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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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war