Charity Commissions begin somewhere else…

ONE little-reported story that I missed was that the Government is holding a consultation to review the administration of charities and relevant legislation in Northern Ireland. The lack of accountability in this area has been one of my bugbears for a few years, so while welcome, it’s very, very late in the day and seems to have been prompted by an IMC report. But will a UK-style Charity Commission be enough to take on the scams in Northern Ireland? The Irish Government has also promised to examine the issue, though I’ve seen nothing. Cross-border co-operation would seem the sensible way to go towards enhancing accountability and preventing fraud.

Social Development Minister John Spellar said:

The current framework for the regulation of charities in Northern Ireland does not provide for any form of local registration or enforcement. My Department is proposing that new Northern Ireland charities legislation should be brought forward to introduce an integrated system of registration and regulation (including control of charitable fund-raising) as well as supervision and support of registered charities.

The aim of these proposed changes will be to provide a structure and process through which charities can demonstrate their contribution to society, the public can be assured regarding how charities are spending any donations and government can assist in the better governance of the charity sector.

In its third report, the IMC stated:

We have been struck by the limited controls over charities in Northern Ireland. We have heard frequent allegations that this has facilitated the activities of paramilitary groups by making possible the illicit use of money and the diversion of funds obtained from crime.

It is difficult to know whether and to what extent such a problem exists, either generally or in relation to paramilitary groups. However, reasonable suspicion is aroused by the fact that about two years ago of over 3,500 charities which had approached the Inland Revenue from the Belfast area, only 40% had subsequently made gift aid or other tax claims. We are anxious not to draw specific conclusions from these figures, especially because we know that the charitable sector in Northern Ireland is not identical to that elsewhere. Nevertheless, the low follow-up rate means that 60% had a response from the Inland Revenue in the form of a letter bearing a reference number and accompanying material and had then done no other charitable business involving tax. In some cases this letter could be used for the purposes of passing off an organisation as a new charity, for example in opening a bank account. There is no doubt a natural rate of attrition, when people hope to start new charitable work but fail to do so, or they do so without wanting to claim tax relief. The figure of 60% is nevertheless high. It tends to lend credence to the view a number hold that charitable status is abused by some, and that it may be a channel for the misuse of paramilitary funds.

We welcome the fact that the British Government is undertaking a review of the control of charities in Northern Ireland which encompasses the question of the establishment of arrangements comparable to those elsewhere in the UK.
We are sure that stronger controls should be established, in the interests of ensuring that paramilitary funds cannot be illicitly diverted, including possibly to political parties. Charities in the South are also unregulated. The Irish Government has undertaken comprehensively to reform the law and following extensive public consultation legislation is being prepared. The two jurisdictions are in communication about their respective proposals. Again we welcome this. We would request the two Governments to keep us advised on their progress in this area.

(PS: The IMC website could do with some work. A proper search facility would be good for start, if anyone’s listening.)

  • Alan

    Is there anything other than allegations behind this story. You don’t need a charity number to set up a bank account for an association. I’d imagine that most of the 3,500 groups are local tenants and community associations whose main objective is to run the annual summer scheme for kids on the estate.

    Most community organisations eventually go for charitable status because it is easy to get and gives them some form of official recognition. Charities can’t trade ( unless you set up a trading arm and covenant) and therefore don’t make a profit, so have no issues over tax. Finally, it was Charities, rather than the IMC who were most vociferous in asking for this change.

  • fair_deal

    The development of better chairty law here is to be welcomed. However, I fear in the absence of devolution, such developments will take forever.

    Furthermore, to save the poor old tax payer I think the option of extending the existing charity commissioners remit to cover Northern Ireland should be examined.

  • Jacko

    Long over-due., let’s hope it is thorough and doesn’t take forever.
    It’s scary, some of the outfits that have been granted charitable status with no bother at all.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Is there anything other than allegations behind this story.

    Yes, I detailed a couple of incidents on the other thread. They weren’t paramilitary related, but one was actually worse, as it involved a Red Cross volunteer in Ballymena sending old MoD trucks over to Serbia, painted in Red Cross colours. (In fact, I know of two cases where the PSNI and Army have assisted a dodgy charity or a person in a charity up to no good.)

    Once there, they were repainted in military colours and handed to the Serbs to transport prisoners – whose hands were bound by handcuffs from English police forces.

    And what happened to ex-Army Alex? Well, who knows… he was said to have been ‘disciplined’, but Red Cross wouldn’t say anything more. He conned me once, so excuse the tone, although I doubt if he thought he was doing anything wrong. In fact, I only found out when I saw him on a Channel Four’s ‘Dispatches’ investigation… but a little digging can be very revealing.

    Probably the exception rather than the rule, but there are other charity scams going on here.

    Finally, it was Charities, rather than the IMC who were most vociferous in asking for this change.

    Quite right, so it was a shame that the Government only took this matter seriously after its report, even though registered charities have been pressing for this for years.

    I know many UK and Ireland-wide charities will welcome this. There are loads of legitimate charities here, but some can be unaccountable if they want to be.

    It is important not to tar all charities with the same brush, but too many small, local, independent ‘charities’ are actually running businesses for profit. The charity aspect is a facade. Pocketing the bulk of the money and keeping the best second-hand stock for oneself is NOT charity.

    At least you know where your money’s going with ‘chuggers’!