Toolkit Encourages Charities to Regulate the Regulator
21 May 2018 at 5:15 pm
UK umbrella body, The Directory of Social Change, has issued a new toolkit encouraging organisations to question the national charity regulator’s political independence.
The toolkit, Three Pillars of Independence, aims to “monitor and guard against encroachment on the regulator’s independent decision-making”.
It gives a list of practical questions which anyone can ask to assess whether the charity regulator is acting independently, focusing on three key things: independence from party politics, populism and the press.
“The Charity Commission’s objectivity is fundamental to how its legally binding decisions are perceived by charities and for its overall legitimacy with the sector it regulates,” the document said.
“Charity trustees must have confidence they will be treated in an impartial manner, free from covert or overt political bias. This is especially important for charitable causes or activities which may be unpopular with certain political parties, elements of the press, or sections of the public.”
According to the charity, the launch of the toolkit follows “widely-held concerns” about the party-political bias of the previous Charity Commission chair William Shawcross, and the subsequent appointment of Conservative peer Baroness Stowell to replace him against the advice of a parliamentary scrutiny committee.
DSC’s director of policy and research, Jay Kennedy, said they had published the toolkit as a “bulwark” to support the commission’s independence and confidence in its legally-binding judgments.
“Recent governments have sought leverage over the Charity Commission via the appointments process,” Kennedy said.
“To anyone paying attention it’s obvious that relevant administrative expertise, experience of charities, or knowledge of charity law has been secondary to other considerations. This is a deeply disturbing trend.
“Charity trustees need confidence that their regulator is operating in an objective way, based on the law and evidence, not unduly influenced by political rhetoric or press hyperbole.”
CCA CEO David Crosbie told Pro Bono News the situation in the UK was a good example of how efforts to restrict the public voice of charities have been put in place
“There is no doubt that around the world, increasingly nationalistic and popularist governments are seeking to restrict the voice of civil society through a whole range of approaches. Some focus on overseas donations, some on advocacy and the role of charities in elections, some focus on tightening restrictions through appointments and re-tasking of regulators to become more active in closing down the activities of charities involved in advocacy,” Crosbie said.
“The situation in the UK is a good example of how efforts to restrict the public voice of charities have been put in place, and there are several parallels with Australia including changes to electoral law and appointing someone to head the regulator in a way that is neither merit based nor reflective of best practice in charity regulation.”
However Crosbie questioned how charities could use tool kits or other guides to challenge the way a regulator “goes about its work”.
“My reading is that the toolkit developed in the UK asks a series of questions. The real issue is what you do when the answers betray a bias against charities and their work,” he said.
“In Australia we have yet to really see the how the appointment of commissioner [Gary] Johns will play out, particularly in relation to charities using advocacy to pursue their charitable purpose which we know he opposes.
“It is to be hoped that the capacity of the ACNC commissioner to act outside of his remit is relatively limited, and the strong legislative and administrative structures in place ensure the ACNC continues to be a very effective and respected regulator.”
An ACNC spokesperson said: “The ACNC commissioner appears before Senate Estimates Committees three times a year – including Budget Estimates in late May – this provides an opportunity for public scrutiny of ACNC decisions.”