Plan for charities watchdog unveiled
A plan unveiled yesterday by the Law Reform Commission to create a 'one-stop shop' watchdog to oversee the city's charities was generally welcomed by the welfare sector but likened by one leading social service group to the unpopular Article 23 security bill.
The new Charity Commission, aimed at filling a legal vacuum in regulating the surging number of fund-raising groups, would process and grant licences for organisations that raise money and enjoy tax exemption, while also having the power to de-register charities and change their trustees or directors.
'There are approximately 6,000 charities that raise around HK$8 billion a year in Hong Kong, but there is no comprehensive legal framework regulating charitable organisations and the use of donations,' Law Reform Commission charities sub-committee chairman Bernard Chan said. 'At present, members of the public find it hard to know if an organisation representing itself as a charity is in fact a charity at all.'
Under the proposal, put forward for public consultation until September 16, charities would have to register with the watchdog and file annual reports with details of their main activities and accounting records that the public could see.
As well as de-registering offending charities, the new commission would be able to appoint additional trustees or directors and remove those it deemed guilty of misconduct or mismanagement. Fund-raising activities by political groups would not be regulated as they are not classified as charities, while the public will be asked whether human rights groups should be recognised as charities.
Christine Fang Meng-sang, chief executive of the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, an umbrella group for 320 non-government organisations, supported the proposal.
'The welfare sector has to move forward with the times and there should be some sort of regulation over charities,' she said.
But the Society for Community Organisation likened the proposed regulations to the national security law, required under Article 23 of the Basic Law that has been shelved because of strong public opposition.
'Going by past experience, members of the commission will all be appointed by the chief executive, so they won't represent the public,' Soco director Ho Hei-wah said. 'The commission may become a tool to suppress voices against the government.'
With 'relief of poverty' and 'advancement of religion' already included in the list of charitable purposes, Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai found it strange that the public should be asked if 'advancement of human rights' should also be included.
'Hong Kong should model itself on the United States, where policy advocacy groups can still be recognised as charities as long as they don't spend more than 30 per cent of their resources on advocacy activities,' Law, whose organisation is registered under the Societies Ordinance, said.
Chan said it was vital to maintain the independence and autonomy of the vibrant charity sector. 'We just want to enhance the accountability and transparency of the charities so that donors can have a better picture of how their money is used,' he said.
The Law Reform Commission started reviewing the regulation of charities in 2007 at the request of former Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang and Secretary for Justice Wong Yan-lung.