Why is St Albans council doing nothing to stop city’s plague of chuggers?

Charity workers (in red) on St Peters Street

Charity workers (in red) on St Peters Street - Credit: Archant

In this special report, the Herts Advertiser examines what powers are available to restrict or ban the charity collectors operating in the city centre, and asks why the district council chooses not to introduce them.

Charity workers (in red) on St Peters Street

Charity workers (in red) on St Peters Street - Credit: Archant

Had enough of being harassed by face-to-face fundraisers when shopping in St Albans or on your lunch break? Think the district council should be able to stop chuggers, or charity muggers, from plaguing the city’s streets? Think again.

In fact the council has no legal powers to regulate direct-debit fundraisers, even when they flout a voluntary code of practice which should restrict them to only one visit per month per charity, and no more than one fundraiser per street.

When the Herts Advertiser spoke to local businesses and residents about these paid charity representatives, we heard the same story of shoppers feeling “harassed” and “accosted”.

An employee of Jigsaw, situated opposite the Town Hall, an area frequented by chuggers, said: “It must affect business as they linger outside shop fronts and people walk round them to avoid being harassed, avoiding our store too.

Charity workers on St Peters Street

Charity workers on St Peters Street - Credit: Archant

“They are here more than once a week and I’ve been chased all the way up to Marks & Spencer.”

And an employee at Vision Express on St Peter’s Street said: “It’s getting to the point it’s intimidating and annoying; my colleagues get stopped every time they go out.”

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The unpopular means of collecting new regular donations emerged as charities realised that people’s giving habits had changed.

This understanding was highlighted by the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (PFRA) where head of external relations, Tim Brearley, said: “Charities have to be able to have a predictable income stream so they can plan and fund long-term projects.”

The PFRA claims complaints are rare but if an individual does not like the way they are treated by a direct debit fundraiser, they should go directly to the charity and following that, the Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB).

Mr Brearley added: “We provide a free hotline for local councils should these kinds of fundraisers become a problem.”

Although many councils nationwide have opted for a site management agreement, which is run in association with the PFRA and limits where chuggers can stand and how they can approach shoppers, St Albans is not currently part of the scheme.

Maria Stagg, regulatory services manager at St Albans council, said: “Councils have no legal powers to regulate face-to-face charity fundraisers who sign people up to direct debit schemes. A charity street collection licence is not required as they are not collecting cash.

“We ask them to book in with the council’s charity collections service, and to let us know who they are, when they are coming and where they will be operating.

“We also ask them to conform to their voluntary code of conduct as laid down by the Institute of Fundraising.

“If any complaints are made to us about their activities, we pass them on to the fundraisers’ head office. We expect them to deal with any concerns.”

However the lack of an official law means that often local residents bear the brunt of the chuggers’ aggressive tactics and forceful approaches.

Shopper Margaret Simmons, 66, said: “I feel very intimidated when I am approached, especially if it is by several in a row.

“I do donate to charity but I wouldn’t ever be talked into signing up that way, it feels too business-like. I’d prefer to donate to the ones I have special reasons for.”

Frances Pardell, who contacted the Herts Advertiser about her complaints, called for the number of chuggers on the streets at any one time to be “controlled”.

She described a recent incident: “I visited St Albans and virtually as soon as I stepped outside Marks & Spencer I was chugged by a man with a white symbol on his forehead.

“He offered me two small books for free but when questioned, admitted he wanted a donation for them. I said I wasn’t interested but he then tried to sell me something else.

“As I politely tried to end the conversation and walk away, he tried to get me for a third time to make a donation. Instead of making me feel charitable, I just felt annoyed as if I’d been intrusively propositioned.

“Within the space of two yards, another young man wearing a Help the Homeless t-shirt tried to engage me in a conversation for more donations. As I crossed the road, I was separately approached by a young woman wearing the same t-shirt and trying to do the same.

“I think like most people I give regularly to charities that mean something to me.”

Calling on the council to take action, she said: “Surely St Albans council can do something about this? They should be able to issue licences to charity fundraisers and ensure that they aren’t all in the same place at the same time. It’s just a hassle and honestly it could stop me from coming into the city because I can shop easily online or go to a shopping mall where chuggers are easily avoided or are controlled.

“I am quite sure I am not the only shopper to feel like this and the city’s retailers should put some pressure on the council if it refuses to act.”

City centre manager Richard Marrett agrees that stronger measures need to be implemented by the council.

He said: “The chuggers are inconvenient, intrusive and don’t portray a great image for our high street. It’s a shame we aren’t part of the PRFA’s site management scheme.”

Of the council’s voluntary code of practice which only allows one charity representative per street, he maintained: “We all know that isn’t the case.”

The Institute of Fundraising code of conduct states that collectors ought not to pressurise the public to give their support but they can use reasonable persuasion. They also ought not to approach individuals who may reasonably be considered to be vulnerable adults.

Complaints about specific incidents in St Albans can be made to Susan Lovell at Legal, Democratic and Regulatory Services at St Albans council, email or call 01727 819254.