Concerns about charities

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Contents

Part A.

Introduction

A1. This guidance

Charities play an important part in our society and many of us have involvement with them, as trustees, volunteers, through using their services or as donors. Occasionally people have concerns about charities and look to the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland as the regulator for charities in Northern Ireland to take up their concerns.

This guidance looks at when we will, and when we will not, take up the issues reported to us.

A2. Our role

The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland is the independent regulator of charities in Northern Ireland. Our job as regulator is to work closely with charities to ensure that they are accountable, well run and meet their legal obligations in order to promote public trust and confidence.

When we receive a concern about a charity we will consider the issue reported to us, take a view as to whether we are best placed to deal with the matter and look at the most appropriate form of action in the circumstances. There will be many instances where we will not take the matter forward.

The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland remit does not extend to charities based in and operating in Scotland, England and Wales, or the Republic of Ireland, where different legislation applies. Details of the charity regulators in Scotland, England and Wales and the Republic of Ireland can be found at Part F.

A3. Scope of this guidance

The information contained in this guidance is about concerns that you may have about charities; it does not include concerns that you have about our level of service or against decisions we have made. Where you have a concern about the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland and its service or, as someone involved in a charity, you want us to review a decision on a particular issue.

A4. Using this guidance

Each Part has a topic heading under which we have asked relevant questions that you might raise about how we deal with concerns about charities. Generally we give a concise summary answer ('The short answer') and then give more background ('In more detail').

A5. Other sources of help and advice

Our work involving concerns focuses on advising charities and getting them to use all resources at their disposal to resolve problems themselves. We encourage trustees to make use of the expertise of relevant organisations to help them run their charities as effectively as possible. They can seek help on issues raised by concerns from organisations other than the Commission.

Contact details for all the organisations mentioned in this guidance can be found in Part F.

A6. 'Must' and 'should': what we mean

In this guidance where we use 'must' we mean it is a specific legal or regulatory requirement affecting trustees or a charity. Trustees must comply with these requirements.

We use 'should' for items we regard as minimum good practice, but for which there is no specific legal requirement. Trustees should follow the good practice guidance unless there is a valid reason not to.

A7. Some technical terms used

Although we have tried hard to write this guidance in everyday language, we have had to use technical terms in places. This list explains some of them:

Charity trustees: These are the people who serve on the governing body of the charity and are responsible for the general control and management of the administration of a charity. They can be known by other titles such as trustees, directors, board members, governors or committee members.

Dispute: In the context of this guidance a dispute is a disagreement within a charity that results in differing opinions, a struggle for control and even a breakdown in the effective day-to-day management of the charity.

Governing document: This is a legal document setting out the charity's purposes and, usually, how it is to be administered. It may be a trust deed, constitution, memorandum and articles of association, will, conveyance, Royal Charter, Scheme of the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland, or other formal document.

Independent examination: This is a form of external scrutiny of a charity's accounts, less in-depth than a formal financial audit.

Inquiry: When used in the context of this guidance this means a formal inquiry opened under section 22 of the Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008. This enables us to look into the conduct of a charity's affairs and, if necessary, to use our powers to protect charity property.

Proscribed organisation: These are organisations named in law as being involved in, or linked to, terrorist activity. It is a criminal offence to be a member of, or invite support for, a proscribed organisation.

Part B.

This guidance at a glance

This page provides a quick reference to the contents of this guidance.

Part C sets out what the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland does as a regulator and our policy in relation to handling concerns.

Part D explains the information that we need and when we will and won't get involved. It gives guidance on how to set out your concern and where you should send it. Also, it explains what we are able to do to prevent your identity from being revealed.

Part E looks at submitting concerns under the Public Interest Disclosure (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 which provides for a legally protected form of whistleblowing. This helps employees of charities blow the whistle when something is wrong within the charity and sets out where the legal protections apply.

Part F gives details of organisations that can assist charities.

Part C.

The Charity Commission as a regulator

C1. What is the Commission's role?

The short answer:

The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland is the independent regulator of charities in Northern Ireland. Our aim is to provide the best possible regulation in order to increase charities' effectiveness and the public's confidence and trust in them.

For the most part, the day-to-day running of charities remains the responsibility of charity trustees. Where things go wrong in charities our action will be evidence based and proportionate, taking account of the issue, the risk involved to the charity and its beneficiaries and the capacity of the charity to comply. In more detail

Our role is to enable charities to deliver effective services whilst also ensuring compliance with charity law. We do this by working with charities through providing advice and guidance and setting out best practice to resolve difficulties encountered. To address matters of serious concern, we will intervene to protect the charity by using our legal powers where it is necessary and proportionate to do so.

As the charity regulator we will receive concerns about charities. It is the nature of such concerns that determines the action we take.

Generally speaking the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland will take up your concerns where:

  • we decide that there is a serious risk of significant harm to or abuse of the charity, its assets, beneficiaries or reputation
    and
  • we consider that our intervention is a necessary and proportionate response to protect them.

Our view of what we consider to be serious risk or what we regard as significant harm is outlined at Part D

The proportionality of our approach means that our actions are measured to fit the seriousness and scale of what has occurred and to take account of the potential for further risk to the charity and the capacity of the charity to comply with any requirements for change.

Whilst we will look at all concerns we receive, it is not our role to become involved in every problem or dispute that arises between individuals and charities. Consequently, we will not be able to solve every issue brought to our attention.

C2. What is the Commission's approach when it receives a concern about a charity?

The short answer:

All concerns will be looked at so that we can decide what further action is required and whether the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland is the appropriate regulator to take up the issue of concern. The concern will be assessed to determine how serious it is and the risk it poses to the charity, its assets, beneficiaries or reputation.

We will acknowledge your concern and let you know if we intend to take it further, but we will not enter into detailed correspondence about the action we intend to take. Once we reach a conclusion following further enquiries/investigation into a concern we will write to inform you of the outcome.

In more detail:

The types of concerns we receive are many and varied. As a risk based regulator, we focus our priorities and resources where we judge that our efforts can be most effective for charities and the people who use them. In doing this we consider the nature of the concern being made and the risks associated with what is being alleged and its impact upon the charity.

Our experience shows that in most cases a concern can be cleared up by providing advice or by highlighting information in our guidance. There may be other serious issues which we would expect the charity trustees to remedy, if necessary with our support. Only concerns that identify the most serious risks to a charity, its assets or beneficiaries will be dealt with by an inquiry under section 22 of the Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 - see Part D

We will tell you if a concern is outside our jurisdiction and, if so, to where your concerns should be reported.

We often receive concerns about a charity as a result of a dispute. A dispute is a disagreement within a charity that results in differing opinions, a struggle for control and even a breakdown in the effective day-to-day management of the charity. It can have a negative impact on how a charity operates and it is something that the charity trustees need to resolve quickly. It is only in very limited circumstances that the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland will become involved, usually where there are no validly appointed trustees and all methods of resolving the issues have been exhausted. Those involved in a dispute should try and use all available methods to resolve the dispute themselves.

Whilst we understand that some issues may be very important to an individual or group they will not always pose a serious risk to the charity. The basis of our intervention is related to the impact on the charity concerned. Part D1 looks at the types of issues that the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland considers to be serious and to which we will give our immediate attention. Part D2 sets out where we do not consider it appropriate to intervene.

Part D.

The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland and concerns

D1. What issues does the Commission want to know about?

The short answer:

We need to know where there is a serious risk of significant harm to or abuse of a charity, its assets, beneficiaries or reputation.

In more detail:

The issues we consider to be serious or significant and unacceptable for any charity, its trustees, employees or agents to be engaged in are set out in the list below. The issues are not listed in any order of priority:

  • Significant financial loss to the charity.
  • Serious harm to beneficiaries and, in particular, vulnerable beneficiaries.
  • Threats to national security, particularly terrorism.
  • Criminality within or involving a charity, however we may direct your concern to another body.
  • Sham charities set up for an illegal or improper purpose.
  • Charities deliberately being used for significant private advantage.
  • Where a charity's independence is seriously called into question.
  • Serious non-compliance in a charity that damages or has the potential to damage its reputation and/or the reputation of charities generally.
  • Serious non-compliance in a charity which, left unchecked, could damage public trust and confidence in the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland as an effective regulator.

'Serious' or 'significant' will be different for different sizes of charity. When considering financial loss we are concerned about any actual or suspected fraud or theft (or loss due to any other actual or suspected criminal activity) regardless of the scale of funds or value of other property involved. There may be instances, however, where the amount lost is so small that it is not proportionate to take the matter further.

The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland remit does not extend to investigating criminal activity or concerns about taxation. If these issues are brought to our attention we will advise you to whom you should address your concern. Action taken by the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland in such matters will be restricted to considering whether there has been misconduct or mismanagement in the administration of the charity in allowing illegal activity or taxation irregularities to occur. There may also be a need for us to act to protect charity property. If you think that a crime has occurred you should report the matter to the police as well as to the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland.

Part D3 sets out how to report matters to us; as part of this process we ask for evidence of any wrongdoing that is alleged.

D2. When doesn't the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland get involved?

The short answer:

We will not get involved in matters which are outside the scope of the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland's responsibilities. Our powers to intervene are limited by:

  • the extent to which the legal framework governing charities and their regulation allow involvement or intervention by us
  • the rights of charity trustees to run the charity within the terms of its governing document
  • whether the issue should properly be dealt with by another regulator or agency
  • whether our action is a proportionate response to the issues involved
  • whether our intervention would directly bring about a solution.

These limitations mean that not all concerns will be taken up.

In more detail:

In practical terms the limitations on our ability to intervene means we will not take forward concerns:

  • where you disagree with decisions made by the trustees and those decisions have been properly made within the law and the provisions of the charity's governing document
  • to resolve internal disagreements over a charity's policy or strategy because those involved are responsible for settling the issues themselves
  • about incidents of poor service from a charity where there is no general risk to its services, its clients or its resources
  • where the concern arises from a charity dispute and there are properly appointed trustees whose responsibility it is to deal with the issues reported
  • where the issue reported does not pose a serious risk to the charity, its assets or beneficiaries
  • where the issue is being dealt with by, or is the responsibility of, another statutory or supervisory body
  • where there is a disagreement about the terms or delivery of a contract
  • where legal proceedings are being taken by another party against a charity, including those for the collection of debts, except in a few very rare cases where the Attorney General has specifically asked us to do so.

As a proportionate regulator we only take up issues where we believe that there is substance to a concern. Therefore, if there is no evidence to support the concern or allegation we may decide that intervention is not appropriate. We will not act on unsubstantiated allegations, rumour or opinion - to do this and, as a result, disrupt the charity's work would be unfair to that charity, its activities and its users and beneficiaries.

D3. What information should I provide with a concern made?

The short answer:

In most cases we will need as much information as possible. Comprehensive information allows us to assess your concern more effectively and decide if there is an issue for us to take up. Please send the information to the address at the end of this part.

In more detail:

For any matter you report to us it would be helpful if you tell us:

  • the name of the charity and its registration number if known
  • the nature of what you want to report including whether it is an incident that has happened or whether it is an allegation or suspicion of something that may have happened or is likely to happen
  • who is involved and their position in the charity
  • whether the person or people involved is/are still involved with the charity
  • the effect that this matter has had on the charity and/or its beneficiaries
  • action taken by the charity because of what has happened
  • whether there has been any publicity surrounding the issue
  • details or copies of documentary evidence in support of your concerns
  • details of attempts you have made to get the charity to address your concerns
  • details of any previous correspondence or contact with us or any other public body about these matters
  • your name, postal and email addresses and telephone number and connection (if any) to the charity.
All the information you have should be included at the outset and not submitted to us piecemeal.
You should be aware that:
  • it is a criminal offence knowingly or recklessly to supply us with information which is false or misleading
  • if you have already reported a matter to us you do not need to tell us again. We will not normally reconsider concerns that we have already dealt with unless circumstances have changed materially or significant new evidence has become available.

