MPs call for tighter controls on charities

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The Independent Online

MPs have demanded a change in the law that governs Britain's charities after accusing the Charity Commissioners of failing to tackle malpractice.

MPs have demanded a change in the law that governs Britain's charities after accusing the Charity Commissioners of failing to tackle malpractice.

With larger sums of public money spent by charities and voluntary organisations every year, ministers have introduced a new code of conduct by which it says they must abide.

But several MPs have argued this does not go far enough. The law, which was set up to ensure that small-scale groups raising funds for good causes were run properly, is not adequate for professional organisations spending at least £4bn of taxpayers' money each year, they say.

One senior MP, who did not want to be named, said charity law should be "radically reformed." The Charity Commissioners should no longer have the dual role of both regulating and supporting charities, he said.

As an investigation by The Independent raised a series of concerns about whether charities were being properly monitored, there were calls for radical reform.

"If I had my way, I would completely rewrite the law," one MP said. "We have a very cosy system where people are just too easy on each other."

Helen Jones, the Labour MP for Warrington North, has also campaigned for a change in the law. She told the Leader of the House of Commons, Margaret Beckett, in a recent debate that the Charity Commission lacked the necessary powers to investigate allegations of abuse.

"On some occasions, the Charity Commission has been as much use as a chocolate fireguard, as we say in my neck of the woods. Isn't it time we reviewed charity law so that vulnerable people can be properly protected?" she asked.

Mrs Beckett admitted the Government was daunted by the prospect of tackling the legislation. "I suspect that governments of all political shades have contemplated a fresh look at charities law, winced and turned away for the time being because of its enormous complexity," she said.

While resisting calls for a change in the law, the Government has drawn up voluntary codes to try to safeguard the huge sums of public money now being spent by charities.

Under a new code agreed by the Home Office and the voluntary sector, charities receiving public money will agree to set up systems to monitor and evaluate their activities. They must have clear complaints procedures, and must include their clients in developing their services.

There will be tougher checks on how public grants have been spent in the past by voluntary organisations before they receive renewed funding.

According to a charity information service, Charities Direct, many of the biggest charities are now health care providers.

The UK charity with the biggest income in 1998 was the PPP Healthcare Medical Trust, a private health charity which received £426m. It was followed by the British Council with £425m and the Wellcome Trust with £314m. Oxfam came just ninth with an income of £155m and the British Red Cross 11th with £121m. The Arts Council, the British Library and the National Trust are all among the top 10 charities in terms of income.