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!

Dear Helen Stephenson

Dear Ms Stephenson,

I am putting below my emails of 21 July and 23 June – neither has been acknowledged..  Are you able please to tell me how I get an acknowledgement and some action? I really don’t want to be a nuisance, in fact I just really want to get on with my life. Perhaps you might be so kind as to help me.

Thank you.

Steve King aged … nearly 3 years older than when I first made contact asking the Commission to help me

My email 21/7/2017 to Alex O’ Donoghue with copies to your business assurance unit, yourself (albeit I guessed your email address) and Diane Kelly

Dear Alex

Following receipt of your email of 23 June 2017 I submitted a formal complaint via email to your business assurance e mail address on the same day. This has not been acknowledged.  I followed this up on 7/7/2017  but again received no reply.

I tried today to follow the link on the .gov.uk website for complaints about a service you provide but this took me to an enquiry form that seemed inappropriate. It required me to upload a copy of a governing document to proceed.

The substance of my complaint is again produced below. Can you please ensure that this enters the system and that the assurances given on your website in respect of complaints are met.

For the record I have not heard from Diane Kelly, despite your follow ups and her suggestion in early April that the enquiries with Crossroads Evangelical church might be concluded by the end of May.

For the avoidance of doubt this complaint (reproduced below) is only about the way my letters to your board members have been handled and NOT the delay in resolving the enquiries. I reserve judgement on that latter point.

Best wishes.

Steve King

Complaint email 23/6 addressed to the Business assurance unit, said. 

Dear Sirs

I wish to complain in the strongest terms about the way in which correspondence addressed to your board members has been handled.

A review of your file will show  that your Chief Executive agreed in September 2016 to ensure a review of the concerns I had raised about the charity, crossroads Evangelical church. Progress on that  had been slow so on 28 March 2017 I wrote  for the personal attention of Paul Sussex and William Shawcross asking for some intervention.

Having had no response, on 11 April 2017 I printed  eight copies of a letter, placed each into one of eight separate envelopes, addressed for the personal attention of one of your board members. My intention in so doing was to bring to their attention governance issues that I felt were very important. A copy of that letter is attached again.

On 12 April, I was contacted by Alex O’Donoghue who apologised for the failure to respond to that earlier email and took steps for matters to be progressed. She made no reference in that exchange to my letters of 11 April.

It seemed to me that the flurry of activity on 12th April was probably caused by the letters having arrived. Whilst this is supposition, since it is the only correspondence in April that Alex can have been referring to in her latest email when she talks about my having written in April, that position seems to be established.

With more than a further two months having passed, I decided to follow up again and was horrified to receive an email on 23 June 2017 from Alex in which she seems to say that my letters were intercepted and handled by office-based staff.

It seems to me entirely wrong that letters personally addressed to board members are opened by someone other than the addressee. It is I suggest similarly wrong that no reference has been made to receipt and no form of acknowledgement given. If board members were not to acknowledge or reply to those letters, then I would have expected someone to have explained that to me.

I believe that it is perfectly clear that I was, in that letter, raising issues of governance not simply seeking movement on my case.

If, as seems to be the case, it is your normal practice to pass such correspondence to operational staff for them to simply deal with as they see fit, that seems to me as totally unacceptable. As Alex’s latest response shows, she dealt with this at a superficial level.

I wish to place it on record that the purpose of my letter of 11 April was to draw to the attention of your executive board issues around the way members of the public who make complaints are treated and of course specifically how I had been dealt with.  I would like an assurance that my letter, which it remains my intention to publish as widely as I possibly can, has been passed to each board member.

I would like too some assurances from those responsible for governance that steps will be taken to improve interactions with members of the public who raise concerns with you.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a complaint about the way my case has been handled since September 2016. It is a complaint about the way in which my open letter to your board members has been handled. In so far as my complaint itself is concerned, I will decide whether  I consider the time taken to resolve these issues reasonable or not, when I know the outcome. Whilst I remain disappointed that it is now 30 months since I first raised issues with you and approaching 10 months since Paula Sussex gave her reassurance to me, I think it would be inappropriate to raise any complaint in that respect at this time.

