Feedback sought on proposed changes to Charities Act

Charities and fund-raisers could soon be made more accountable under proposed changes to a law that governs them.
Charities and fund-raisers could soon be made more accountable under proposed changes to a law that governs them. ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

Charities and fund-raisers could soon be made more accountable, under proposed changes to a law that governs them.

The authorities could also have stronger powers to suspend improper fund-raising appeals.

The Office of the Commissioner of Charities (COC) is proposing changes to the Charities Act, which was last amended in 2010.

It reviewed the Act to "ensure that regulatory policies remain relevant and to enhance the charity sector's governance standards", it said yesterday.

This comes amid an expanding charity sector, which has seen the number of charities increase by more than 20 per cent in a decade.

One proposal is to increase the maximum period a charity's staff or board member can be suspended to two years, up from a year.

The Office of the COC said the current cap might be restrictive as inquiries and follow-ups may take longer than a year to complete, especially for complex cases.

It is also looking to suspend fund-raising appeals earlier, if there is reason to suspect that they are not properly conducted, instead of only after the investigation is completed.

This would allow the Commissioner to be more responsive, said the Office of the COC. It also noted that investigations into appeals "may take some time".

"This allows for timely intervention," said Mr Gerard Ee, who chairs the Charity Council, which advises the Office of the COC.

"After an investigation, it might be too late to intervene and the public will wonder why something that was suspect had been allowed to continue."

Also proposed: New criteria that can disqualify people from being key personnel in a charity.

Anyone convicted of an offence involving terrorism, terrorism financing or money laundering can be removed, under the proposal. This is in addition to the current grounds of being convicted of an offence involving dishonesty or deception.

"Charities could be abused to provide a front for unlawful activities... especially in cases where charity funds are channelled overseas," said the Office of the COC.

Its 2015 annual report pointed out that in recent years, some charities worldwide were vulnerable to exploitation for terrorism or terrorism financing.

The Act will also define "fund- raising appeal" to include appeals targeted at a confined group of people, besides those targeted at the public. This is to ensure that people appealing to confined groups are aware that the duties and obligations of a fund-raiser prescribed under the Charities Regulations will also apply to them.

"This is a good time for COC to step up and examine the appropriateness of how some people raise funds," said Singapore Children's Society chief executive Alfred Tan.

"Some people think they are just collecting money in 'private' when it is within a confined group. Especially with social media, the line between a confined group and the general public is blurred, so it's good to address these issues."

Mr Ee added: "These proposed changes are important to clarify that everyone collecting funds is accountable. Accountability is fundamental because once one charity is affected, everyone else feels the impact too. It is especially vital to retain the public's trust in charities."

The public have until Sept 11 to offer feedback on the proposed changes through e-mail (MCCY_Charities@mccy.gov.sg) or post to the Office of the COC.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2017, with the headline 'Feedback sought on proposed changes to Charities Act'. Print Edition | Subscribe