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Charity Regulation

Volume 655: debated on Thursday 7 March 2019

The Charity Commission performs a vital role as the independent regulator and registrar of charities in England and Wales. The National Audit Office conducted a review of the commission as recently as November 2017 and was positive in its findings. The commission continues to regulate robustly to ensure that the public can support charities with confidence.

Some £43 million of public money going on a bridge across the Thames on which zero construction occurred has led us all up the garden path and now we know that the trust is being wound up. The Charity Commission says it will do no further investigation, so will the Government instigate an independent inquiry so that lessons are learned and no project like this ever has the same fate? Frankly, to have a regulator that is not regulating feels useless.

The hon. Lady raises the specific issue of the Garden Bridge Trust, which is concerning. The commission has rightly scrutinised the trustees’ conduct and management, and the charity itself, carefully, and it continues to monitor the charity’s progress on winding up. I understand that the commission intends to publish a concluding report on the running of the trust and to learn those wider lessons, setting them out for policy makers so that we can learn from them. I am happy to hear from the hon. Lady if she has further concerns.

The Minister will be aware that public trust in charities was shaken to the core by the revelations of the sexual abuse and harassment that occurred not only in the UK and Europe but around the world. What work is the Charity Commission doing to make sure that that issue is addressed, and that emerging concerns about the role of overseas orphanages in issues of modern-day slavery are looked into? These are important issues involving charities.

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue; she is a doughty campaigner for women around the world and it is absolutely right that we will have the debate later today ahead of International Women’s Day tomorrow. People have been horrified by what has been allowed to be done around the globe under the watch of charities, and it is absolutely right that we learn lessons. I am due to talk to Ministers from the Department for International Development about this matter, and I would be happy to speak to my right hon. Friend about particular issues if she feels that anything has not been picked up on. We must make sure that we learn further lessons. Nothing can be left alone on this issue.

I want to press the Minister further on the garden bridge issue. It has been a total fiasco. We have seen £40 million of public money wasted; public tendering and procurement processes bypassed; contracts awarded before the business case was even drawn up; and a cosy relationship—to say the least—between the chair of the trustees and senior figures at the Charity Commission itself, as well as the former Mayor of London. How can the public have trust in charity regulation if the Charity Commission will not properly investigate a scandal of this magnitude? What is the Minister going to do herself to make sure that a full investigation—not just a report—into this scandal is conducted?

As I said, there has been an investigation and lessons will be learned. I am due to meet the Charity Commission fairly shortly. The Government increased the commission’s budget by £5 million in January 2018 so that it could increase its core regulatory functions. I admit that I have had issues in my own constituency relating to concerns about the Charity Commission, so I am happy to take the matter further. I am the charities and lotteries Minister and, as we heard earlier, if we do not have confidence in our charities’ ability to make sure that they look after other people’s money properly, we need to carry on and do more.