We have an evidence-based approach to our work and always test allegations before deciding on our action.

If you would like us to consider your concern the simplest way to do so is to complete our ' Concerns about charities form'. If you require a hard copy of this form please email: concernsaboutcharities@charitycommissionni.org.uk

D4. Will a charity be told who is submitting a concern?

The short answer

We respect confidences as far as we are able and give proper consideration to your rights under data protection, freedom of information and human rights legislation. However, there may be certain instances where your identity will be disclosed or may become apparent.

In more detail

If you write to us, please say:
  • whether we may tell the charity that you are the complainant and
  • whether we may put your concern and any evidence supplied by you directly to the charity.

It is not normally our policy to send a copy of a complainant's letter (or any other papers which may identify them) to the charity unless they have given their consent. However, the charity is entitled to know the nature of the concerns raised. Also any person has a right to be told the nature of the evidence upon which a concern about them is based. While we will take every step to try to ensure that your identity is not revealed without your consent, in some cases the nature of the allegations or evidence may give an indication as to their source. There may be an obligation to reveal information under freedom of information legislation unless an exemption applies and it is right that it is exercised. Part F provides details for the Information Commissioner from whom you can find out more about freedom of information legislation.

In cases where we use our statutory powers to undertake an inquiry we usually publish a Statement of Results of Inquiry. Information from inquiries may also be used in Court proceedings. Documents and information gathered during the course of, and for the purposes of, an inquiry will be treated in confidence, until we publish the Statement of Results of Inquiry (although even then some information will continue to be exempt from disclosure) or unless they are required under a Court Order during legal proceedings.

Some whistleblowers have statutory rights and protections under the Public Interest Disclosure (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 and those who audit or independently examine charities' accounts have rights and obligations of disclosure to the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland in certain circumstances. These rights and obligations are explained in Part E.

Part E.

Submitting a concern under the Public Interest Disclosure (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, also known as 'whistleblowing'.

E1. What is the effect of the Order?

The short answer

This Order protects workers from detrimental treatment or victimisation from their employer if, in the public interest, they report wrong-doing.

It protects most workers in the public, private and voluntary sectors, but does not apply to genuinely self-employed professionals (other than in the NHS), voluntary workers (including charity trustees and charity volunteers), police officers or the intelligence services. Someone who is employed by a charity would be able to use the provisions of this Order.

This part provides an overview of the disclosure procedures from the Order where they might apply to charity employees. If you want to make a disclosure you may wish to seek independent legal advice or seek further information from the organisations listed at part E5.

In more detail:

The Order protects workers in a number of ways, for example:

  • if an employee is dismissed because he or she has made a protected disclosure (see Part E4) that will be treated as unfair dismissal
  • workers are given a right not to be subjected to any 'detriment' by their employers on the ground that they have made a protected disclosure
  • workers are able to present a concern to an employment tribunal if they suffer detriment as a result of making a protected disclosure.

It aims to increase the accountability of organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors through the introduction of protection for workers who blow the whistle on wrong-doing within or concerning an organisation. Charities (as part of the voluntary sector) are within the jurisdiction of the Order.

E2. What does this have to do with the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland?

The short answer

The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland is the regulatory body responsible for ensuring that charity trustees comply with their legal obligations in exercising control and management of the administration of charities. The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland is a 'prescribed person' under Public Interest Disclosure (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 allowing it to accept disclosures from charity workers.