Yours faithfully,

 

Steve King

 

New broom time at Charity Commission

As the new Chief Executive waits at the door and the replacement of the Chairman is imminent it is surely time for a change of approach  in 2013 a member of the public made a complaint about Catalyst Trust and although the commission moved quickly to examine its financial records, it was more than 3 years later that we finally found out what had transpired. The enquiry completed in November 2016 was finally made public in June 2017. Read it here.

This all sounds strangely familiar to me.   In January 2015 I raised very similar concerns about a charity.  Today, two and a half years later, I am still effectively being ignored by its CEO, Chairman and board members

The Commission was recently characterised by a senior executive of a large charity as ‘the worst provider of customer service’ and is, according to almost everyone I speak to who has had dealings with them, virtually impossible to deal with

Enquiries from the public are I think often treated as a nuisance.  Communication is at best slow, often non-existent and occasionally disingenuous. The Commission’s self-congratulation when after years it achieves very little and oftentimes produces outcomes so long after events that they provide little or no solace defies belief. Who for example hs been held to account at Kid’s Company?

I reproduce here an email to the Commission in May 2017, following up a letter posted individually to every member of its Board dated 11 April.

I’m disappointed to say that I still haven’t heard from any board member following my letter of 11 April and follow up email below.

 

I was interested to see an announcement last week that a complaint in 2013 from a member of the public, that looks very similar to mine, took until November 2016 to be resolved and a further 8 months to be reported. At least there were some trustee bans in the end but 4 years? This seems excessive and is I suggest indicative of why your board members need to look at cases like mine and face up to and address the failings they seem to highlight. Diane did indicate that she should be concluded by end of May 2017 but having not heard from her I have asked for an update today.

 

Ignoring those you are supposed to inspire is in my view both common and unacceptable. I hope board members and your new CEO when she arrives will address that as a priority.

 

I sincerely hope that my concerns will be seriously considered and that someone in a senior position will reassure me on that point. Failing that perhaps I might hope for some media attention around your governance which seems to me to need attention. Perhaps someone might have the courtesy to comment?

This e mail was never answered but when chasing it, I discovered that my open letter to board members was, it seems, intercepted by staff who only on this approach (23 June 2017) considered it a wider complaint. Even then they passed it on not to those to whom it was addressed but to its business assurance unit. This has prompted a complaint from me which although Submitted on 28 June, has yet to be acknowledged.

Watch this space.

Disappointed by church leaders again

I continue to be disillusioned by the way church leaders form a protective cordon around wrong-doers in their circles. This mistaken belief that protection of Christian reputation is somehow achieved by ignoring challenges and hoping they will evaporate is at best misguided. The church is supposed to stand for truth and justice, I want to see it do so even if that is a challenge to its own.

My latest experience comes at the hands of Churches Together in Camberley . Now please don’t get me wrong, this is no umbrella organisation and it holds no regulatory or disciplinary responsibility for its members. But its Chairman’s summary dismissal of my concerns about not only one of its member churches but one of its own trustees smacks again of both protectionism and denial.

The issues are serious – mistreatment, mismanagement and misuse of funds, serial dishonesty and possible false accounting, all subject to consideration by the regulator, yet the Chairman seems to consider me not a victim or a whistleblower but a deceiver and a troublemaker.  Perhaps I misunderstand the tone of his missive.

I am well aware of the sophistry of the investigated to which they have no doubt listened but perhaps church organisations may one day examine both sides of a story before reaching conclusions.

It remains to be seen how this one will play out. Don’t hold your breath, it’s 29 months since I first raised the issues. It took until last September before the regulator finally agreed to examine them and that enquiry hasn’t yet reached its conclusion.

I will publish outcomes both here and to appropriate media outlets when information is finally received.

Charity Commission just for a change

So far not a single member of the board has even bothered to acknowledge my letter sent individually to each one.

