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Who regulates house-to-house collections? . . . And who do you contact about a dubious collection?

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  1. Licensing departments - of local councils
    - administration of the House to House Collections Act 1939 ("the 1939 Act")
  2. Police - eg theft of filled bags, fraud, deception;
    - licensing of charitable collections in London (under the 1939 Act)
  3. TSDs - Trading standards departments - of local councils
  4. The Cabinet Office - a central government department ('Whitehall')
    - charity policy, overseeing of the Charity Commission (E & W)
    - issuing of National Exemption Orders (NEOs) to collectors (under the 1939 Act)
  5. OFT - The Office of Fair Trading - a central government department
    - eg the "Consumer Protection Regulations (the CPRs)
  6. Charity Commission for England and Wales- a central government body (a QUANGO) - eg the central register of charities, scrutiny
  7. ASA - The Advertising Standards Authority - a self-regulating trade body
    - eg adjudications (=verdicts) on misleading collection leaflets and bags
  8. EA - The Environment Agency - a central government agency
    - eg waste carrier licences (WCLs)
  9. Other agencies - eg Companies House, Company Investigations, HMRC
    • Organisations which aren't regulators - eg Which?, Citizens Advice

Preface

This preface applies to England (excluding Greater London) and Wales.

Question:  When you receive a clothing collection leaflet or bag, you may want to check whether it's "genuine".  Also (if it's misleading) you may want enforcement action taken against the collectors.  So, who do you contact? :

  • the police, or
  • your local council's trading standards department / 'Citizens Advice consumer service', or
  • your local council's licensing department ?

Answer:  We suggest you first contact your local council's licensing department.  They have a unique role - they license charitable collections (using the little-known House to House Collections Act 1939).  They can tell you whether the collection is licensed or not.  If it's not licensed and if it's for a charitable cause, it's a straightforward "absolute" criminal offence - and the council can intercept the collection (usually with police help), and prosecute the collectors.  Please note: the council does the investigation and prosecution - NOT the police.

The key point is that enforcement/prosecution is "easy" for the licensing department - they only have to prove two things in the magistrates court :

  1. The collection is purporting to be in aid of a "charitable, benevolent or philanthropic" cause (according to the information printed on the leaflet or bag), and
  2. It hasn't been authorised (by a council licence or a National Exemption Order).

Compare this with the police and trading standards :

  • They both have strong powers to stop a misleading collection - eg :
    • the Fraud Act (police) and
    • the Consumer Protection Regulations 2008 (trading standards)
  • However, they have to prove the collection is a scam/misleading/fraudulent.  This can be time-consuming and is less likely to succeed.

Nevertheless, we strongly encourage the police and trading standards to get involved as well.

See our List of prosecutions page for examples of action taken against misleading collectors.

On the rest of this page, we give details of all the regulators which have some involvement with controlling clothing collections.

Related pages

Map of the UK (England and Wales in dark red)
England and Wales in dark red

Which parts of the UK are covered?

  • Most of the information on this page relates to England and Wales only.  See the Variations across the UK page for details of the arrangements elsewhere.
  • In Greater London the arrangements are different in respect of (a) the licensing departments of local councils, and (b) the police.  We give details of this below.

Government

Please see the Government page for details of central and local government generally.

Law

Please see the page on Collection law for details of the law relating to house-to-house collections - especially the House to House Collections Act 1939 and associated Regulations.

Royal coat of arms

Changes in the law (deferred indefinitely?)

Please see the page on Charity law reforms for the planned changes relating to charitable collections, resulting from the Charities Act 2006.

Statistics on the regulators

See the Statistics page.

Introduction - a messy problem

Who or what are 'regulators'?

We mean the organisations (usually part of government) which have powers :

  • to investigate collections which appear to be illegal (misleading or bogus), and
  • to take action - for example by prosecuting the culprits.

Regulators are sometimes referred to as "bodies", "authorities", "agencies", "enforcers" or "watchdogs".

'Jurisdiction' - in other words: Who does what? Who do you contact?

