Posts Tagged: Charity Commission

Amalgamating dormant funds is sensible, even if it means Aberdeen’s aged virgins lose out

Last week, Aberdeen City Council announced plans to amalgamate 41 charitable funds, including one established in 1634 for the benefit of “aged virgins” and another set up in 1718 to aid “persons deprived of the use of reason” – a brilliant phrase indicating that political correctness was alive and well in the 18th century.

These funds, all of which hold less than £20,000, will be amalgamated into a fund worth around £130,000, which will be spent for the good of the people of Aberdeen.

It’s not a huge amount, but it’s a lot better than nothing, and there’s every reason to suggest that similar funds are out there, held in trust by every council in the UK. If Aberdeen is typical, there could be many thousands of charitable bequests like this that could be hoovered up to be used for the good of the people.

Decisions like Aberdeen’s are increasingly common in Scotland, but are unlikely to be replicated south of the border, because of a difference in charity accounting. Every charity in Scotland, no matter how small, has to submit accounts to OSCR, meaning that suddenly, councils have discovered a responsibility to submit accounts for scores of charitable trusts with negligible assets and wholly outdated objects, such as the preservation of horse troughs, the provision of fish on Fridays to the deserving poor, and the upkeep of elderly virgins.

In England, these charities are exempt from submitting accounts, and this money is likely to remain unused, and in the hands of councils who do not even know about it.

It has not just affected the smaller funds, either. In other cases, the OSCR says, it has reminded councils of their duty of trusteeship of much larger charities, and has allowed OSCR to suggest to them that a more effective model of governance would serve those funds better.

While it seems over the top to change charity accounting practices just to encourage good trusteeship on the part of councils, the effectiveness of this by-product of OSCR’s policy suggests it might be worth looking at how to encourage councils in England to put the resources they hold in trust to better use.

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Let the charity tribunal deal with disgruntled volunteers

Hardly a week seems to go by at Third Sector without us being contacted by some disgruntled volunteer or trustee. The story always runs along similar lines: the volunteers feel they have been badly treated by their charities but have been unable to find any redress other than going to the media. Invariably they have complained to the Charity Commission only to be told that the regulator does not involve itself in internal disputes.

Just this year I have reported on four such cases, involving the National Coastwatch Institute, Uxbridge United Welfare Trusts, the Pituitary Foundation and Melton Mowbray Town Estate. Many of the volunteers involved have been deeply affected by the way they feel their goodwill and passion for the charity’s cause has been thrown back in their face.

There have been calls for a volunteers’ ombudsman for several years but nothing has come of it. Volunteering England launched an inquiry into volunteers’ lack of rights last November, but it has been given a six-month extension because the issue is bigger than the organisation had initially realised.

The disgruntled volunteers who contact Third Sector are all united in the belief that volunteers need something akin to employment rights to protect them from being bullied or summarily dismissed. And with all the emphasis political parties are currently putting on volunteering as a means of strengthening society, surely safeguards must be established to prevent the volunteering experience from embittering people.

Clearly this would require legislation, but it strikes me that we have a charity tribunal sitting around with nothing much to do and an endless queue of volunteers all crying out for a taste of justice. Surely whichever party wins the election ought to do the decent thing and put the two together?

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The Charity Commission’s guidance on political campaigning is proving a weak deterrent

The pre-election warning to charities by the Charity Commission chief executive Andrew Hind, telling them “not to engage in any party political activity or leave the charity open to the perception that they might be”, looks like one of those police clampdowns on cyclists riding on pavements: more request than threat.

It was always going to be difficult for the regulator to monitor comments by 180,000 organisations and hardly a day has passed without at least one charity endorsing or criticising a particular party.

But for sheer effrontery, the comments of Atlantic Bridge this week take some beating.

The charity is already under investigation for links to the Conservative Party, but this didn’t prevent Amanda Bowman, chief executive of its American arm, saying that David Cameron would be “much more amenable to shared US-UK foreign interests than Gordon Brown” and better for the special relationship.

Bowman then emailed Third Sector a statement, perhaps because she wouldn’t have been able to keep a straight face talking directly to us, saying her comments were ìnot intended as an endorsement of David Cameron, but rather as speculation that this relationship will hopefully be revitalised if the Tories win the general electionî.

This is a charity founded by shadow defence charity Liam Fox, who remains a trustee, and whose advisory council includes seven Tory MPs and a Tory peer. Margaret Thatcher is an honorary patron.

Bowman could hardly have nailed the charity’s political colours to the mast more clearly if she had stuck two fingers up to Gordon Brown while wearing a blue rosette and singing Land of Hope and Glory.

The commission won’t say how many complaints it has received about party politics. It claims the information is too hard to collate. All Atlantic Bridge can expect is advice and guidance after the election is over. The commission’s wrath looks a poor deterrent to political point scoring.

