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Is the regulator’s bread-and-butter approach working?

This might not be the most surprising of revelations, but I must say that yesterday’s Charity Commission public meeting in Manchester didn’t really get my pulse racing.

For the most part it was an afternoon of bread-and-butter stuff – literally so in the case of the first item on the agenda, a sandwich lunch. There followed an introduction from William Shawcross, in which the regulator’s chairman returned to what is rapidly becoming his trademark refrain of “we are not the Stasi”. He was followed by three officials outlining trustee responsibilities across three areas: conflicts of interest, safeguarding and fraud prevention, and campaigning.

All speakers were engaging and accessible. They were also all somewhat repetitive, in two ways: the first that the agenda fairly closely resembled that of January’s public meeting in Bristol, which I also attended, and of March’s Llandudno event, when I was on leave; the second that, to varying degrees, the commission officials I heard speak quoted and paraphrased from public guidance that is already freely available online. The commission has expressed a desire not to have to “hand-hold” people through its processes – the exception clearly is that it will hold your hand through guidance if you turn up to its meetings.

The commission clearly wants to prevent the same low-level, accidental mistakes made in good faith by trustees that crop up repeatedly. “Most mistakes that are made are totally innocent,” Shawcross said – but they still cost the commission time and energy in sorting out.

The commission has on numerous occasions said that, due in part to budget cuts, its priorities are shifting towards sorting out higher-level abuse and mismanagement of charities. But the 70-odd engaged, well-meaning and responsible people who were at the Manchester meeting are unlikely to cause those bigger problems. Of course, the people who do evade the commission, fail to provide annual accounts or explanations, shirk responsibility and behave badly in all sorts of other ways were unlikely to have been interested in coming along to such an event.

I’m not convinced that this town-by-town, hearts and minds-type approach – the events also gave attendees the opportunities of individual surgeries with commission staff – is going solve high-end abuse issues. Whether they are worth the effort for the lesser difficulties and issues they do successfully iron out, I couldn’t say, but these two priorities seem somewhat difficult to reconcile.

If the commission is keen on spreading the best practice word directly, face-to-face with charities, these meetings will do the trick. But with 160,000 charities registered in the UK, this approach will take a long time to reach every one of them. At that rate of attendance, and bearing in mind the three events we’ve already had, we’re talking another 2,283 meetings to be arranged. I do hope that chairman Shawcross, unfailingly charming and polite as he is, won’t be offended if I say that that’s not a prospect I particularly relish.

  • John Weth

    Are these face-to-face Commission meetings the best use of Commission resources,bearing in mind the Commission’s much-reduced budget and the compliance weaknesses identified in recent NAO/PAC reports?