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This is a crucial issue - but it's much-neglected. There's widespread misunderstanding of the law relating to this.
Partly because of this, misleading collections are widespread - and genuine charities (like Age UK, the NSPCC and RSPCA) are losing £ millions annually.
So this is our attempt to explain things.
House-to-house collections (of clothes or cash) are controlled by the House to House Collections Act 1939 - we refer to it as the '1939 Act'.
You can see there's no mention of words like 'charity' or 'charitable' in the name of this Act. However, in the small-print of the Act it says it only applies to 'charitable' collections.
So, 'non-charitable' collections are not covered by the Act. The phrase
It looks easy - there's only two categories of collection - namely charitable and non-charitable. One is covered by the Act, and the other's not.
This system is simple and fine in theory. So, let's consider an example of each category :
The two examples above are clear-cut - there's no room for doubt. It's black-and-white.
However, in practice, it's not so simple. This system offers a loophole for unscrupulous clothing collectors. They can exploit the law by targeting the 'grey area' in between, straddling the two categories. They produce misleading leaflets and bags :
Many people think these collections are charitable - so they give generously (clothes, towels, bedding etc). So, £ millions are lost each year by genuine charities in the UK because of this.
Generally, these collectors get away with it. They know they're unlikely to be stopped by councils or the police - and (if they are) they rely on the small-print in their leaflets to escape prosecution.
For want of a better term, we refer to these as 'hybrid' collections - because they're a cross between charitable and non-charitable - a 'mongrel'.
See the Statistics page for an estimate of the percentage of collections which fall into this category.
These collectors use vague wording (and images) to give the impression it's charitable, such as :
However - in small-print at the bottom of the leaflet - it says something like :
Often, people think the number quoted is a registered charity number. But usually it's not - it's a registered company number - or a VAT number - or a waste licence number - or it's even made up. This is all part of the scam.
The crucial question here is whether a misleading leaflet is sufficiently misleading to break the law - is it 'materially misleading'?
In particular (in relation to the 1939 Act) - is it a 'charitable' collection? Obviously, the collector will argue it's not. The acid test is to ask:
"What would happen if the local council used the 1939 Act to prosecute the collector for carrying out an unlicensed charitable collection?"
The case would be heard in the local magistrates court. But what would the magistrates decide?
The collectors couldn't deny they'd been collecting clothes.
So the issue would focus on the impression given by the leaflet or bag.
We'd suggest the court would have to decide on the following :
Would a 'reasonable person' conclude that the wording/images on the collection leaflet/bag would give the impression (to a significant proportion of the general public) that the collection was for a 'charitable' purpose?
The wording above is our first attempt at defining this. No doubt a lawyer could improve it.
As far as we know, virtually no council has ever tried to bring a case like this. We think it's time they did.
The 1939 Act only deals with collections which are for a 'charitable' purpose. The Act defines this as follows (in Section 11(1) - Interpretation) :
' "Charitable purpose" means any charitable, benevolent or philanthropic purpose, whether or not the purpose is charitable within the meaning of any rule of law.'
There's widespread misunderstanding about this. The 1939 Act refers to 'charitable' collections - NOT 'charity' collections.
So why does this matter? - Because (as far as we know) the word 'charitable' covers a wider range of collections than just charities. So a collection can be charitable even if the word 'charity' isn't used. What matters is the purpose of the collection.
Examples: We've come across councils that won't stop a misleading collection because they say it doesn't specifically mention the name of a charity. We understand this interpretation is incorrect.
See the Definitions page.
Since 2000, the ASA has dealt with over 30 complaints about clothing collection leaflets and bags which complainants felt were misleading - because they implied they were charitable when (in reality) they were commercial.
The ASA's adjudications on these complaints appear to be the only authoritative analysis ever done of the wording of individual misleading collection leaflets/bags. They're a valuable (but neglected) resource.
For details, see the following pages :
There's lots of consumer law dealing with things that are misleading. Also there have been numerous court cases - civil and criminal - eg brought by trading standards. Although almost none of them involve clothing collections, there are strong similarities - regarding the legal issues involved.
See the pages on :
On this page, we've been dealing with misleading (hybrid) collections which carefully avoid using the word 'charity'. We've argued that some of these collections could be successfully prosecuted under the 1939 Act - because they strongly imply it's charitable.
However, don't forget there's another category of collections - let's call them 'bogus' collections. Either they mention the word 'charity' or they refer to a named charity - but they're a scam. The charity doesn't exist, or the collector doesn't give them any of the proceeds. Such collections aren't that common these days. Unlike hybrid collections, they're very easy to prosecute - once you spot them. There's 'no grey area'.
An example is the prosecution of E&C Export Ltd by Cardiff Council in May 2009. The bag referred to a registered charity. So it needed a licence - but it didn't have one. The charity referred to was genuine (the CHSF), but the charity had already told the company to stop collecting in its name.
Image (right): A leaflet by E&C Export Ltd (this was NOT the leaflet/bag relating to the prosecution)