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Watchdog to curb bogus charities


David Cameron says the changes will help make sure that charity donations always go to genuinely good causes

David Cameron says the changes will help make sure that charity donations always go to genuinely good causes

David Cameron says the changes will help make sure that charity donations always go to genuinely good causes

A charity watchdog is being promised tougher powers and an extra £8 million in an effort to put the squeeze on bogus good causes which divert cash to terrorism and other criminal activity.

David Cameron set out action to improve the enforcement efforts of the Charity Commission - which was sharply criticised last year over failures to tackle abuses - as he prepared to chair the latest meeting of the Government's Extremism Task Force.

"Today's changes will help make sure that when people donate to charity, their money always goes to genuinely good causes," the Prime Minister said.

"They will help us become a country that stands even taller in the world, and prouder and stronger too."

But he faced calls from the Commission, which blames weak enforcement powers and a lack of resources for its performance, to go further still in closing loopholes which allow convicted terrorists and money launderers to take senior positions in charities.

An automatic ban on anyone with convictions for certain criminal offences becoming a trustee of a charity is one of the changes included in a draft Protection of Charities Bill - as well as the power for the Commission to disqualify anyone they consider unfit.

It will also be allowed to shut down charities under investigation to protect public confidence, to issue an official warning in less serious cases and to prevent people resigning to avoid disqualification before returning in another guise.

Commission chairman Sir William Shawcross welcomed the extra powers but warned that criminals and others would still be able to take up roles as treasurers or finance directors unless the disqualification was extended beyond trustees.

Sir William, who has described the cause of Islamic extremism as the "most deadly" faced by the sector, is also pressing for the power to direct trustees not to take specific actions in a bid to prevent abuses before they occur.

Those measures were included in a public consultation launched by ministers after the Commission was condemned as "feeble" and "not fit for purpose" by the Commons public accounts committee.

MPs also raised concerns about tax relief for charitable donations being used as avoidance and evasion schemes, with an estimated £170 million lost to the Exchequer in 2012/13.

"I welcome the Draft Bill. It will give us new powers which will help us to be a more effective regulator," Sir William said.

"The new power to issue an official warning, for example, will allow us to warn trustees that we are monitoring their compliance with the law in situations where more forceful intervention would not be appropriate.

"We will play our full part in the pre-legislative scrutiny and will continue to push for more measures included in the consultation to be included in the Bill."

The Commission said legislation should be introduced "at the earliest possible opportunity in the next Parliament" and expressed confidence that the safeguards would be extended.

Downing Street said the cash injection was to help the regulator " re-focus its regulatory activity on proactive monitoring and enforcement in the highest risk areas like abuse of charities for terrorist and other criminal purposes, such as tax avoidance and fraud".

The Commission said it would be spent on "technology and frontline operations" to streamline lower-risk work and free resources for more serious cases

Karl Wilding, director of public policy at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which represents charities, said: 'It's been clear for some time that the Charity Commission's enforcement work has not been as strong as it could be.

"We also know that it has also struggled to deal with routine queries from charities in a prompt manner.

"This investment and its plans to revamp its work are very welcome and we believe they have the potential to make a significant difference. It's crucial we have an effective regulator that deals quickly with any poor practice to help ensure the public can continue to trust charities.

"We supported the Commission's call for additional powers to help it deal with poor practice.

"We'll examine the legislative proposals to make sure they strike the right balance between giving the Commission the powers it needs to deal with serious problems, while respecting individual charities' right to make their own decisions about how best to run themselves."

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