforming recruitment processes to make them more accountable. In 2018 the cross-party group of MPs that make up the DCMS Select Committee unanimously agreed that Baroness Stowell’s appointment should not be confirmed because of concerns about her experience and neutrality. Despite this the Committee’s recommendation was swiftly ignored by then Secretary of State for DCMS, Matt Hancock. Now we have a situation in which the chair is not taking questions at its AGM, and there is relatively little visibility of any other Commission board members.

As a membership body ACEVO is always open to collaborative working with the Charity Commission to support best practice. This has happened on a practical level throughout the last six months and we are grateful to have had this opportunity to work together. However, as is written in our policy strategy, we will also not shy away from asking for a regulator that is enabling, inclusive, transparent and accountable.

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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