Sua Sponte

The unwarranted ramblings of a charity solicitor.

Many charities are "out of touch", "not...accountable" and lack "democratic structure"

Well, what to say to the Lord Balfe of Dulwich (President of the Cambridge City Conservatives), who described charities with these words during the Civil Society debate in the House of Lords on 8 September?

Firstly, let us disregard the incredible irony of an unelected peer criticising charities for a lack of accountability and democratic structure.

Further, let us start by saying that no one would deny that some charities could be described as out of touch.

It is also unarguable that many charities lack a democratic structure. Although, unlike the House of Lords, it is harder to think of good reasons why they should have such a thing.

If it is for reasons of broadening representation of the general populace at trustee board level, the make-up of the House of Commons (a fully elected body) does not exactly give confidence in this as a mechanism to do that. As this article sadly demonstrates.

Perhaps it is for reasons of accountability that the peer thinks a democratic structure is necessary, given his other comments.

He seems to be worried that the public have no way of knowing what charities are doing, with particular concerns around lobbying, saying:

"I also believe it would be useful if we knew what some charities do. For instance, I have been told that the NSPCC does not inspect any children any more, but is purely a lobbying organisation. I am told that Barnardo’s no longer runs homes but lobbies."

I think, however, I can help him here.

If he would really like to know more about the activities of either of these charities, rather than relying on what appears to be somewhat unreliable hearsay, he may find their most recent accounts on the Charity Commission website useful.

The NSPCC's can be found here and those of Barnardo's can be found here. I hope, having reviewed these accounts made available by the Charity Commission, he can rest assured that these charities do not just lobby.

Which leads me to another piece of information the peer may find eases some of his worries about the accountability of charities: the existence of the Charity Commission.

The Charity Commission is the regulator for all charities, whether registered or not, in existence in England and Wales.

A useful summary of the Charity Commission's use of its regulatory powers to hold charities to account can be found starting on page ten of its 2015/16 Annual Report and Accounts.

As a brief summary of the information there, it's been quite busy in the past year, with 135 live enquiries at the end of the year, 1,327 operational compliance cases opened and 1,309 such cases closed, 25 case reports published, nine trustees removed due to poor conduct, four interim managers appointed and 35 inquiry reports published.

The work done is made more impressive by the fact that the Charity Commission has suffered some substantial cuts to its funding in the name of austerity in recent years.

The Lord Balfe of Dulwich apparently has a long history of being involved with charities. He says so himself in his speech. The Conservative Group for Europe page in relation to the peer also states he "stood down as Chair of Anglia Community Leisure" (a registered charity) in 2013.

In the light of this, it seems unlikely that he is unaware of the Charity Commission as regulator.

Is it possible instead that he doesn't think the Charity Commission capable of holding charities to account? From his comments it is impossible to know for sure. It might be inferred, however, from his accusation that charities are not accountable.

Finally, it may also interest the Lord Balfe of Dulwich, who laments in his speech to the House of Lords the sad fact that charities are facing a loss of trust, to know that the Charity Commission's first statutory objective is to increase public trust and confidence in charities.

I presume, given his comment about this problem facing charities, he would approve of this aim.

It seems to me, however, that the peer may not realise the effect of his own comments on public trust and confidence in charities.

Public trust and confidence in charities is not increased when a public figure seems erroneously to criticise individual charities, without having checked the facts.

It is not increased when a public figure accuses charities in general of being "out of touch" and lacking "democratic structures".

It is not increased when charities are labelled as not accountable, despite the fact that the charity sector has an active regulator in the Charity Commission, and in many cases the Charity Commission is not even the sole regulator of a charity.

The sector is not perfect and sometimes needs objective criticism. If, however, the Lord Balfe of Dulwich really regrets the loss of trust that charities are facing, he may wish to consider his choice of words more carefully in the future when seeking to help the sector address its problems.