'Traditional' crimes.  With crimes like theft, burglary, robbery or violence - it's obvious - you contact the local police.

Suspicious 'charity' collections.  Well, who do you contact?  - it's a messy minefield.  There's several types of organisation (regulator) which have powers to deal with these collections.  But it's difficult to pick the correct organisation(s).

We've looked closely at the organisations which have a role in controlling house-to-house collections.  We've identified :

  • three types of regulatory body at a local level, and
  • at least three national regulators.

We give details on each of these below.

This means that, wherever you live in England, there are up to six regulatory organisations dealing with collections.

This fragmentation of responsibility is confusing for people - it's unacceptable and it needs sorting out.  It's a crucial factor in explaining why so many illegal house-to-house collections take place - which results in genuine charities losing millions of pounds each year - charities such as Age UK, Cancer Research UK, NSPCC and the RSPCA.

Few people - even in government - seem to know (1) what the rules are, and (2) who deals with the problems.  We've often found that agencies :

  • are unaware of other organisations which also have jurisdiction in these matters, and/or
  • have misconceptions about their status, remit, powers etc.

Sometimes we in CharityBags end up explaining to them 'who does what'.

'Mystery shopping'

If you're sceptical of what we're saying, you can test it out :

  1. Published advice - Look at the regulators' websites, press releases, leaflets etc.  You'll see conflicting advice:  contact the police or trading standards or the Charity Commission or Citizens Advice or the ASA . . . etc.
  2. Personal advice - Try contacting some of these organisations (by telephone or email) as a 'mystery shopper' - tell them you've just received a suspicious 'charity' collection leaflet or bag - and ask them: what should you do?

Ironically, they rarely mention the most-appropriate regulator - which is your local council licensing department (who can use the powers in the 1939 Act).

We've tested this out many times (contacting the organisations).  For example :

  • We rang the Charity Commission's 0845 helpline (anonymously) six times, and spoke to different people.  We kept notes of what they said.  None of them mentioned council licensing departments.
  • We spoke to police about a suspicious clothing collection - they referred us to trading standards.  Trading standards said they didn't deal with it, referring us to the Charity Commission . . . who referred us to the police . . . and so it went on.

All these people were courteous, and no doubt they were all trying to be helpful - but it was a mess.

Solutions - action needed

In the short term we can't simplify the arrangement of regulators.  However, the problems could be reduced by :

  • providing more information about the regulators (via websites, leaflets etc)
  • making sure the regulators themselves know what the rules are (and who does what)
  • ensuring there's more effective co-ordination between them
  • deciding on a single lead-agency (a bit like the 'home authority' principle used by trading standards) - perhaps licensing departments could take on this role?

For more on this, see the Problems and solutions page and Our aims page.

Below we give a summary of who the regulators are, and what they're responsible for.  We hope this will be helpful.

1. Licensing departments of local councils

Note - Greater London:  The part of this section which deals with charitable collections doesn't apply to Greater London - because the police are the licensing authority for collections in most of London - see the next section (the police) for details.

There are around 300 local councils with licensing departments (LDs) in England.

Many of these licensing departments are part of the council's environmental health department.  Usually they have enforcement officers - who carry out inspections, investigations and (when appropriate) prosecutions.

The licensing departments license a variety of activities - including taxis, alcohol, public entertainment, gambling and pet shops.  See the Licensing regimes page for details.

House to House Collections Act 1939 [w600]
The 1939 Act - title page
Crown Copyright HMSO

Charitable collections

These licensing departments are also responsible for licensing most charitable collections :

Our focus in CharityBags is on the second of these - house-to-house collections - and we concentrate on clothing collections.

The law controlling house-to-house collections is the House to House Collections Act 1939 - 'the 1939 Act'.

Charitable collections - enforcement and prosecution

Licensed collections.  The 1939 Act allows licensing departments to take action against licensed collectors if they act improperly.  But such action is rare.  Occasionally licences have been revoked.

Unlicensed collections.  Council licensing departments can take enforcement action against them (by prosecuting them, in a magistrates court).  The 1939 Act specifies the penalties - currently fines up to level 3, or up to 6 months in prison.

