Official warnings by the Commission

Part of Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 15 December 2015.

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Photo of Anna Turley Anna Turley Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 9:25, 15 December 2015

I beg to move amendment 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, after “give” insert “at least 14 days”.

To require a minimum period of 14 days’ notice of a warning.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. Thank you very much for this opportunity. As we stated on Second Reading, we wholeheartedly welcome the Bill and the intention to clarify and support charity law, particularly by introducing greater transparency, greater effectiveness in governance and greater efficiency. The Bill will also give charities a new power to make social investments.

The intention behind clause 1 is to introduce a new official warning for the Charity Commission where it considers that there has been a breach of trust or duty, or other misconduct or mismanagement. Our amendment, which we believe is important, would require a minimum period of 14 days’ notice if a warning is issued.

We welcome the clause in principle. We understand that the purpose behind it is to fill a gap for low-level breaches of the statutory provisions of the Charities Act 2011 or of the fiduciary duty where there are low risks for assets and services. The National Audit Office welcomed it and said it will give the Commission

“a stepped approach so that, rather than just having, on the one hand, advice and guidance and then the nuclear option of a statutory inquiry, it gives the Commission something in between”.

We welcome the principle of the warning process.

However, we have some concerns about the clause, particularly on the lack of safeguards, which we believe could threaten the independence of charities and fundamentally change the relationship between the Charity Commission and its volunteer trustees. The commission already has a number of powers to deal with regulatory concerns—even low-level concerns. In particular, it can do so by way of operational compliance cases, which it routinely carries out.

Statistics from the Charity Commission show that between 1 April and 30 September 2015 it opened 575 operational compliance cases into registered charities. If the matter is urgent, the commission can already open a statutory inquiry without notice and suspend the trustees, pending the use of additional protective powers. The decision to open a statutory inquiry and the subsequent exercise of protective powers can be appealed to the charity tribunal, known as the first-tier tribunal. There are no plans to change that.

Operational compliance cases are likely to be regarded very differently from the new official warnings, which could have a significant impact on a charity. First, it is likely that the public issuing of an official warning, which is allowed in this version of the Bill, will carry far more stigma than an operational compliance case and could risk damage to a charity’s reputation, with a resulting drying up of funding and support.

Secondly, failure to comply with a warning automatically gives rise to a right for the commission to take further, significant protective action in relation to a charity, after opening a statutory inquiry. That is not the case with an operational compliance case, so this is a fundamental shift in the relationship between charities and the commission.