Trading Standards is powerless to investigate a complaint against the Fundraising Regulator by arts charity Children and the Arts, whose accusations can only be adjudicated by the Regulator itself.

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Trading Standards, which has extensive powers to enforce consumer legislation, is unable to investigate a complaint by charity Children and the Arts against the Fundraising Regulator, because the Regulator is a quasi-government body and therefore outside of its jurisdiction. Instead the charity’s complaint against the Regulator, accusing it of sending unsolicited invoices demanding payment of a levy, can only be assessed by the Regulator itself.

“No basis for complaint”

The Regulator describes the levy fee, which is to cover its operating costs and the start-up costs of the Fundraising Preference Service, as “voluntary, although expected”. It insists that sending an unsolicited invoice for the levy was acceptable practice because communication on its website, and a letter sent prior to the invoice, co-signed by Chairman Lord Grade and Chief Executive Stephen Dunmore, were “very clear” that paying for it was voluntary.

It has rejected what it describes as AP’s “hugely incorrect and spurious implication” that its conduct was illegal, and told AP this “must be amended”.

Voluntary payment is not a donation

The Regulator is arguing that the attempts it made to explain why Children and the Arts should pay the levy, prior to sending its invoice, mean there is “no real basis for the complaint.” A spokesperson told AP: “Given the letter and invoice were sent separately it is possible that a charity might not have received the letter but there is no evidence to show that is the case”. They said: “Anybody who had a problem with receiving the invoice should have contacted the Regulator after receiving the letter informing them about the invoice being sent.”

The Regulator insists that, despite the payment being voluntary, the charities covered by the levy “are not ‘donors’”. It declined to respond when AP asked whether a member of the public would have a basis for complaint if a charity treated them in this way, describing such an analogy as “highly stretched and distorted”.

No higher authority

Although Trading Standards, where the complaint was lodged, would normally be the body responsible for investigating potential breaches of consumer law, it has no powers to investigate a quasi-government body.

The Charity Commission has confirmed that, as the Regulator is not a charity, it is not within its regulatory remit; and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, whose role includes taking final decisions on complaints about government departments and other public organisations, has confirmed that the Regulator is not among the bodies for which it is responsible. DCMS failed to respond to AP’s request for clarification on the issue.

Trading Standards Tower Hamlets contacted the Fundraising Regulator to find out what Children and the Arts should do if they are unhappy with the internal investigation. A spokesperson for the Regulator told them: “The appropriate course of action if dissatisfied with the response the complainant has received, is to write to the Chairman of our Board Lord Michael Grade.” They confirmed that “there is not another body with which the complainant can escalate this complaint, other than on the subject itself to the relevant regulator”. In this case, the relevant regulator would be the Fundraising Regulator itself.

Author(s): 
Liz Hill