Give and take for charity watchdog
Hong Kong has a well-deserved reputation for charitable giving. Our 6,000-odd charities raised an admirable HK$8 billion in the fiscal year 2008-09. But this generosity has not been accompanied by transparency and public accountability for how the money is used because we lack a legal framework for the regulation of charities.
The consultation paper issued by the Law Reform Commission is therefore a welcome, though somewhat belated, step to bring Hong Kong in line with other advanced economies. The watchdog rightfully recommended the establishment of a statutory body to oversee registrations. But eyebrows have been raised at its proposal that this body will be empowered to de-register any groups failing to meet proposed guidelines. It also specifically asks whether groups fighting for human rights deserve charity status similar to those focusing on relief of poverty, advancement of religion, education and animal welfare. It may be an exaggeration when critics liken the proposed regime to the unpopular Article 23 national security bill. But at present some welfare groups defending grass-roots interests are also staunch human rights advocates. If groups defending the rights of animals are qualified for charity status, it would seem unreasonable to exclude those defending the rights of humans. The last of the 13 criteria proposed by the commission in granting charity status, namely 'any other purpose that is of benefit to the community', already provides flexibility.
The wide-ranging powers proposed for the future monitoring body should not become a political weapon to kill off dissenting voices. The power to strike off a charity group from the register is a serious one. The commission sensibly gives de-registered groups an appeal mechanism to the Court of First Instance. It should also tap public views and enhance public confidence in the regulatory framework. Hong Kong needs a good regime to preserve its vibrant culture of giving.