LibLink: Liz Barker: We have a crisis in our charity sector

Writing for Politics Home about her Lords question on the issues facing charities at the moment, Liz Barker said that Oxfam did not deserve the “monitoring” it was getting at the moment as it had taken action to deal with the unacceptable and inexcusable behaviour of a small number of its members of staff.

The crisis to which she refers, though, isn’t the one you think.

She highlighted failings in the Charity Commission, most notably its senior people being too close to Government and without enough knowledge of the sector:

One might have expected the Charity Commission to know that a charity’s most valuable asset is its reputation and to understand that, whilst Oxfam reported that it was dealing with the matter, the organisation might have been advised by lawyers to keep public statements to a minimum. The events for which Oxfam is now being berated coincided with a period when the Charity Commission’s funding was greatly reduced and its Chair, who knew nothing about charities or regulation, was wont to please the politicians who appointed him, by making sweeping  statements about charities which were full of criticism and short on evidence.

The Charity Commission board is appointed by government and with the imminent appointment of Baroness Stowell, who like her predecessor has no knowledge of charities, it appears to be a grace and favour appointment for people close to government.  This is a worrying development.

She highlighted another problem with the Charity Commission’s plans:

The Commission is currently consulting on proposals to charge large charities fees for regulation – charities who have no say in the appointment of board members and no mechanism with which to challenge poor performance by the Board. In 2017 the House of Lords Select Committee Report “Stronger Charities for a Stronger Society” considered the matter and concluded that the Commission had not made a convincing case. It could not explain how fees would improve the service to charities, nor could it guarantee that any money raised by a levy would not be deducted from government funding. Charity regulation is too important to be left to become a Tory pastime. Restoring the Commission to true independence should now be a priority.

You can read the whole article here.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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8 Comments

  • nigel hunter 21st Feb '18 - 9:37am

    Who appointed the Charity Commissioner when its funds were being reduced?It would seem to be another ‘jobs for the boys’ appointment where you can get ‘brownie’ points for agreeing with the boss. The fees charged. Where would they end up? In the Treasury or ploughed back into the charities sector?With the good that charity does both at home and abroad it should not be a play thing to be used by anybody.

  • Of course Oxfam deserves the “monstering” it is getting. Abuse is abuse. It is very hard to stomach the way we are constantly being told that calling out abuse must be sotto voce unless we give succour to right-wing critics of aid.

  • Charities like Oxfam are a British institution that represent the public face of the UK’s engagement with deprivation and poverty overseas. As a consequence it will naturally be held to the highest standards of probity and good governance.
    As an auditor to Charities, I have often given seminars on the duties and responsibilities of trustees under Charity law and compliance with Chairity Commission regulations, but have never had occassion to consider these kind of abuse issues in that context.
    The fact that Oxfam has experienced the cancellation of a much higher than usual number of direct debits since these issues became public, highlights the impact that reputational damage and loss of trust has on the ability of Chariable organisations to fulfill their mission.
    The Chairity Commissionis is an important regulator and its Chair and board must be able to maintain the confidence of the sector, in its ability to understand the special circumstances in which not-for-profit and voluntary organisations operate.
    Large charitable organisations (like too big to fail banks) are in danger of becoming too focused on market share and fundraising, a potentially critical cultural failing for organisations that rely to a very large extent on public goodwill.

  • John Barrett 21st Feb '18 - 7:17pm

    I have mentioned the failings of the Charity Commission many times on LDV and the latest revelations about the lack of knowledge of the charity sector by the proposed new chair is no surprise to me and those of us who have had first hand knowledge of the sector and the failings of the Charity Commission over the last 25 years.

    It is another appointment which look likely to benefit nobody, apart from the appointee.

    Regulations are there for a number of reasons, including avoiding abuse of the massive amount of money in the sector and to ensure those spending the money generously donated for good causes do so wisely.

    Because of the failings of the Charity Commission, people, like myself, have given up being Charity Trustees and I am aware that a number of good charities now struggle to find good people to take on that work. I have had to inform a number of charities in recent years that regretfully I would not become a trustee ever again.

    On a separate issue, it may be time to look again at the number of charities in our high streets, who use volunteer staff and have few, if any, salaries to pay, pay little rates to local authorities and sell new items, which local shopkeepers cannot compete with.

    The result is that many of those small businesses have struggled to survive or gone out of business. While at the same time many of the “charity shops” are part of a multi-million pound charity organisation….just a thought!

  • It’s not over yet although it looks like another May foul up.

    According to a full report in The Guardian,

    “The all party Digital, culture, media and sport committee has said it could not support the appointment of Lady Stowell because she lacked “any real insight, knowledge or vision” for the job. And in a letter to the culture secretary, Matt Hancock, the committee chair, Damian Collins, raised concerns over her independence and dismissed her claims to be “a veteran outsider”.

    “The rare unanimous cross-party decision followed a difficult hearing in which Stowell, a former Leader of the House of Lords and head of corporate affairs at the BBC, was described as “the insider’s insider” by the SNP MP Brendan O’Hara.”

    It might be worth pointing out that The Charity Commission only operates in England & Wales. Scotland has OSCR to regulate the 23,000 Scottish Charities.

  • Peter Hirst 22nd Feb '18 - 1:36pm

    We cannot divorce the issue of the competence of the Charity Commission from the tragedy in the news about Oxfam. It is the culture of the whole charity sector that is on trial. I cannot believe no-one knew about these activities in Haiti and elsewhere. Where is the management structure that prevents these situations or at least minimises them? Surely, the people concerned knew the consequences of what they did. I have very little sympathy for Oxfam and any similarly affected charities. It is scandalous that it even happened, let alone covered up.

  • I have a lot of sympathy for Oxfam and other charities affected. A completely overblown situation fuelled by media coverage that is for the most part fairly misleading. The whole thing is very much detracting from the good work they actually do.

    Oxfam have sadly lost several thousand regular donations in the last couple of weeks – but they’ve gained one from me.

  • Simon Banks 8th Apr '18 - 9:41am

    I could not agree more with Joe B. Many large charities have lost their focus on fighting to improve the experiences of people in pain, poverty and suffering, or on wildlife or whatever they were founded to help. Some like the RSPB barely try to involve their members in decisions. They have been co-opted, thanks to government policies from Thatcher to the present, but particularly those of Major and Blair, into the ranks of the ambitious service providers with a market share to protect and profits to be made (albeit not for private advantage). Age UK’s mis-selling is well known, but who remembers when NACRO was a powerful voice holding governments to account for their failure to help ex-offenders rehabilitate? Meanwhile, relatively small and outspoken charities like Freedom from Torture struggle: they’re inconvenient.

    The voluntary sector is crucial to a Liberal society and to democracy itself: government policy has to change.

    As for the Charity Commission, it ought to be led by people who know the voluntary sector well; and as for Oxfam, one would need to go deeply into how it’s reacted to evidence of unacceptable staff behaviour and into the specifics of the Charity Commission’s intervention to judge whether the Commission has mishandled the matter.

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