In more detail

Workers who are aware of wrong-doing within a charity or a non-charitable body (where this involves the administration of charities or charitable funds) can disclose information to us about the administration of charities and funds given, or held, for charitable purposes so long as they raise their concerns in accordance with the provisions of the Public Interest Disclosure (Northern Ireland) Order 1998.

For a disclosure to be protected by Public Interest Disclosure (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 (see Part E4) it must relate to matters that 'qualify' for protection under that Order (see Part E3).

Disclosures made to the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland about a charity will be considered as part of our concerns procedure.

E3. What is a 'qualifying' disclosure?

The short answer

A qualifying disclosure is one which provides information on specific matters outlined by the Order about which the person holds a reasonable belief of its authenticity.

In more detail

The disclosure must relate to:

  • a criminal offence
  • the breach of a legal obligation
  • a miscarriage of justice
  • a danger to the health and safety of any individual
  • damage to the environment
  • deliberate concealment of information tending to show any of the above five matters.

In order to make a qualifying disclosure the worker must reasonably believe that the information being provided tends to show that one or more of the events bulleted above is happening now, has happened in the past or is likely to happen in the future.

Certain conditions must apply to ensure the disclosure is 'protected'. These are set out in the next part.

E4. What is a 'protected' disclosure?

The short answer

This is a qualifying disclosure made by the worker, subject to particular conditions, to ensure that it is protected by Public Interest Disclosure (Northern Ireland) Order 1998.

In more detail

A qualifying disclosure to the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland will be a 'protected' disclosure provided the worker:

  • makes the disclosure in good faith
  • reasonably believes that the relevant failure relates to the proper administration of charities and funds given, or held, for charitable purposes
  • reasonably believes that the information disclosed, and any allegation contained in it, are substantially true.

Workers can report directly to the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland when they have concerns that fall within the above description. It is important to note that where a worker is victimised for making a disclosure to the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland, any claim they may have under the Order is against his or her employer and not against the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland.

E5. Is there any other information about this Order?

The short answer

Yes, information is available from the NIDIRECT and also from the charity Public Concern at Work, www.pcaw.co.uk Public Concern at Work (External link)

In more detail

Public Concern at Work provides free confidential advice to workers who have concerns about wrong-doing in the workplace. The charity can be contacted at Suite 301, 16 Baldwins Gardens, London EC1N 7RJ or by telephone on 020 7404 6609, by emailing PCAW at whistle@pcaw.co.uk or visit its website at www.pcaw.co.uk Public Concern at Work (External link)

NIDIRECT provides general employment advice for employers and employees. It can be obtained from their website www.nidirect.gov.uk NI Direct Government Services (External link).

Further information can be found at Labour Relations Agency www.lra.org.uk Labour Relations Agency (External link)

E6. If I want to make a Public Interest Disclosure (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 report to the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland about a charity, who do I contact?

The simplest way is to complete the 'Concerns about charities form' and email it to us at:

concernsaboutcharities@charitycommissionni.org.uk

Whichever way you contact us please tell us that you wish to submit a concern under the Public Interest Disclosure (Northern Ireland) Order 1998.

Part F.

Further information and advice

There are many resources to help individuals take up issues with particular types of charities. This is not a definitive list of all sources of information available but it offers a good overview and starting point.

F1. Other Organisations

Association of Charity Shops

This organisation supports member charities that run charity shops as part of their fundraising activities. It promotes a code of practice for charity retailing.

Association of Charity Shops
5th Floor Central House
14 Upper Woburn Place
London WC1H 0AE
Tel:020 7255 4470
Email: mail@charityshops.org.uk
Website: www.charityshops.org.uk Association of Charity Shops (External link)

Companies House

This is the incorporation authority and regulator for limited companies which includes charitable companies. Public information about companies is available from Companies House.

