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Too little and (almost) too late

DianneHayter.jpgDianne Hayter on why Ministers must go further to stamp out malpractice among fundraising charities

Charities have been supporting the vulnerable and those in need since long before the creation of the welfare state. So, with public trust in government and other key institutions in society falling, it is little surprise that charities have maintained their status. Nevertheless, they should not have a free pass to make demands of people’s goodwill by pressuring them into making donations.

More than £12bn is raised by charities from the UK public each year – an amount larger than the government's aid budget. To be the caretakers of such funds also brings a responsibility to maintain confidence in not just how that money is deployed but also how it is obtained. Sadly, the highlighting of poor practice among some fundraising charities could jeopardise the hard earned trust. Following the tragic suicide of 92-year-old poppy seller, Olive Cooke, hundreds more people have reported how they or their elderly relatives have also come under pressure.

One national newspaper recently ran a story on the underhand methods used by a private company, working for major charities, which appeared to break every rule in the book to make money for both itself and clients. Cold calling is a particular problem and, having secured one donation, attempts are often made to ratchet-up the financial demands. It begs the question of whether the existing self-regulation of fundraising works.

Labour's view is that it is no longer sufficient for charities to choose whether to join the Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB) and abide by the Code of Conduct by which it adjudicates complaints. Indeed, a third are not even members of the FRSB; and they – or the private companies they employ – can continue to fundraise even if expelled.

The FRSB self-regulation system – effectively funded and run by and on behalf of those it seeks to regulate – has not worked. Not enough monitoring of members activities has taken place, nor has it outlawed unacceptable practices. If it were not for Olive’s tragic death and the aforementioned media expose, we would know nothing of poor practice beyond the anecdotal complaints of friends and family. The FRSB hasn’t even publicised its own existence, meaning that those with complaints rarely come forward.

The Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill, currently at Committee stage in the Lords, is a perfect vehicle for providing safeguards. But as it stands, the Bill does not include any mention of how to deal with malpractice. So we tabled amendments last week – to be debated later today – to require charities to belong to the FRSB and to bring forward and implement the Charity Commission's reserve powers of regulation over fundraising.

Perhaps our call has already been heeded. Yesterday, we learnt that the Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson has belatedly given charities until the end of June (ie, tomorrow) to reform their fundraising activities or the government will activate these reserve powers. 

Having played catch up, Ministers should recognise we cannot wait and must deal with the problem - for the sake of Olive and thousands like her who are harassed by unwanted, cold-calling fundraising. The government should accept our amendments and clear the way to rise standards in the sector. Only then can the best charities be confident that they have the public trust that they have rightfully earned over many years.

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

Published 29th June 2015

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