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Why the charities tax scandal might lead to more transparency

The new legislation just might work.

Photograph: Getty Images

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.