Companies House
Second Floor
The Linenhall
32-38 Linenhall Street
Belfast
Northern Ireland BT2 8BG

Tel: 0044 (0) 303 1234 500
Email: enquiries@companies-house.gov.uk
Website: www.companieshouse.gov.uk Companies House (External link)

NIDIRECT

Fundraising Standards Board

This new body has been formed to operate an open self-regulatory scheme for the fundraising sector, with the purpose of encouraging excellence in fundraising and providing a robust and accessible concerns procedure. It will consider concerns about its members.

Fundraising Standards Board
61 London Fruit Exchange
Brushfield Street
London E1 6EP
Tel: 0845 402 5442
Fax: 0845 402 5443
Email: info@frsb.org.ukl
Website: www.frsb.org.uk Fundraising Standards Board (External link)

The Information Commissioner's Office

This is the UK's independent authority set up to promote access to official information and to protect personal information. The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (External link)

NICVA produces a wide range of information and support services for those working in the voluntary sector, including a publication on duties and responsibilities of trustees.

61 Duncairn Gardens
Belfast, County Antrim BT15 2GB
028 9087 7777
Email: info@nicva.org
Website: http://www.nicva.org Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (External link)

Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR)

Concerns about charities operating in Scotland may be addressed to:

OSCR
2nd Floor
Quadrant House
9 Riverside Drive
Dundee DD1 4NY
Tel: 01382 346890 or 07724 150833
Email: info@oscr.org.uk

Charity Commission for England and Wales

Charity Commission for England and Wales
Charity Commission Direct
PO Box 1227
Liverpool
L69 3UG

Tel: 0845 300 0219
Email: feedback@charitycommission.gov.uk
Website: www.charity-commission.gov.uk Charity Commission for England and Wales (External link)

Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs

Concerns about charities operating in Republic of Ireland may be addressed to:

Charity Regulation Unit
Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs
43-49 Mepsil Rd, Dublin 4
Tel: 00353 (0) 1647 3247 or 00353 (0) 1647 3017

Tel: 00353 (0) 1647 3247 or 00353 (0) 1647 3017
Email: eolas@pobail.ie
Website: www.pobail.ie/en/CharitiesRegulationDepartment of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs (External link)

Trading Standards

This central website will tell you how to find your nearest Trading Standards office and how to submit a concern about the supply of goods or services. This may be of help where your concern is about a charity shop. www.tradingstandards.gov.uk Trading Standards Institute (External link)

Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS)

ACAS aims to improve organisations and working life through better employment relations. It provides up-to-date information, independent advice and will work with employers and employees to solve problems. ACAS services are provided on a regional basis. www.acas.org.uk Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (External link)
Helpline: 08457 47 47 47

Public Concern at Work

Suite 301
16 Baldwin Gardens
London
EC1N 7RJ
Tel: 020 7404 6609
Email: whistle@pcaw.co.uk

F2. Key publications

The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland will develop a range of publications and guidance to assist charities. Until these publications are developed you may find the following publications, available on the Charity Commission for England and Wales (CCEW) website useful. CCEW produces a wide range of guidance giving information and advice to charity trustees and the general public on issues relating to charity law, regulation and best practice. The list below is a selection based on the issues covered in this guidance.

The Essential Trustee: What you need to know

Internal Financial Controls for Charities

Payment of Charity Trustees

Charity Reporting and Accounting: The essentials April 2009

Charities and Fundraising

Registering as a Charity

Users on Board: Beneficiaries who become trustees

Charities and Risk Management: A guide for trustees

Sales, leases, transfers or mortgages: What trustees need to know about disposing of charity land

Independent Examination of Charity Accounts: Trustees' Guide

Independent Examination of Charity Accounts: Examiners' Guide

Acquiring Land

Charities and Meetings

Charities and Commercial Partners

Cause for Complaint? How charities manage complaints about their service

The Charity Commission and Regulation

A Guide to Conflicts of Interest for Charity Trustees

Charities and Terrorism

Conflicts in your charity; a statement of approach by the Charity Commission

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