Feature Interview: David Robb, Chief Executive, Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator

Feature Interview: David Robb, Chief Executive, Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator
Scottish Policy Now

David Robb is Chief Executive of the organisation more commonly pronounced as ‘OSC[a]R’ by most people who are involved in the Third sector or who are running charities in Scotland. The role of OSCR is central to the sector. If an organisation is not registered, it’s not a charity and can enjoy none of the benefits of charitable status. Registration is considered to be so critical that the register is updated as frequently as is needed to cope with the creation of new charities and the winding up or compulsory removal of others. As David Robb puts it: “One of the things that we are very proud of in Scotland is the comprehensive nature of our register. If you are not on the register you are not a charity. That’s a huge positive……in England there are gaps.”

David has been Chief Executive since 2011, is the second in the post and comes from a background that gives him the necessary range and depth of experience that enables him to fill the role in what may well be a crucial period for the sector. He has been a career senior civil servant with the range of appointments that go with that.

Various functional roles in different Scottish Office divisions including planning, housing and social inclusion, private secretary to ministers, a spell in the FM’s strategy unit and public sector reform. Unlike some other senior civil servants, his career prior to coming to OSCR involved two outside posts; one setting up the Cairngorms Partnership – later the Park Authority – and the other an appointment with the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, in a period when that organisation was re-shaping itself after the first few years of establishment.

SPN spoke to David Robb about his first months at OSCR and how he saw the organisation developing in an environment that could become much tougher for charities.
SPN: David, now you have a chance to see how things are, what do you see as some of the key issues over the next few years for Scottish charities and OSCR?

David Robb: “Certainly in the current climate we will be conscious of the financial pressures on some charities. We have not seen signs of real stress yet but some of them will be squeezed by government squeeze and the possibility of pressure on public donations and benevolence.…

We are trying to be proportionate in our regulation so we have to be sensitive but also alert to these kinds of factors arising and that we’re not adding extra burdens to charities.

The current climate also has an impact on the kind of business that comes our way at OSCR. There are proposals to combine, merge and re-structure charities and that’s a process that needs our involvement and sometimes consent.”

SPN: In what ways does OSCR have a role in some of these changes – many of which are internal – and what powers do you have there?

David Robb: “This can be a bit arcane …and if you’re outside it you may not appreciate that in some cases the origins of charities and trusts that are long established may be legal documents that previously required court application and court approval. Of course, in most cases the original signatories are long since gone ….and it could be a very prolonged complex procedure. One of the central aspects of the charity legislation was to create a different process for re-organisation.

OSCR is now the main route for such changes to be made and we see a steady stream of such proposals – that we can deal with smoothly if all the appropriate preparation has been done and good advice taken into account. It’s almost an unsung role for OSCR and the re-organisation team there.”

SPN: Is there the possibility that we might get in to some form of ‘entity tension‘ within the third sector – we have charities, companies by guarantee and now SCIOs (Scottish Community Interest Organisations) – confusing ?

David Robb: “No, I don’t think so. The key issue for us is whether the purposes of the organisation are charitable and of public benefit. For many smaller organisations that may simply mean some form of unincorporated body. For others a company is right and I suspect that if they are already (guarantee) companies they will stay as such, although we are seeing some interest in conversion it’s not much. However, the registration of SCIOs is growing quite fast. About 25% of our new registrations are SCIOs which is a positive recognition of the value of this ground-breaking project. Remember there are no fees and charges with us so it’s a less expensive way of doing it. We got there ahead of the rest of the UK and there is a lot of interest in it elsewhere.”

SPN: There’s another issue of entity that’s interesting. How do you consider that range of organisations that are part charitable and part otherwise in their activities?

David Robb: “Well, trading alone is not enough to define an organisation. Remember the key considerations are public benefit and charitable purposes consistent with criteria set out.

We are seeing a rapid growth in ‘social enterprises‘ which by purpose are part trading and part public benefit so many of them are able to register quite properly. I think one of the most helpful ways to look at this is to think of the old nostrum ‘Social enterprise is a verb, not a noun…’. Many enterprises such as universities, FE and social housing providers are engaged in social enterprise though they don’t call themselves that.”

SPN: You talked of scrutiny, is there a simple template?

David Robb: “Well, it’s proportionate and partially dependent on the scale of the organisation. The larger ones are subject to greater monitoring and expected to provide more information in the first place. Accounts come in every year and we review them against agreed criteria and some we give a qualified pass to – where there are just minor corrections needed. That’s typically with smaller organisations.“

SPN: When we talked about the SPSO you mentioned the chances for learning that arose from regulatory oversight. Are there similar opportunities with OSCR?

David Robb: “Yes … we do look at the range of issues that come in front of us and draw broader lessons from these. Earlier this year we published ‘Protecting Charitable Status‘ which distils lessons from 6 years of inspection and review of charities. I think this is an important channel of assistance for charities and trustees. Part of our legislative framework includes a duty to …facilitate compliance so our outreach work and our education is in some ways regulating before the fact …and very consistent with the themes of The Christie Report to encourage preventative activity.”

It seems clear from talking to David Robb that he recognises the next few years could be a turbulent period for charities in Scotland with the possibility of an increased level of reorganisations or merger. He is also clear that “…it is not (our) role to offer advice to organisations on what they should do in business terms….” but guidance is available on how they can maintain that critical status as a registered charity.