2020: The charity sector and the Charity Commission



Charities need to tell people that they understand and respect that they have expectations in return for their support. And they need to signal now that they haven’t always done this as well as they might in the past and that this is going to change

The Charity Commission's approach in 2020


The Commission's focus operationally has been on helping charities navigate difficulties caused by the pandemic. Messaging from Chair of the Commission Baroness Stowell at public events in the early Autumn - the Charity Law Association conference and Charity Commission annual public meeting – focused on meeting 'public expectations' as the most important issue for the sector. Baroness Stowell asserted that coronavirus has shown this more clearly, as the public support that charities rely on to survive cannot be taken for granted.

This demonstrates the continued shift in the Commission's focus, expecting charities to meet more than just the legal requirements with their behaviour and stressing that individual charities are responsible for the state of the sector as a whole in their actions.

Baroness Stowell's speech at the 2020 Annual Public meeting of the Charity Commission focused on the importance of openness and accountability. She outlined ways in which the Commission and charities can make the sector stronger.

Whistleblowing

The Charity Commission released its report into whistleblowing disclosures received in 2019/2020. In summary, there were a total of 247 disclosures made in the period, an increase from 185 in the previous period which represents a 33.5% year on year increase.

New and revised guidance from the Charity Commission

Much of the Commission's output this year was guidance related to coronavirus, aimed at helping charities respond to the unprecedented scenarios they were faced with. However the Commission begun work on its wider programme of updating core guidance and the website, to make information more accessible for trustees.

The RNIB inquiry report

The Charity Commission published the report of its inquiry into RNIB in June 2020.

Prompted by Ofsted's decision to cancel the Pears Centre's registration as a children's home facility, the inquiry initially focused on risk to beneficiaries from safeguarding arrangements, the governance and oversight of safeguarding and reporting (or lack of) serious safeguarding incidents. Following closure of the Pears Centre, the inquiry was expanded to look at the extent of losses concerned and the trustees’ financial management and decision making and whether they had discharged their duties under charity law.

Charity Commission compliance and investigations

The Charity Commission as part of its regulatory role regularly publishes reports on its work investigating charities. In 2020, there were a number of reports of note...

Serious incident reporting

The Charity Commission's Annual Report for 2019-2020 records that there were 5,730 serious incident reports made to the regulator, an increase of almost 50% from the previous year. Nearly 60% of these reports related to safeguarding.

Areas of interest in regulation

In December 2019, the Charity Commission released a statement criticising Marie Stopes International and the remuneration package received by its CEO, following an examination into a decision to award the package. The criticism was not directed at the level of pay, but rather the 'inadequate' documentation around the decision.

The Government's approach to the Sector

This year has seen a renewed focus from the Government on the role of Civil Society and the voluntary sector, particularly in relation to the provision of public services. This has likely been driven by the efforts of many small and local groups, alongside larger national charities, to respond to the pandemic.

Use of powers

The Commission has continued to make use of its statutory powers to issue official warnings.

The most high profile recipient of an official warning this year was the RNIB as noted earlier.

The Commission issued an official warning to Help Our Futures for repeatedly failing to engage with the Commission in response to serious concerns. The Commission was initially involved due to concerns over the charity's use of clothes recycling banks and found a range of governance concerns. The actions required included ensuring the charity is furthering its objects and fully co-operate with the Commission during regulatory engagement.

An official warning was issued to the Islamic Centre of England, after a vigil was held at its premises in response to the death of the Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani. The Commission said the event risked associating the charity with a speaker who may have committed an offence under the Terrorism Act, by praising and calling for the support of Soleimani. The warning required the trustees to review the content on the charity's website and carry out risk assessments for future events at the premises.

The most high profile recipient of an official warning this year was the RNIB

New online register

On 3 September 2020, the Charity Commission launched an updated version of the online register of charities, which builds on the Commission's aim to increase accountability and transparency in the sector.

In a recent blog post, Charity Commission CEO Helen Stephenson stated it is that the regulator's responsibility to maintain and curate the register in the public interest, and that the register should be a tool to help people selecting a charity to support.

To that end the new register now contains additional fields, many of which charities will recognise from the increasingly detailed Annual Return form, such as: the number of staff and volunteers; the number of staff with salaries of over £60,000; a breakdown of sources of income; assets and investments held; and policies in place at the charity. Perhaps predictably, the salaries of charity employees have attracted some attention in the media since the new register was launched. Details of any regulatory alerts that are issued in relation to a charity are now available on the first page of its profile.

Visitors to the register are also able to conduct more detailed searches for charities, using information such as income and location.