Charity Commission – Lights are on but is anyone home?

A few facts to open with

  1. The Charity commission’s first stated priority is “to develop public confidence in the charity sector.”
  2. The Commission repeatedly warns the public to check the validity of a charity on their register before making donations..
  3. There are two things needed to establish a legal entity that might be a charity. Firstly a governance document and secondly trustees.
  4. Whether an organisation IS a charity is determined by reference to the governing document which says what they exist to do and achieve. Only if this is entirely for the public benefit can the organisation claim to be a charity.
  5. Although there is a legal requirement to register certain charities with the commission, registration doesn’t make a charity and failure to register doesn’t stop an organisation being a charity.

Here is my experience:

I had been making donations to an apparently bona fide organisation for several years. That group had provided a gift aid form for signature that clearly stated they were a charity. They had produced accounts and had leaders who represented themselves as having formal authority. They had implied incorporation by employing a worker; they even wrote on headed paper claiming to be writing on behalf of the organisation. They stated that money given became the property of the organisation.

But when I decided that I wanted to complain about the conduct of one of these individuals I couldn’t get anyone to disclose either a governance document or trustees, There was absolutely no form of incorporation at all.  I wrote to everyone who might be a trustee, none of them were. The treasurer (who later downgraded herself to “just a book-keeper’) couldn’t give me a governance document. She told me that she was referring it to someone else, but he wasn’t answering her. No one would accept that they had responsibility for the way money was managed nor the management decisions of the organisation.

Finding anywhere on the charity commission website where a member of the public could get help was virtually impossible. A number of on line forms existed but none of them were relevant to what I wanted help with. They basically were there for people inside charities to get help and support. Eventually I tried a couple, including the whistle blowing one, really meant for employees of a charity, and was horrified when I received the acknowledgement below.

We will consider your request within 15 working days.
Your enquiry will now be assessed. If we feel that the issues do not fall within our regulatory remit you may not receive a response from us. Please do not send us a paper version unless we have specifically requested this.
Please do not contact us again inside the 15 working day period.

My first thought was to how any professional organisation could operate this way.This would likely mean that I would never know whether anyone had even read it. How could it be right to effectively be saying ” we can decide that we aren’t going to answer you but we aren’t going to tell you that or why. You will just have to assume that silence means that?”

The PHSO see nothing wrong with this approach to enquiries. I know for sure that others do. Here is a link to one such person’s blog.

When I did eventually manage to get through the wall of obstruction and get a response this was that

  1. I “should contact the trustees”.
  2. Fraud should be reported to Action Fraud and tax issues to HMRC
  3. They had been unable to confirm whether the organisation was a charity so they had written to ask it to consider whether it was required to register.

Firstly of course, my whole point in contacting them was to find out who the trustees were, so point 1 is impossible. And of their action,  the PHSO says that this course “seemed sensible in the circumstances.”  They also make the stunning qualifying observation that “the commission seeks to act in the charity’s best interest, in this case by prompting registration”

I have to ask whatever happened to the public confidence priority then! By now it was clear that there was no charity to act in the best interest of. What the commission actually did was to write to a bunch of people who were acting illegally and likely to be the subject of both a police and HMRC investigation; with a suggestion that they might like to legitimise their position by creating and registering a charity.

I needed help; the charity commission seemed to me to be the best organisation to give me that help but it looked like they were only there to help the charity sector, not the public.But perhaps they had misunderstood.

I continued to try to get someone to look at this properly. I involved my MP who wrote directly to Paula Sussex the CEO. His letter went straight to the first response unit which issues the above acknowledgements on literally every correspondence it receives. After several months of silence, he retired at the General election in May 2015 and left me to contact his successor in due course.

I wrote to the chairman William Shawcross, asking him to intervene …

I have been trying to get the Commission to act in a case of what appears to be fraudulent misrepresentation of charity status but without success. The Charity Commission seems disinclined to act despite what seems to me to be a very clear public protection need and a possible criminal case under the Fraud Act 2006.
They want to know about such cases but then seem to not want to act on them. As far as I know the claim [sic] charity status and the taking of money of people who believe that claim continues to this day
.
I’m hoping that by writing to you, I might receive a final decision that I can then use to go to my MP with a request for his support in taking the matter to the Parliamentary Ombudsman if I continue to believe that the remit of the organisation should cause it to step in
My former MP, James Arbuthnot has written to Paula Sussex but got a reply only from the first response unit which we both found unsatisfactory . The facts of the case seem to me to be largely being ignored and standard responses are issued. Although Mr. Arbuthnot was told by e mail that this was being escalated for review, I have had never had any contact in that regard and I have to simply live with the repeated standard acknowledgement that leaves me in limbo with its message “a response will be provided providing your enquiry falls within our regulatory remit”
 I am frankly very concerned that everything seems to have to be done by filling in on line forms or writing. There seems to be no mechanism for phone discussion or meeting – I’ve clearly struggled to make my points understood; how on earth the illiterate or less educated or less erudite would fair is beyond me. Your services I think are basically inaccessible to them”

 

He too didn’t stoop to acknowledge it but I did, eventually, get the final decision I wanted 17 days later. They stood by their advice and I could take the case to the PHSO if I wanted to appeal.

Now members of the public, how does the above  affect your confidence? The PHSO have effectively upheld the following

  • It is reasonable that there is no mechanism for the charity commission to be informed of cases in which fraudulent claims to charity status are being used.
  • The public should have no expectation that the commission will work with other agencies (such as the police and HMRC) where there are false claims to charity status and/or possible abuse of funds.
  • it is appropriate for the commission to invite those acting illegally to create and register a charity even when police investigations have been suggested as an appropriate course.
  • The acknowledgement process that leaves people in the dark when they contact the commission is reasonable.
  • For all that they say about transparency and openness with stakeholders, The commission cannot force a charity to disclose their governing document because this would amount to becoming involved in administration which they are not allowed to do.

Trust me it gets worse ….. more to follow.

Authors note. I will eventually publish the PHSO report but as some elements of the enquiry are ongoing I am awaiting these outcomes before proceeding.

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