Rules of engagement

DianneHayter.jpgDianne Hayter on the need for better but appropriate regulation of the charities sector

The Charity Bill gets its Second Reading in the Lords today. A non-controversial measure, the Bill tightens up the Charity Commission’s ability to safeguard charities from abuse, whilst allowing them to put money into social investments that further their aims.

Labour has no argument with this. We strongly support independent charities, harnessing as they do philanthropy, voluntarism and social commitment. We also want an effective regulator to promote and protect the sector. 

But the Bill comes hot on the heels of the Lobbying Act, which undermines the untrammelled freedom of charities to speak out on behalf of beneficiaries. And charity law is clear that campaigning is acceptable where it furthers the organisation’s objectives, is not party political, and is not the main part of its work. We will therefore seek to spell this out during the passage of the Bill, to give confidence to the trustees of charities.

Labour will also look at how the government’s plans for Housing Association right to buy will affect charity assets. At present, charities can only dispose of assets in line with their trust deeds and to further their objectives. This appears to be incompatible with the government’s plans.

Many people have questioned whether the government should be forcing independent charities to sell their assets. These proposals could also risk breaking up sheltered or therapeutic communities, and remove homes provided for the poor, homeless and those unable to live independently.

The Bill will add those convicted of terrorism to the list of people automatically excluded from being trustees. But it ignores another group who put children and vulnerable adults at risk – those on the Sex Offenders Register. So whilst someone in debt can’t be a trustee, a sex offender can. It’s time we add such offenders to the list who, without a waiver from the Commission, can’t run a charity.

There is one other mischief we plan to discuss: unethical fundraising by charities. We are all aware of the tragic suicide of Olive Cooke, a 92-year old poppy-seller. Her family said that whilst the actions of charities were not responsible for her death, Olive was persistently contacted by many charities and, being generous and caring, found it hard to say no. Since the media coverage of her death, many others have said that they too have come under pressure. A major concern is where elderly relatives – some suffering from dementia – have been targeted.

Others are equally pestered – the London Borough of Croydon becoming the 100th authority to crack down on ‘chuggers’. Meanwhile, The Mail on Sunday exposed the underhand methods of a private company, working for Oxfam, RSPCA and Cancer UK, which broke every ethical rule in the book in its attempts to make money for itself and its clients.

So there are questions about whether the self-regulation of fundraising by charities is working as it should, and protection against abuse and unscrupulous practices. Indeed, yesterday’s report by the Fundraising Standards Board recommends obliging all charities to be regulated by them, and a tightening up of the code. So we will ask the government to strengthen the role of the Charity Commission by giving it greater reserve powers to regulate fundraising; and to require charities to abide by a strict code, the breach of which would put them in jeopardy.

Labour believes in the vital role charities play in society, harnessing good will, funds and people’s energies for the good of others. This Bill will do little by itself to promote or protect the charitable sector.

Baroness Dianne Hayter of Kentish Town is Shadow Cabinet Office Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 10th June 2015

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