Is it time for a minister for charities?

Recent scandals and difficulties in the charity sector have produced an erosion of vital trust

Nine years on and after CRC, Rehab and Console, it will be September 2016 before the final parts of the Charities Act are commenced. Photograph: The Irish Times

Nine years on and after CRC, Rehab and Console, it will be September 2016 before the final parts of the Charities Act are commenced. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

The collapse of Console and recent concerns over fundraising issues at Irish Autism Action have once again brought charities back into public debate.

Many of the same issues are back on the agenda for discussion without any real action being taken to support and protect this sector. Successive governments have paid the sector lip service with plenty of praise for the wonderful work it undertakes, but there has been a lack of commitment to implement change.

One only needs to look at the Charities Act passed by the Oireachtas in February 2009. One of its key aims was to ensure the public had trust and confidence in the sector, yet its implementation was parked.

The eventual implementation of sections of the Act in the wake of CRC and Rehab affairs was a knee-jerk reaction, leading to the establishment of the Charity Regulatory Authority (CRA) which seems to be struggling to keep up with the new regulated environment in which charities must now operate.

Speaking at the second stage of the Charities Bill in 2007, the then minister in charge of the sector Pat Carey said: “All this time, the charities sector, as a traditionally largely cash-based, voluntary enterprise, has been left vulnerable to potential abuse by unscrupulous individuals and organisations. It is a testament to the commitment and integrity of charitable trustees that incidents of such abuse have been few and far between over the years. Nonetheless, it could be argued that it might take only one major such scandal to undermine public confidence.”

Nine years on and after CRC, Rehab and Console, it will be September 2016 before the final parts of the Act are commenced.

If there had been a greater willingness from previous governments to implement the Act, some of these recent crises may have been averted.

The CRA, which was only established in 2014, comes under the remit of the Minister for Justice. However, given the size of the Justice portfolio, it is no surprise that the charity sector has been overlooked in favour of more “urgent” areas.

The charity sector employs more than 100,000 people and has a turnover of €7 billion. The not-for-profit sector accounts for almost 9 per cent of GDP. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people “donate” their time, talent and resources as volunteers.

Compelling case

Its reach should be broad enough to encompass not-for-profits, third sector (ie not public or private) and civil society organisations. There are more than 22,500 not-for-profit organisations in Ireland. There are 11,000 people employed in the fishing industry, yet there has been a minister for the marine for decades. There is a compelling case for one for charities.

The not-for-profit sector is growing. The late US sociologist Daniel Bell predicted that the “third sector” would become dominant in society as the knowledge class overcame the effects of the private sector.

The decline of the welfare state will continue to place more demands and reliance on the third sector. Take, for example, the housing charities, which cannot cope with the demand for their services due to the lack of investment by the Government in social housing and by previous governments’ refusal to increase rent supplement.

New Zealand has its own minister for the community and voluntary sector. The United Kingdom has a minister for civil society (previously known as the minister for the third sector). This was part of David Cameron’s “Big Society” agenda which involved government devolving more power and responsibility to voluntary groups and charities. We can learn a lot from that initiative. This can only work effectively in a sector that is properly regulated.

Erosion of trust

Charities enjoy a privileged position in society. It is widely accepted that during the worst of the recent recession Irish citizens were more engaged in community action and volunteering.

With the economy now improving, it is critical the Government ensures that this generosity is harnessed and encouraged. A minister for charities can play a pivotal role in ensuring that the hope of a better, more caring and compassionate society is no longer a dream that is unattainable but one that can become a reality.

Cormac O’Ceallaigh is a solicitor specialising in charity law

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