Why the charities tax scandal might lead to more transparency

The new legislation just might work.

We have all seen the stories in which celebrities have been named and shamed for participation in tax avoidance schemes. While some individuals have not always been blameless, the press can evoke similar righteous indignation with lurid tales of tax evasion involving innocent charities in the offshore world.

Tax evasion is not strictly the raison d’être of these enterprises, but there is rarely an innocent motive and is often used as a means of concealing identities. The charity is named as the beneficiary of an offshore trust although the charity itself never receives money from the trust and often, does not even know of the trust’s existence. Instead, the trustees exercise their power to add beneficiaries to benefit an individual who is not named in the trust deed although the charity gets nothing.

As the recent tax evasion stories demonstrate, these unregulated pseudo-charitable structures can be hijacked for shady purposes, and the surrounding press coverage saps one’s confidence in genuine charitable trusts. But could the new legal entity created specifically for charities cast a ray of light to dispel the gloom?

The Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) was introduced in the Charities Act 2006 and, after a frustratingly long gestation period, was finally brought into being in the Charities Act 2011. The first CIOs were registered in December 2012 and since then, the Charity Commission has seen a steady rise in applications.  

The CIO is a corporate entity with a separate legal personality which, like its stablemate, the charitable company (usually limited by guarantee rather than shares), can contract and hold property in its own name and is regulated by the Charity Commission.

One advantage of a CIO as compared with the standard charitable companies is that the latter is subject to dual burden of regulation by the Charity Commission and Companies House. A CIO’s charity trustees and members have limited liability, which protects the trustee or members from incurring personal liability for any debts incurred by the charity, whereas charity trustees are lumbered with personal and (subject to the terms of the trust) unlimited liability. 

Although the delay has elicited caution in many charities considering conversion to CIO status and there is a sense that the CIO is, as yet, untested, the negative headlines linking charitable trusts (albeit incorrectly) to tax evasion may well encourage charities to move to a more transparent structure. Could the CIO yet blossom in May?

Emily O'Donnell is at private client law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner LLPRead more: Charitable giving fell by 20% in 2011-12

This story first appeared in Spear's magazine.

Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle