Debt advice company may contravene Irish laws by calling itself a ‘charity’

StepChange Debt Charity Ireland, which started operating in 2015, not yet registered as a charity here

StepChange, located in  of Leeds, offers advice to borrowers struggling with multiple secured and unsecured debts.

StepChange, located in of Leeds, offers advice to borrowers struggling with multiple secured and unsecured debts.

 

A UK-based organisation that offers free debt advice to people in Ireland may be in contravention of Irish law by calling itself a charity when it has not yet been registered as a charity in Ireland.

StepChange Debt Charity Ireland, a subsidiary of a UK registered charity, started offering free debt advice to Irish consumers on November 16th, 2015, after securing € 6 million in funding from five retail banks. AIB, Bank of Ireland, KBC, Permanent TSB and Ulster Bank agreed to provide € 2 million a year between them over the next three years to fund the service.

The online and telephone-based service, located in the English city of Leeds, offers advice to borrowers struggling with multiple secured and unsecured debts. Calls to its 1800 number are free from both landlines and mobiles.

When it first launched, it expected to help about 3,600 people a year in Ireland, although a spokeswoman declined to comment on how many Irish customers it has assisted since its launch.

‘Remains ongoing’

At the time, then chief executive Mike O’Connor said it planned to register with the Charities Regulatory Authority here but, according to the spokeswoman, some two years on, the process “remains ongoing”.

However, Stepchange has continued to use the word “charity” in its title, StepChange Debt Charity Ireland, while the name of its website is www.stepchangedebtcharity.ie.

Under section 46 of the Charities Act, it is considered to be an offence if a body (other than a registered charitable organisation) describes itself as such “in any notice, advertisement, promotional literature or any other published material” so that it would “cause members of the public to reasonably believe that it is a charitable organisation”. Penalties may arise when a body is found to be in contravention of this.

A spokeswoman for StepChange says that the organisation applied to the Charities Regulator for registration in November 2015. The spokeswoman added that they had been assured by the regulator that it was correct for them to describe themselves as a charity in Ireland whilst the application was being considered.

A spokesman for the Charities Regulator confirmed that Stepchange has not yet registered as a charity in Ireland. It said that all concerns received from the public are fully reviewed by the regulator.