Charities regulator says HSE could lose its charitable status

Farrelly says much of narrative about charities is ‘unfair’, and they operate ‘in the gaps’

Charities regulator John Farrell. He says “charity” has become important much-needed work done by ordinary people.  Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Charities regulator John Farrell. He says “charity” has become important much-needed work done by ordinary people. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The Health Service Executive (HSE) is among 12 State bodies that may lose their charitable status in 2018, the charities regulator has said.

However, John Farrelly has rejected suggestions that there were “too many charities”, saying most were “operating in the gaps” where there were no or insufficient services.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Mr Farrelly said he was planning a “thematic review” of some of the more than 9,000 organisations on the charities register.

To qualify as a charity under the Charities Act 2009 a body must have a “charitable purpose...[of] public benefit”. A charitable purpose is defined as “the prevention or relief of poverty”; “the advancement of education”; “the advancement of religion”; or “any other purpose that is of benefit to the community”.

Mr Farrelly said any organisation on the register must be a charity – not a State body or business enterprise – that was fully operational and could be trusted by the public.

Of the 9,044 registered charities, 7,386 “came across” from the Revenue Commissioners’ records when the charities regulator was established in 2014. Some 1,658 new charities have been registered since.

“We have spent the last two years consolidating and developing the register,” Mr Farrelly said.

Some 1,600 organisations have been removed, the vast majority because they were either not functioning or were not providing a public benefit. In the coming year his attention will turn to “entities that appear to be State bodies rather than charities”.

While he did not specifically name them these include the HSE, the Arts Council, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), the Higher Education Authority, Teagasc and the Legal Aid Board.

Liaise with them

“You can’t be a State body and a charity, but in Ireland you can apparently. That’s something we want to look at. We will identify them, look at it, liaise with them, and figure out with them why they think they need to be a charity.”

Asked whether non-charities would be de-registered, he replied: “Yes...There’s the State, there’s the private and then there’s voluntary and charity. It’s a bit much to try and say you’re both.”

Much of the narrative about charities was “unfair”, he added. There were not “too many”.

“Charities are a real-time social indicator of what’s going on. They are not to blame. They are in there working in the gaps.

“There are 477 registered charities providing public benefit around homelessness and housing...We’ve registered 17 [housing and homelessness charities] this year. With the number of people who need help...it’s indicating something but not that there are too many charities.”

He said what “charity” represented had changed. No longer the rich “helping the poor”, charity was important much-needed work done by ordinary people.

He cited Inner City Helping Homeless, a voluntary group based in Dublin’s north inner city to help people sleeping rough or in poverty with food and other basics, which was registered this year.

The group was founded in November 2013 by bar worker Anthony Flynn, who noticed increasing rough sleeping as he walked home from work each night.

Mr Farrelly said: “You see champions coming out of all areas, not just from the leafy suburbs. We need to acknowledge the work of thousands of people. The negative narrative I hear, I don’t think it’s fair.”

Draft regulations

Adamant that his office was not “out to get” charities, he said draft regulations which would compel charities to fully account for all their funds would be presented to the Minister for Justice early next year.

He plans a more detailed register of charities – showing income, public and private donations, salaries and volunteer numbers – accessible digitally, and enabling the public to check an individual charity as well as to report concerns.

An e-learning tool is being rolled out to enable the 40,000 to 50,000 trustees of charities to educate themselves about their legal responsibilities.

“There’s a lot of focus on a charity’s staff, but the people actually charged in law are the trustees. I want to inform them and support them. You can’t bring in a new law and hammer them, but we want a sector that’s full of well-informed, trusted and well-intentioned people.”