There are tens of thousands of unlicensed collections every year in the UK.  However, prosecutions are very, very rare.  Examples are :

For a full list of them, see the List of prosecutions of collectors page.

A few councils have told us that prosecutions under the 1939 Act should be done by the police (not the council).  However, we've checked this carefully - and it's clear that the council should bring the prosecution.

Press releases.  A number of councils have issued press releases warning people of the problem of bogus "charitable" house-to-house collections.  Copies of some of these press releases are on our website, including Wolverhampton and West Lancashire.  See the 'Examples of collections' heading on the drop-down menus.

Related pages :

See also the Cabinet Office (below) - eg National Exemption Orders (alternatives to licences).
See also local council trading standards departments (TSDs) - below.

2. The Police

There are around 40 territorial police forces in England.

Between 1939 and 1974, the police were responsible for licensing of charitable collections (using powers in the House to House Collections Act 1939 ="the 1939 Act").

However, in 1974, the 1939 Act was amended so that licensing of collections was transferred from the police to local council licensing departments (except in Greater London - see below).

a) England (excluding Greater London) - general police powers

Sillitoe black-and-white pattern (police)

The police can investigate and prosecute certain criminal activities relating to charitable house-to-house collections.  For instance bogus collections can be considered "obtaining property by deception".  The powers in the Theft Act and the Fraud Act can be used for example.  In these cases, the prosecutions are brought under general police powers and are not connected to the 1939 Act.

b) Greater London - The Metropolitan Police - a unique arrangement

In most of England, licensing of charitable collections is the responsibility of local council licensing departments (see the section above).  However, in most of Greater London, the police are responsible.  The arrangements are as follows :

  • In Greater London (except the 'City of London') :
    Metropolitan Police logo
    The police force is the Metropolitan Police   (AKA the Met Police, the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), the Met or MP).  It's the largest police force in the UK.  The Met is answerable to the Home Office (a central government department in Whitehall) and the Greater London Authority (GLA).
    The Met is responsible for the "Metropolitan Police District" - which is the 32 London Boroughs.  This is all of London except the 'City of London' (see below).
    Charitable collections: The Met Police is responsible for licensing collections.
    This is a unique arrangement in England.
  • In the 'City of London' :
    This is less than 1% of Greater London - it's the financial area in Central London - including the Bank of England, St Pauls Cathedral, the Guildhall, the Barbican (and the Lord Mayor).  It's known as the 'square mile'. 
    In this area the local council is the 'City of London Corporation'   
    Charitable collections: The Corporation is responsible for licensing collections.
    The City of London has its own police force - the City of London Police (CoLP).

Metropolitan Police blue lamp - Covent Garden Police station [w450]
Blue lamp - Covent Garden police station

The arrangements with the Metropolitan Police in Greater London have the advantage that there's no opportunity for confusion between the roles of (1) the licensing authority for charitable collections and (2) the police - because in this case they're both the same organisation.

With the Met Police, licensing of charitable collections is done by their Charities Office. This is operated by civilian administrative staff.  www.met.police.uk/charities   Unlike council licensing departments, this office only deals with two types of licence - namely :
(1) charitable house-to-house collections, and
(2) charitable street collections.  It's the largest licensing authority in England regarding charitable collections.

At mid-2012, the Charities section of the Met's website includes :

  • a "Licences issued" page
    =details of current licences for house-to-house collections (a diary).
  • a "Permits issued" page
    =details of current permits for street collections.
  • a page headed "Bogus clothing collections".

For our comments on the Met's "Licences issued" web page, see the page called :
Councils' online diaries of collection licences

The police and clothing collections - general comments

Van
Van with stolen bags of clothing

1. Theft of filled collection bags (by third parties)

Many police forces are now taking this issue more seriously - especially since the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) published guidelines (around 2010)` confirming that it is theft and can be prosecuted.

With this theft, there's a specific, known, tangible victim - in other words, the charity which is named on the bag (eg Cancer Research UK, NSPCC, Oxfam, RSPCA).  See the page on Thefts of filled collection bags.

2. Misleading, bogus and/or unlicensed clothing collections

Alas, some police forces are still not taking this issue seriously.  There are several reasons for this :

  • Victims:  Officers explain that there isn't a specific/single victim - so they're reluctant to take action.  We are puzzled and disconcerted by this attitude.  It's clear that the charity movement as a whole is losing out (eg local charity shops).  This should be adequate justification for taking action.
  • Value:  Some officers don't realise that second-hand clothing is a valuable commodity :
    • At 2013, it's worth over £1,000 per tonne (sold for export).
    • If it goes to charity shops, it's worth around £2,500 per tonne net profit.
      Each bag put out for collection can raise £10 or more.  See the Statistics page.
  • They're donated (not sold):  Some officers seem to be swayed by the fact that the public donate the clothes for free and don't get paid for it (so they're not losing any money).  In our view this is irrelevant.  The public realise their unwanted clothes are valuable and they choose to give them to what they think is a good cause - so the charity can make money out of the goods.
  • They're goods (not cash):  Some officers feel that the only type of fraudulent collection which justifies intervention is a collection for cash.  We disagree.
  • The 1939 Act:  We've found that most police officers are unaware that :
    • Collections require a licence.
    • Collections are controlled by the House to House Collections Act 1939.
    • The Act is administered by local council licensing departments.
    • The council licensing departments handle the prosecution (not the police).
    • A successful prosecution by the council doesn't involve proving fraud (unlike the Fraud Act used by the police, or the CPRs used by council trading standards).  The council's licensing section only has to show the magistrates that :
      • the collection purports to be charitable, philanthropic or benevolent, and
      • the collectors don't have a licence (or a National Exemption Order).
    • The success rate for prosecution of collectors is high (over 90%).
      See the List of prosecutions of collectors page.

3. Trading standards departments (TSDs) of local councils

TSDs

There are around 150 trading standards departments in England - basically some county councils and all the unitary (=single-tier) councils.

They deal with consumer protection issues - relating to goods and services.  For example they deal with faulty goods and weights and measures.

Charitable house-to-house collections

Trading standards departments can investigate certain aspects of house-to-house collections.  In some cases they can prosecute.  For example TSDs deal with misleading advertisements.  The leaflets or bags delivered by house-to-house collectors are advertisements.  So TSDs can investigate misleading aspects of these.  These include any misleading references to charities or companies/businesses - such as bogus registration numbers, names or addresses.  The Consumer Protection Regulations 2008 (the CPRs) are useful in these cases.

See also local council licensing departments (LDs) - above.
See also the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) - below.
See also the Advertising Standards Authority (the ASA) - below.

4. The Cabinet Office (a central government department)

Website: www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk     Logo (Crown copyright HMSO)  :

Cabinet Office logo (our thanks)

The Cabinet Office :

  • It's the department of central government (in Whitehall) responsible for charities.
  • It oversees the Charity Commission for England and Wales (an independent government agency) - see the section below on the Charity Commission.
  • It's responsible for the Government's reforms of charity law (including implementing the Charities Act 2006).  These reforms may affect collections in due course.  See our page on charity law reforms.

The Cabinet Office and National Exemption Orders (NEOs) for collections

NEOs

Under the 1939 Act, the Cabinet Office is responsible for granting 'National Exemption Orders' to charities which want to carry out widespread house-to-house collections of money or goods (eg clothes).  They're like a national collection licence.  At present, around 43 charities have Exemption Orders (eg NSPCC, Oxfam, Scope).  For details of National Exemption Orders see :

The Cabinet Office and appeals regarding house-to-house collection licences

Under the 1939 Act, when a local council refuses to grant a licence to a collector, the collector can appeal.  The appeal is made to the Secretary of State at the Cabinet Office.

5. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) (a central government department)

Website: www.oft.gov.uk     Logo (Crown copyright HMSO) :

OFT logo (our thanks to the OFT)

The OFT deals with consumer matters - consumer law, trading practices, monopolies etc.  It works closely with :

  • trading standards departments (TSDs) of local councils
  • the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The 'Consumer Direct' 0845 telephone helpline was part of the OFT until 2012.

The OFT has some strong powers - but few of them apply to clothing collections.

The OFT and charitable clothing collections

The OFT has helped produce guidance on how to avoid bogus house-to-house charitable clothing collections. `*

Control of misleading advertisements (eg clothing collection leaflets and bags)

Until 2008, the Control of Misleading Advertisements Regulations 1988 (as amended)* (the "CMARs" for short) gave the OFT the power to demand undertakings from anyone who'd produced a misleading advertisement.  The advertiser had to promise that he wouldn't use the ad again.  This law had teeth - if the advertiser broke this undertaking (ie promise), he was in contempt of court - and could be fined or imprisoned.  Clothing collection leaflets and bags are classified as "advertisements".

Example (clothing collections)

The OFT used these 1988 Regulations in 2004 in relation to Nicholas Rees - a clothing collector in Birmingham who was distributing leaflets referring to "Kosta Ltd" and "H.K.L. Charity" :

  • Birmingham City Council prosecuted him under the House to House Collections Act 1939.
  • Then they referred the case to the OFT - who secured an undertaking from him.

See :

Statistics:  In the House of Commons on 16 April 2007  , Jo Swinson MP asked :

 
 
 
 
Portcullis logo [w200]

"... the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry how many successful prosecutions there were of companies in breach of the Control of Misleading Advertisements Regulations 1988 in each of the last five years; and in each case what breach took place.  [130627]"

The Minister (Mr McCartney) replied:

"Information regarding prosecutions and breaches of the Control of Misleading Advertisements Regulations 1988 can be found on the Consumer Regulations website, provided by the Office of Fair Trading, at www.crw.gov.uk   [link fails at Nov 2010]  This records five cases since 2003, all of which were dealt with through undertakings by the companies and relevant individuals rather than by prosecutions."

Changes to the law in 2008 - the CPRs and BPRs

The 1988 Regulations regarding advertisements (referred to above) were repealed in 2008.  They were replaced (on 26 May 2008) by:

  • The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008
    (=the Consumer Protection Regulations, =the CPRs)
  • The Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008 (the BPRs)

However, we understand that these 2008 Regulations give the OFT (and council trading standards departments) similar powers to stop misleading advertisers.

See www.oft.gov.uk/shared_oft/business_leaflets/cpregs/oft1008.pdf  
- an attractively presented 88-page guidance report on the 2008 CPRs - by the OFT / BERR

We'd like to see these powers used more often by the OFT and trading standards departments in relation to misleading "advertisements" for clothing collections (ie the collection leaflets and bags).

 
Also see our Consumer issues page.

6. The Charity Commission for England and Wales (a central government QUANGO)

Charity Commission logo (our thanks to the Commission)

The Charity Commission is an independent central government agency, answerable to the Cabinet Office.  It registers charities and monitors them.

The Charity Commission's website   has a searchable index of all the 180,000 or so registered charities - the "online Register".  You can use this to check out any house-to-house collection if you think it might be bogus.  Please note it's called the 'Charity' (not Charities) Commission.  It only deals with England and Wales.

Flag of England [w800]
 
Flag of Wales [w480]

Charities - dealing with any problems (eg fraud) :

  • Genuine charities - The Commission conducts inquiries into allegations of fraud etc and takes appropriate action.
  • Bogus charities - With organisations which pretend to be charities, the Commission may not have any powers to take action. `

The Commission are well aware of the problem of bogus 'charitable' house-to-house collections of clothing etc, and they've been investigating the issue.  For example, see their 2003 report entitled 'Charity and door-to-door clothing collections'.

Flag of Scotland [w800]

Scotland now has its own equivalent of the Charity Commission - called the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR).

See also the Charities page.

7. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)

ASA logo

The ASA is a 'self-regulating trade body' - it's not part of government.  It deals with complaints about advertising in the UK, including clothing collection leaflets and bags.  The ASA can criticise advertisers (by upholding complaints) - but they can't take legal action in the courts.

