The Charity Commission: How much do you know?

The Charity Commission: How much do you know?

We have all heard of the Charity Commission but how much do we know about the work it does and how it steps in when things go wrong?

The Charity Commission for England and Wales is the non-ministerial government department that regulates registered charities and also maintains the Central Register of Charities.

Registration of a charity in England and Wales does not endow that status elsewhere thus further registration has to be made before operating in Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Charities in Scotland are regulated by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.

In Northern Ireland the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland was established in 2009 to replace earlier regulation by the Voluntary and Community Unit of the Department for Social Development, part of the Northern Ireland Executive

The Charity Commission was first established by the Charitable Trusts Act 1853 and it answers directly to the UK Parliament rather than to Government ministers. It is governed by a board, which is assisted by the Chief Executive and an executive team. It has four sites in London, Taunton, Liverpool and Newport. The commission’s website lists the latest accounts submitted by charities in England and Wales.

What the law says a charity is

To be a charity in England and Wales, your organisation must satisfy the definition of a charity in the Charities Act. This Act says that a ‘charity’ is an institution which is established for charitable purposes only and is subject to the control of the High Court’s charity law jurisdiction.

The descriptions of purposes listed in the Charities Act are:

  • the prevention or relief of poverty
  • the advancement of education
  • the advancement of religion
  • the advancement of health or the saving of lives
  • the advancement of citizenship or community development
  • the advancement of the arts, culture, heritage or science
  • the advancement of amateur sport
  • the advancement of human rights, conflict resolution or reconciliation or the promotion of religious or racial harmony or equality and diversity
  • the advancement of environmental protection or improvement
  • the relief of those in need, by reason of youth, age, ill-health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage
  • the advancement of animal welfare
  • the promotion of the efficiency of the armed forces of the Crown, or of the efficiency of the police, fire and rescue services or ambulance services
  • any other purposes currently recognised as charitable or which can be recognised as charitable by analogy to, or within the spirit of, purposes falling within the other categories or any other purpose recognised as charitable under the law of England and Wales

The Charities Act does not define what each of these descriptions of purposes mean. However, it does provide some definitions, or partial definitions, for some of the descriptions. These are available from the commission.

Starting up a charity

Charities exist to benefit the public. Because of this, charities:

  • pay reduced business rates
  • receive tax relief
  • can get certain types of grants and funding

But they are restricted in what they can do and how they work. For example, they need to:

  • follow charity law, which includes telling the Charity Commission and the public about their work
  • do only things that are charitable in law
  • be run by trustees who do not usually personally benefit from the charity
  • be independent – a charity can work with other organisations but must make independent decisions about how it carries out its charitable purposes


When things go wrong or there is a suspicion of fraud the Charity Commission can announce the opening of a statutory inquiry into a charity, and in most cases reports on its outcome .

You can find more details by contacting the Charity Commission at: