Clothes Aid statement on unlicensed clothing collections
Clothes Aid believes that the activity of unregulated bogus clothing collectors and unlicensed clothing collections is a serious nationwide issue.
We have written to the Fundraising Regulator to request an investigation into this issue, seeking recommendations to other regulators, public and membership bodies whose various powers, duties and functions are engaged by the operation of unregulated/unlicensed organisations in this sector.
This statement is concerned with the issues covered at a general level, and does not refer to any specific collectors, licensed or unlicensed.
Clothes Aid is a social business licensed to solicit and collect donations of second hand clothing and accessories for the benefit of particular named charities. For two decades we have worked alongside charities large and small, national and regional. Today Clothes Aid is one of the UK’s largest licensed commercial clothes collectors. With the support of the public, we have contributed over £10 million to charity.
Everything we collect is sold on to stock European markets. Depending on the collection overheads incurred and what licences or exemptions the charities hold, Clothes Aid gives a predetermined percentage, between 80% and 95%, of the profit to the charities. The modest amount remaining is reinvested to continue fundraising operations by meeting the costs of the collection.
Clothes Aid gives charities without shops an opportunity to financially benefit from the clothes collected. There is no cost to charity clients, so every pound the charity receives is profit that can be spent in furtherance of its charitable purpose(s).
Clothes Aid’s operations are highly regulated in England and Wales, through the Fundraising Regulator, the Charity Commission, the local authorities that license collectors and the police that detect related crimes, such as theft and fraud.
Despite this, there is a measure of public disquiet and donor fatigue stemming from market saturation in the sector and too many charity clothing bags being delivered. Clothes Aid believes that this disquiet about high volumes is a result of a glut of unlicensed collections and so called ‘bogus collectors’.
In Clothes Aid’s experience, the issue is extremely prevalent within the sector and although the powers, duties and functions of a number of different regulators and public bodies are engaged in relation to this issue, Clothes Aid believes that the lack of action and co-ordination between them has meant that there is no effective enforcement in this sphere and, therefore, no deterrent in relation to what can be a lucrative activity.
Licensing officers at numerous local authorities have confirmed to Clothes Aid that they have insufficient resources to enforce licensing infringements.
Clothes Aid has many years’ experience of tackling bogus clothing collectors and charity bag thieves. Whilst we strive constantly to improve our methods and raise standards in the wider collection sector, we have seen the problem of unlicensed collections grow unchecked.
When a collection conducted either by a charity or a commercial operator happens at the same time and in an adjacent location to one of our own collections, Clothes Aid checks the validity of that collection with the local licensing authority. In the period 2013-2016, we found that 445 out of 705 of such collections (63.8%) were unlicensed.
The number of unlicensed collections found by Clothes Aid over the past three years is very significant. These collections have been identified only because they occurred at the same time as a licensed Clothes Aid collection. Therefore, we consider that it is safe to extrapolate that, nationally, many more unlawful collections are taking place.
Clothes Aid believes that the scale and prevalence of the issue; the considerable implications for the fundraising sector; the high level of risk to the public and to the charity sector; and confidence in the integrity of charities and charitable fundraising more generally are such that they should be fully investigated by the Fundraising Regulator so that an appropriate recommendation and/or referral can be made to facilitate a remedy.
Aside from unlicensed collections, we believe that the theft of collection bags by unscrupulous operators is also on the increase.
The issue we have identified with bogus collectors is not only that they are unlicensed and/or otherwise unregulated. It has been our experience that some of those purporting to be legitimate collectors in this sector do so in connection with other criminal activity. Although the police have taken action to address flagrant behaviour such as stealing bags, in part in response to Clothes Aid’s anti-theft campaign over many years, we now see bogus collectors hiding behind bona fide charities, usually very small ones with little or no resource to carry out the necessary vetting process to understand exactly who the collectors are. These collectors are unlikely have clear operating systems that are auditable by their charity partners – therefore there will be no transparency. The charities that these collectors are supposed to represent, and the public, have been deceived and legitimate charities that demand high standards of service delivery are losing hundreds of thousands of pounds as a result of the existence of bogus collectors on the streets.
The way forward
The Fundraising Regulator has the power to make recommendations where breaches of its Code have been found, including recommendations and referrals to various regulators and other bodies. Clothes Aid is calling on the Fundraising Regulator to investigate this issue and suggests that following such an investigation, it might helpfully recommend to the Charity Commission, Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Department for Communities and Local Government, the Local Government Association, and Association of Police and Crime Commissioners that they collectively, together with the Fundraising Regulator, negotiate and agree a memorandum of understanding to determine how each of the respective bodies whose various functions are engaged will cooperate to ensure appropriate compliance in the sector.
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