When you read the bi-annual honours lists, names occasionally appear that make you think, hang on a minute – haven’t they got an honour already? And you usually think that because the person is so well-known or has achieved so much that he or she definitely should have had an honour already: the gong is obviously overdue.
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Among the revelations that Comic Relief had been misleading people over its investment policy, another revelation went almost unnoticed – that it has been misleading people over how much money goes directly to the cause.
Comic Relief has always pledged that every penny donors give goes directly to frontline organisations. It manages to do this, it says, despite spending around £17m a year on staff.
The more you read the National Audit Office report on the regulatory failings of the Charity Commission, the clearer it becomes that David Orbison, the former commission case worker, was onto something significant when he rebelled over the case of African Aids Action. He protested at the decision by senior management to close the case because he was convinced from his inquiries that there were serious shortcomings at the charity that required more determined intervention. The ensuing row led to his resignation and eventual success in claiming constructive dismissal, a decision against which the commission is currently appealing.
Looking back, AAA was a prime example of what the NAO is talking about when it refers to the commission’s failure to take tough action over serious regulatory concerns and its propensity to allow non-cooperation by trustees to delay investigations unreasonably. Third Sector published a leaked copy of an early draft of the report and was eventually able to compare it with the final report: the former had its defects and was arguably too undeveloped and aggressive, but the latter read like an extended exercise in the appeasement of an adversary that was quick to make accusations of racism and intemperate threats. In the context of the time, it appears likely that the commission was running scared of a racial discrimination action or a re-run of a recent case at the charity tribunal, which had lambasted the commission for its cavalier handling of a case where, paradoxically, it had actually gone in too hard and unfairly disqualified a trustee of a Hindu temple in south London.
Meanwhile, Orbison is still waiting for the much-delayed announcement of the decision on the commission’s appeal against his partial victory in the employment tribunal. Its argument all along has been that he was just an insubordinate employee who wouldn’t toe the line. He might have been an awkward customer in some ways, but recent developments confirm there was always a lot more to it than that. In a more decent world, the commission, which has already spent more than £100,000 of its dwindling budget on this case, would withdraw its appeal and close the matter. This seems highly unlikely, given organisational pride and the commission’s legalistic and bureaucratic instincts. No doubt it will see the case through to the bitter end: but there’s little prospect, all things considered, that it will go down to the credit of the commission and its senior management in the long term.
The Public Accounts Committee convened with its normal seriousness on Monday. The top bods of HM Revenue & Customs on one side; some political heavyweights on the other. The plan for the early part of the meeting was to conduct an investigation into whether Gift Aid had been effective at incentivising giving to charity.
Unfortunately, the plan went off the rails pretty early on.
About five minutes in, Margaret Hodge, the chair of the committee, asserted that the report showed that the value of tax reliefs had gone down in real terms. Lin Homer, chief executive of HMRC, said it didn’t show anything of the sort.
Yes it had, said Hodge. The NAO said so. There was a graph showing it.
No, said Homer. The graph didn’t show that. It showed a different set of tax reliefs which you couldn’t compare. From there, the meeting descended swiftly into baffling acrimony.
The problem, it quickly became clear, was that the real state of tax relief was so complicated no one really understood it. Well, HMRC might have understood it, but they were patently unable to explain it.
After a bit, the NAO representatives at the PAC got stuck in as well, insisting that their report was accurate. The HMRC officials said they didn’t dispute that it was accurate – just that it didn’t say what other people said it said.
So what was the real situation, Hodge demanded. What did HMRC think was going on?
No one had a clue, Homer said. No one had been checking. To find out how much effect tax relief had on giving, you had to know how many donations were given where the donor didn’t bother to claim tax relief. And HMRC wasn’t checking who didn’t claim Gift Aid.
“Right,” said Hodge, working herself into a fit of righteous asperity. “We’re going to hold this session in private for five minutes.”
And she threw everyone out. When everyone filed back in, the subject was swiftly changed, and nobody talked any more about whether tax relief was effective at growing giving. Certainly nobody talked about whether that is really what it’s for. Instead, we got onto the Cup Trust, and other abuse mechanisms, where at least both sides knew what was going on.
So we never did find out whether Gift Aid was good value for money when it came to increasing giving. Oh, well.
Sometimes charity adverts should shock and appal. That’s their purpose. They should shake us out of our comfort zones, and inspire us to support the cause.
Injustice, poverty, human rights abuses, health inequalities, environmental exploitation, violence and cruelty are shocking and appalling things.
The latest edition of the Charity Brand Index, our annual publication looking at the best-recognised charities in the UK, reveals the depressing statistic that a quarter of the general public think that only around 40-59 pence in every pound given to charity “reaches or helps the cause”. A further 17 per cent think it’s less than that.
As reported previously by Third Sector, the government appears keen to limit severely the right of voluntary sector organisations to bring judicial reviews. A consultation that closed last week outlines its proposals.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Third Sector impact conference.
That’s not something you’re really supposed to admit about a conference organised by your own organisation, but there we go: impact measurement encourages honesty.
I went along wondering if it would prove to be one for the wonks – full of technical jargon and impact-speak, incomprehensible to a humble journalist. But instead it was full of good, sensible, productive theories about how to use measurement to help your organisation.
I’ve learned from bitter experience from putting together judging panels for various magazine awards that there’s never an ideal panel. Choose lots of sector heavyweights and you’ll probably face accusations of the panel being too male, pale and stale; choose lots of less well-known faces and you’ll be accused of the panel lacking the necessary gravitas.
No matter who you choose, normally someone will pick fault.
There wasn’t much good news for charities at the Conservative Party conference. They weren’t high on the agenda, that’s for sure – even at the fringe they were a fringe, so to speak.
And as far as the sector was concerned, it seemed a pretty policy-free zone. There was certainly no evidence of a new Tory strategy for the sector – new policies to boost charities and grow giving. The big society was noticeable by its utter absence, and just about the only MP at any charity event was the charities minister, Nick Hurd.