Mail interception at the Charity Commission

Anyone using the public mail system to write to an individual is entitled to believe that their communication will reach its intended recipient unimpeded. But I now find out that where the Charity Commission is concerned, this is far from a given, In fact, it is positively unlikely. Here’s my experience.

On 11th April this year, I wrote to each of the members of the Charity Commission Board detailing my first-hand experiences of dealing with their organisation.

Regular readers of these pages will recall that I had in January 2015 asked for the Commission’s help in identifying the trustees and charitable purposes of an organisation claiming to be both incorporated and a charity; and that having been fobbed off on several occasions I eventually had to take my case to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

In September 2016  I received an apology and an assurance that concerns I later raised about this charity would now be considered but, when writing the letter referred to above, I was still waiting for an outcome.

According to David Jones, Director of Corporate Services of the Commission, my letters to board members were  “opened and assessed in our Liverpool office and then passed to the Corporate Office, led by Alex O’Donoghue, who support the Board and senior executives.” Alex then it seems decided, without passing them on, that “no further action would be taken”

This meant that I believed I was being ignored by those board members for several months. It was only on 23 June 2017 when Alex Donoghue, in response to my statement that I was “disappointed to say that I still haven’t heard from any board member following my letter of 11 April and follow up email below.”  finally declared “Our process is that all correspondence, including complaints, are dealt with by Commission staff rather than Board members.” Adding “ When you wrote in April you had experienced significant delays, which caused understandable frustration. At the time I understand that the particular issue was resolved soon after you wrote.”

David Jones later explained, “Ms O’Donoghue agrees that with hindsight she should have replied to you after she received the letters to the Board to confirm receipt and explain that no further action was going to be taken.”

Now I am no lawyer, but I understand that the regulation of investigatory powers Act 2000 makes it an an offence for a person intentionally and without lawful authority to intercept, at any place in the United Kingdom, any communication in the course of its transmission by means of a public postal service.

David’s stated position is that “the Board have delegated this process to officers to respond on their behalf.” but there is a big difference between the addressee opening an envelope and deciding to ask someone else to deal with it, than, as happened here, Ms Donoghue reading a letter not even seen by the addressee and deciding that she had already answered it on the recipient’s behalf even though she didn’t know of the existence of it when writing that earlier letter.

Now whether this interception qualifies I can’t say – i imagine it had by then been delivered – but surely the law is meant to ensure that writers of letters can be sure they reach, without interference, those to whom they are addressed. This process that the Commission defends so staunchly dooms that principle to failure. These letters were addressed to individuals not a corporation so those individuals should receive them.

My earlier statements here and elsewhere about the lack of professionalism and rudeness of William Shawcross and Paula Sussex for failing to acknowledge my requests to them suddenly look rather unfair. They may have been deprived it seems of sight of my correspondence. Indeed my former MP also found that his correspondence similarly addressed mysteriously disappeared and eventually response came from an individual in the first response unit!

My genuine belief that Messrs Shawcross and Sussex chose to ignore me seems to have been wrong! They have probably never heard of me. Indeed I now find myself questioning whether Paula Sussex had any involvement at all in the letter penned in her name in September 2016 and signed by Amy Wright!  (Click here to see this document)

David may be “satisfied that our governance and policies in respect of correspondence generally, and complaints specifically, are in line with civil service guidelines and practices” but I am not.  I am horrified that this is the regulatory equivalent of the lunatics taking over the assylum!

As I responded “I believed that the facts of my case raised governance issues and I wanted board members individually to make that assessment.  I accept their prerogative to ignore me, I do not accept that others have the right to choose whether they hear my concerns.   The fact that it is 8 copies of that letter individually addressed that have been intercepted  seems key to me.”

“I challenge the process that effectively removes public access to your CEO, Chairman and board members.”

I totally understand that board members might have passed my letters to others for action. I sent separately addressed letters precisely because I wanted the facts in front of each board member. It is, in my opinion morally, and possibly legally, wrong for Commission staff to intercept them.

In response to a request to ensure that the letters were now seen by those to whom they were addressed, David replied, “The board members have been briefed on your complaints.”

Now please forgive me for picking up on the apparent evasion here but I replied “I didn’t ask that board members be ‘briefed’ I asked that they be given the correspondence I intended for their eyes. This would be in the spirit of the above legislation since the letters were addressed (on the envelopes) to individuals, not an organisation. ”

Finally, David assures me that my exchanges will be made available to Helen Stephenson. Not exactly an equivocal statement that she will be given them either!

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