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Six-hour Tory love-in at the Acevo summit

How many ways can you say I love you? That was the dilemma facing members of the shadow Cabinet when they turned out in force yesterday to cosy up to a hundred or so charity delegates at the Conservative Party third sector summit.

Chief executives body Acevo is staging summits with the three main political parties to find out their plans for charities.

This one was held in Millbank, where Labour masterminded its 1997 election victory. Millbank is now the Conservative HQ and, as Acevo chief executive Stephen Bubb pointed out in his welcome speech, home of our dear Charity Commission. This caused some titters.

Shadow chancellor George Osborne got things going by talking about charities running more services. Shadow Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude then criticised Labour’s ‘initiative-itis’, but with a general election probably just seven weeks away delegates could have really done with a few more details.

In the absence of any new policies or initiatives and with six hours to fill, the speakers resorted to ways of saying how inspiring, professional, passionate, innovative and expert charities were.

The last time the Tories were in power, Dolly the Sheep was being cloned and the closest many Conservatives got to the voluntary sector was opening the annual village fete. Who would have thought then that 13 years later the party’s entire top team, bar its leader, would fill a lecture room overlooking the River Thames with humble charity folk?

The Tories have certainly come a long way, but time hung heavy. Engaging is all very well, but at this stage of the electoral cycle something more conclusive is required.

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The mauling of Dame Suzi Leather

Dame Suzi Leather’s membership of the Labour Party has never been a disqualification for her to be chair of the Charity Commission. But it has created an opening for the piranhas of the Daily Mail and other right wing organs to sink their teeth into her. They have attacked her on a political level, suggesting that she has been put there by the Government to destroy public schools, and on a personal level, for her background and the kind of person she is. Quentin Letts of the Mail, for example, included her in his list of ‘fifty people who wrecked Britain.’ The political attacks were so wide of the mark as to be laughable, while Letts was nastily entertaining in his socially regressive public schoolboy style.

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The bullying row and the human factor

There are three aspects to the Gordon Brown bullying row – the political one, the charity one and the one where these two meet. The political aspect attracts most attention, and in it there’s more heat than light – witness the splendid shouting match between journalist Andrew Rawnsley and former deputy prime minister John Prescott on Newsnight last night.

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Was this the Charity Tribunal’s last hurrah?

The final outcome of the Kidd Legacy case, announced by the charity tribunal on Wednesday, looks like a very satisfying one – but you can’t help fearing that there might not be many more where that came from.

In many ways the Kidd Legacy appeal is a shining example of what the tribunal was set up to do. In a classic David versus Goliath case, two local residents, without legal representation, were able partly to overturn to Charity Commission’s response to Dartford Borough Council’s inadvertent sale in breach of trust of charitable land to a developer associated with the Tesco supermarket giant.

It also looks as if the result will be a model code of conduct on conflicts of interest for councils that act as sole trustees of charities. Given all the recent controversy surrounding council administration of charities, that must be seen as a very welcome development for the entire charity sector.

But the question that demands to be asked is whether this might also be the tribunal’s last hurrah. It is resourced for 50 cases a year and, after a slow start in 2008, its workload was expected to have picked up by now. But that has singularly failed to happen. After last week’s decision to strike out African Aids Action’s appeal against the findings of a commission inquiry, the tribunal currently has precisely zero cases on its books.

Not only that, but the word about the value of the tribunal does not seem to be getting out. The commission’s decision to reject the Gnostic Centre’s application for charitable status was “begging” to be appealed to the tribunal, according to third sector columnist and charity lawyer Rosamund McCarthy. But the charity preferred to submit a revised application, fearing the cost and possible negative publicity of a tribunal appeal. Nor did the commission see fit to “refer” any of the highly nuanced points of law involved in that case to the tribunal for clarification, as it is permitted to do – provided the Attorney General agrees.

Charity lawyers are holding their breath to see whether any of the fee-charging schools that failed the commission’s public benefit assessment last summer refuse to comply with regulator’s directions to pull their socks up, triggering an order that they could then appeal against to the tribunal.

Such a case would certainly thrust the tribunal well and truly into the media spotlight, but so far, the schools have indicated that they are prepared to do as they are told.

Besides, such an appeal would not be heard until the end of the year at the earliest – by which time the bell may already have tolled for the tribunal. The Scottish Government has already decided to chop the tribunal’s Scottish equivalent, the Scottish Charity Appeals Panel, after it heard just one case in three years, and we all know that the next government, whatever its colour, is likely to seek out things it can cut without attracting huge, negative headlines. An obscure, over-resourced tribunal that has only heard three full cases in nearly two years seems like an obvious target. So – alas for the sector – the Kidd Legacy case might well become the symbol of what might have been for the charity tribunal.

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