Shawcross attacks big charities, lawyers and umbrella bodies in final interview

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William Shawcross, who completes his five-year term as chair of the Charity Commission at the end of this week, has criticised large charities, lawyers and umbrella bodies for being “counterproductive”.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, Shawcross complained that the Commission was “underfunded” and that “some big charities are very well funded and don’t hesitate on using expensive law firms to try to counter and stop the Commission, I would say, doing its job properly”.

He also said he was “disappointed” in some umbrella bodies, which “see themselves as trades unions for their members, rather than encouraging their members to see that their conduct may sometimes be imperfect”.

Shawcross added: “Some attacks on the Commission from leaders of charities and umbrella groups are absurd and counterproductive.”

NCVO and Acevo have expressed disappointment at his comments.

Shawcross also offered his backing to Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam, who he said was a “decent man” and said he hopes he can resolve the charity’s issues with safeguarding, which came to light a little over a week ago.

Shawcross said he hoped the sector could recover from the scandal.

“I don’t want to make monsters of the big charities,” he said. “Charities do a huge amount of good and this country would be terribly diminished if a scandal like this meant that thousands of charities went out of business.”

Yesterday the Commission announced it would host summit to look at safeguarding in the charity sector.

Umbrellas ‘disappointed’

Acevo and NCVO have responded to say that they are disappointed by the intervention and said they were committed to addressing safeguarding issues.

Vicky Browning, chief executive of Acevo, said: “The vast majority of charities are led by committed, expert individuals with a passion to change the world for the better. These leaders share the public’s shock and concern about recent reports of abuse within the charity sector.”

She added that: “We are disappointed that William Shawcross has chosen to describe the actions of umbrella groups such as Acevo as ‘absurd and counterproductive’. Good regulation is vital to the health and strength of the voluntary sector. We believe that good regulation is transparent, fair and enabling, and any interventions that we have with the Commission are aimed at achieving these goals.”

Browning said it was correct that the public had high standards for charities but that society has a “systemic problem with gendered abuse and exploitation”.

“We commit to zero tolerance of harassment, abuse and exploitation but it would be disingenuous and ultimately damaging to public trust to promise there will be zero incidents,” she said. “Our focus will be on making sure those with complaints feel confident coming forward and supporting those in the sector to take action to minimise the risk of safeguarding incidents occurring.”

Karl Wilding, director of public policy and volunteering at NCVO, said that while Shawcross “makes a few useful points” he “undermines the regulator he has led by accusing charities of not wanting to change, or of not wanting to work with the regulator”.

Wilding in turn accused Shawcross of being unconstructive.

“As over so much of his tenure, he’s been guided more by saying something tough to the press than actually working constructively,” he said.

“I doubt Charity Commission staff will be helped in their work to regulate charities by these comments. We will of course continue to work constructively with the Charity Commission to help charities change for the better. Which is what we all want to see, whatever Mr Shawcross says.”

Wilding also highlighted NCVO’s record of delivering tough messages to the charity sector, and suggested Shawcross had not been “paying attention”.

He said: “NCVO’s credibility is built on our willingness to do what’s right, not what’s easy. Far from a defensive approach, whether it’s on fundraising, pay transparency or governance, we have been at the forefront of challenging the status quo and raising standards. If Mr Shawcross hasn’t noticed this, he hasn’t been paying attention.”

The Times article refers to a “clash” between the regulator and charities last year over changes concerning safeguarding in a consultation.

In autumn 2016 the Commission opened a consultation on new draft serious incident reporting guidance.

A number of umbrella bodies shared their submissions with Civil Society News, which raised concerns about the burden that could be placed on charities, but also welcomed aspects of the proposed changes.

When the regulator published its final guidance it said that “All of the feedback has been helpful in improving the Charity Commission’s existing policy and guidance on reporting serious incidents”.

Sector representatives also described the final version as “much improved”.

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