Automatic disqualification from being a trustee

Part of Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:00 pm on 5 January 2016.

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Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 5:00, 5 January 2016

After that excitement, we can get on with the proceedings of the Committee.

Under the current law, there are several criteria that disqualify a person from being a charity trustee. The automatic disqualification provisions date back to the Charities Act 1993 and represent an important way of protecting charities from those who might seek to abuse their position of trust, whether for personal financial gain or to access vulnerable people for abuse. The existing criteria for disqualification include any unspent conviction for an offence involving deception or dishonesty; where the person is an undischarged bankrupt or disqualified company director; and where the Charity Commission or court has removed the person from serving as a trustee.

Clause 10 does two things. First, it adds new criteria for a person to be automatically disqualified from being a charity trustee. Secondly, it extends disqualification beyond trusteeship to cover the chief executive and chief finance officer positions in a charity. The existing criteria for automatic disqualification remain unchanged.

In practice, the Charity Commission’s experience has been that the existing criteria are useful but too narrow, and that they do not cover several areas that ought to merit automatic disqualification, including convictions for serious terrorist offences, money laundering or bribery. Many people would be surprised that those offences do not already result in automatic disqualification, although in some cases there may be an overlap with existing disqualification if the offence involves dishonesty or deception.

I would like to say something about terrorist and extremist abuse of charities. The Charity Commission recognises that that type of abuse may not be relevant to most charities, but it is an increasing area of commission casework and an area of great concern. The commission has an important role in helping charities to prevent that type of abuse from occurring in the first place and in ensuring that abuse is reported and stopped and that charities are better protected in the future. It has detailed guidance for charities on how they can protect themselves from that type of abuse.

The Charity Commission also works closely with the police and other agencies where concerns are raised. In 2014-15, the commission made 506 disclosures of information to the police and other agencies as a result of concerns about charities involving terrorism or extremism—up from 234 disclosures in the previous year. It undertook 80 visits or monitoring cases to charities at risk of terrorist or extremist abuse. It also received 11 serious incident reports and undertook 32 pre-investigation assessment cases and 20 formal investigations. The new automatic disqualification provisions in the clause, along with case-by-case disqualification, which we will discuss shortly, will help to protect charities from terrorist or extremist abuse.

The extension of automatic disqualification in the clause covers other areas, such as money laundering, where added protections are needed. Let me give the Committee an example. A police investigation resulted in a number of convictions for fraud and money laundering offences, which related to funds applied by a charity in relation to contracts to house and support asylum seekers. Those convicted of fraud were disqualified from acting as trustees, because fraud is a crime involving deception or dishonesty. However, those convicted of money laundering were not disqualified, because the offence of money laundering does not fall within the existing criteria. The latter persons are no longer charity trustees, but as the law stands there is no bar on their becoming trustees again.

The new criteria for automatic disqualification proposed in clause 10 also include cases where a person has been found guilty of contempt of court in civil proceedings where a false statement or disclosure is made; cases where a person has been found guilty in the High Court of disobedience to a commission order or direction; and designation under terrorist asset-freezing legislation.

The existing disqualification provisions do not prevent individuals from being appointed to non-trustee positions of significant authority in charities. It is counterintuitive that someone can be disqualified from acting as a trustee of a charity, only to continue their abuse by taking up the post of chief executive, in which they could exploit that influence. The commission has seen that happen in some cases, with disqualified trustees taking up other senior positions in other charities and subsequently committing abuse. The clause would deal with that by preventing disqualified individuals from acting in top management positions, thereby reducing the risk of abuse. The top management positions covered by the extension of disqualification are the most senior executives—usually the chief executive officer, along with the finance director or chief finance officer, if there is one.

The clause also provides a power for the Minister for the Cabinet Office to make regulations to amend the list of criteria. The Minister is required to consult if the regulations add a new offence, and such regulations will be subject to the affirmative parliamentary procedure, requiring debate and approval before they can be made. We included the requirement to consult in response to a recommendation from the Joint Committee on the Draft Protection of Charities Bill, following pre-legislative scrutiny.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the existing regime of waiver under section 181 of the Charities Act 2011 will also apply to any persons disqualified under the new criteria, enabling such persons to apply to the Charity Commission for their disqualification to be waived in relation to a particular charity.