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Lord Richard Balfe of Dulwich

Charities- some uncomfortable facts

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The common image of charities is of benevolent institutions doing good in a quiet way for generally people or animals who need help.

The reality is not quite like that. Today in Britain charities are big business and often pay big salaries. It was recently reported that the Chief Executive of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, “with bonuses he raked in £216,000 and will collect around £100,000 as an exit package. In comparison the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gets £135,000 and Theresa May £142,000.

But he has his defenders. Martin Sime, Chief Executive of the Scottish Council of Voluntary organisations the trade union for charities said “it is important that pay scales can be justified often through benchmarking”. This simply means comparing new posts with similar posts in other organisations so the newcomer will not do too badly.

Meanwhile the Times on that same day carried the story, “The head of the National Trust has been accused of using mafia tactics to smear one of its critics in a row over its purchase of farmland in the Lake District”. The item concerns the fact that the Trust overbid the guide price by £200,000 to buy a farm which it alleged will no longer be used for farming rare Herdwick sheep.

The same edition on page two reported how the Charity Commission is investigating a charity called “Support the Heroes” which is supposedly dedicated to “help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder”. They have been “banned from collecting donations because of concerns that too much money is going into the pockets of professional fundraisers”.

These stories are just from a couple of days’ worth of papers. The reality is that there is a need for fundamental reform.

Firstly charities need to be more transparent. Many if not most of them have little in the way of democratic structure and under the last Labour Government a very unhealthy relationship developed where many charities were in receipt of public funds which were used to lobby the government for changes in the law that charities wanted.

No public money should be given to charities other than for very specific service delivery. Any monies received should be clearly identified in the charities’ accounts and in the appropriate government expenditure plan.

Secondly charities should be subject to the freedom of information act. They in short should be accountable to the public. Many will protest that this is too onerous but then they do not find it too onerous to collect money.

Thirdly it seems that charity trustees are often chosen in a highly secretive way. The process needs to be opened up with the public given a full account as to how trustees are chosen, with time limits on their appointment and the full rigour of equal opportunities and race relations laws applied.

The UK Charity Commission which has a new leadership team also needs to get its act together. The top may have changed but many of the day to day decisions are taken by a team of people who have a somewhat out of date attitudes. In my own case a letter to the Chairman was diverted from his office and answered by another employee. It was only after a protest that I got an adequate response. If it is that hard for a Member of the House of Lords imagine what it is like for an ordinary person.

There is also a wider issue. Recent democratic surprises such as the UK BREXIT vote and the election of Donald Trump have shown the wide gap between the privileged class at the top and the ordinary person who has seen little improvement in their lot for the last ten years. The professionalisation of charities is another example of the elite drawing away from the people so it is little wonder that big charities are unpopular.