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Re-building trust in our charities

Oct 01, 2019
Charities in Northern Ireland may have to provide more detail to the Charities Commission in the near future, but any initiative that restores the public’s trust is to be welcomed.

By Angela Craigan

On 27 August 2019, the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland opened a public consultation in respect of new questions charities must answer in their annual returns plus additional information that organisations applying for charitable registration online must answer. The proposed questions cover topics such as safeguarding, data protection, loans and payments to related parties, and the use of commercial fundraising partners.

The Charity Commission NI advises that the questions are designed to help it gather important information on individual charities and the charity sector as a whole.
The format of the proposed new questions requires each charity to reveal if any trustee owes money to it, whether any of the charity’s assets are leased from a trustee, and whether a trustee has been paid for carrying out their role. These questions are already asked in the annual monitoring return, but will now be asked when applying for registration.

The Charity Commission NI also intends to ask charities if they have reported a data breach to the Information Commissioners Office in the past year. It will also collect information on what percentage of charitable expenditure relates to charitable purposes for organisations of less than £250,000 a year.

All of the new and revised questions Charity Commission NI propose to include in the registration application and the Annual Return Regulations 2019 are available to view in the consultation document. The public consultation will focus on the most significant questions, and will allow an opportunity to voice opinions on the proposed changes. The consultation process will run for eight weeks, closing on Tuesday 22 October 2019. The changes will be of particular interest to members working in the charity sector and those who are trustees of Northern Ireland charities.

The consultation has arisen as a result of increased risks within the charity sector including safeguarding, cybercrime and fraud. These increased risks have had a negative impact on the public’s perception of the charity sector. A key role of the charity commission is to increase public trust and confidence in charities. The commission is of the opinion that the additional questions will increase transparency and, as a result, public confidence in charities.

The recent safeguarding failures in some high-profile charities have highlighted the importance of trustees being aware of their responsibilities and the safeguarding standards expected of them. The commission has added questions in relation to the ‘expression of intent’ form that is completed by those waiting to be called forward for registration. The commission also proposes to add more questions to the classification section of the charity registration form. In this section, applicants describe their charitable purpose, the focus of the charity and the beneficiaries of the organisation.

It is important that trustees understand their responsibilities in respect of the information filed with the Charity Commission. Trustees may delegate the task of submitting an application or annual monitoring form, but they cannot delegate the responsibility of making sure they are accurate and submitted on time. If an annual monitoring form is late, the register of charities shows them as being in default. Once submitted, the register will read “Due documents received late”. This is of increased importance as funders are now using the register to check if forms are being returned late and will look less favourably on charities that file late when awarding grants.

As an advisor to a large number of local charities, and as a trustee of Action Mental Health and New Life Counselling, I firmly believe that this sector is invaluable. I therefore welcome any move to increase public confidence in the charity sector. 

Angela Craigan FCA is a Partner with Harbinson Mulholland, the accountancy and business advisory firm.