For details, see the following pages :

See also:  trading standards departments, Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

8. The Environment Agency (EA) (a central government agency)

See :

Waste carriers licences (WCLs)

One of the responsibilities of this Agency is the control of wastes - their storage, treatment, transport, disposal etc.

With some exceptions, if you carry waste (ie transport it) in England and Wales, you need a "waste carriers licence" (WCL) from the Environment Agency.  If you need the licence but haven't obtained one, you can be prosecuted.

At March 2011, a waste carriers licence costs £154.  It lasts for three years.

However, If you're a charity or voluntary organisation, you can notify the Agency of your status and then you're exempt indefinitely from the need to get a waste carriers licence.  There is no fee for this.  It's known as a "notifiable exemption".

There's a nice searchable online register (database) of these licences on the Agency's website.

Do house-to-house clothing collectors need a waste carriers licence?

This question often arises.  People (including us) have received conflicting legal advice on this.  It's a grey area of law.  The main issue is the definition of "waste".

At March 2011 (at last) we think we've got the definitive answer to this - from specialists in the Environment Agency (Peterborough) :

  • Clothing collectors don't need a waste carriers licence.

The logic for this is as follows.  If householders put out unwanted goods for collection (eg bags of clothes etc) - with the intention of them being re-used in their existing form as second-hand items, they're not classified as waste.  This applies :

  • whether they're sold or given to the collectors
  • whether or not it's for a charitable cause
  • irrespective of the status of the collector (eg charity, self-employed or company)
  • also to other types of manufactured goods - eg electrical equipment, furniture, antiques and vehicles

We understand the key issue is whether the goods are likely to be re-used in their existing form.  For instance with a donated woollen jumper - is the intention for it to be re-used by someone - wearing it as a jumper?  If the answer is "yes", then it's not "waste" - and so the collector doesn't need a waste carriers licence.

Inevitably, some of the collected goods won't be suitable for re-use (eg they're damaged or too dirty).  However, these aren't classified as "waste" until the collected items have been sorted, and the waste items identified and separated (eg at the collector's depot on an industrial estate).  At this point these waste items are likely to go to one of two destinations :

  • Some will go to landfill or be burnt (incineration).
  • Some of the waste textiles can be remanufactured - eg by shredding, to recover the fibres and reconstitute them (recycling them) into "new" fabrics - eg cleaning materials.

Cautionary notes :

  • The collection and transport of clothes etc from households to premises elsewhere doesn't require a carriers licence.  However some other activities of clothing collectors may require a waste carriers licence.
  • Waste carriers licences have nothing to do with charitable house-to-house collection licences, issued by the licensing departments of local councils (under the 1939 Act).
  • If you think any of the information in this section is incorrect, please let us know.

9. Other agencies

The organisations described above are the main bodies dealing with collections.  However, in some circumstances other regulators can also have a role.

These include :

  • Companies House (CH) - eg regarding bogus company names or registration numbers and disqualified directors.  It's based in Cardiff.  It's part of BIS (see below).
  • Company Investigations (CI)    This is part of the Insolvency Service, which in turn is part of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) - a central government department.
    For example, they investigated five companies running "Air Ambulance" clothing collection scams in 2010-2011 - and they closed down the companies in the High Court (London) in 2011 and 2012  
  • The CIC Regulator   "CIC" stands for "Community Interest Company".  This regulator is also part of BIS (see above).  In 2011, the CIC Regulator helped Company Investigations (see above) regarding closing down "Air Ambulance Support CIC" - a scam clothing-collection company.
  • HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) - eg VAT issues
  • The Government's Immigration Service - if the collectors appear to be illegal immigrants (eg the Gotham case)
  • The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) - responsible for the law in general, the courts etc

Non-regulatory organisations

Which? - logo

Organisations which are not part of government usually have no legal powers to take action against potential wrongdoers - for example Which? (formerly the Consumers' Association), which is an independent pressure group.

Also, organisations which only provide information and advice haven't got legal powers - for example Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABs).

Regulators :
Related pages and Useful links