There was though a flurry of activity the day it landed when assistants to Paula Sussex and William Shawcross woke up and promised me action! The senior manager investigating the case finally told me that their accounts experts had identified concerns which corresponded with mine. Quite what that means has still to be revealed but at least the trustees have, I am assured, now been presented with questions to answer.

In the meantime I have sent a further open letter, this time to the charity trustees themselves setting out the issues. I expect to publish that in due course but want to see whether they act first.

Anyone wondering who else has had poor experiences with the charity commission might like to take a look at these sites.

Charity Commission not fit for purpose.

War of words

Whatever the rights and wrongs of our cases, the patterns are the same!

 

Open letter to the Charity Commission

11 April 2017
OPEN LETTER TO THE BOARD MEMBERS OF THE CHARITY COMMISSION
William Shawcross; Mike Ashley; Laurie Benson; Eryl Besse; Orlando Fraser QC; Tony Leifer; Paul Martin; Catherine Quinn

Dear Sirs,

I write to set before you, and the public, my disappointment with the way my enquiries and then concerns have been addressed by the Charity Commission.

I am aware that numerous people have found that although the Commission’s primary objective is to ensure public confidence in charities, the Commission makes it difficult for the public to make contact, routinely deflect concerns as ‘outside of scope’ or of ‘insufficient risk’ and leaves people completely in the dark as to what is happening when it does get involved.

I totally identify with John Cooper QC who, writing in The Times earlier this year under the headline “Charity regulator needs to prove it’s up to the job” said, “it seems that the public are not allowed to speak directly to the Commission’s complaints team and so, nearly a year later, it has still not properly acknowledged my complaint.” I believe you can see precisely that point reflected in my letter to your Chairman, attached.

My experience not only accords with that but goes further.

It looks to me that the Commission failed to examine my concerns at all at the outset, choosing instead to just routinely reject my approaches. It took a review by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman completed in July 2016, to get the Commission to take the issues on board. In the months that have passed since the senior manager involved has been unable to progress this to any extent.

I’m afraid that I am inclined to the conclusion that the aim here throughout has been to avoid getting involved and then to frustrate me so that failings in the organisation that go much further than admitted in your CEO’s apology letter of 8 September 2016, can be masked and even covered up.

It seems to me disingenuous for Paul Sussex to say, as she did recently, “I am asking … those engaged with charities as auditors, advisers, or supporters, to play your part in improving standards and stewardship. We want to see you helping raise trustees’ game, really making a difference to charity governance and financial management” when the organisation she leads either ignores, keep in the dark, or treats with contempt those in the final category who seek to do just that.

I plan to issue a further open letter to the charity itself in due course with much more information than included here but the summary I provide should help explain why I am concerned.

In January 2015 I made the Charity Commission aware of a group of individuals operating as a church but claiming charity status. Initially, I wanted to identify how I could find out who the trustees were and secure a governing document so that I could raise the issues of the abuse that had been directed at my wife and later involved myself. It was difficult to find out whether my enquries were being received and would be answered because of the way automated acknowledgements are worded. I tried several times to work around these but could not. When I did eventually get replies, these, couched in what looked like a standard form, were that I should take matters up with the trustees. Even cursory examination of my approach would have revealed that I wanted details of the trustees so that I could do this, but this unhelpful guidance was repeated.

Eventually, having concluded that the claim to charity status was undoubtedly untrue and having identified that there were matters that both the police and HMRC could investigate, I made contact with them as instructed.

It was evident though that the matters I was raising went to the heart of the reasons the Commission exists and that it should therefore be involved. Indeed representatives of the Commission said that it needed to know about these things. Despite that, there was no move to help me or address my concerns. No amount of pressing could get the commission to consider the points I was raising. Instead the commission, amazingly, wrote to the individuals concerned and invited them to create and register a charity to legitimise their conduct.

I wrote to both the CEO and chairman. I included evidence of

1. Officials of the church falsely and dishonestly representing it as a) incorporated and b) a charity.
2. Officials of the church making dishonest statements about the ownership and use of donations.
3. Gift aid being inappropriately claimed from HMRC
4. Money being given away to friends and associates without mandate.
5. Probable misappropriation and false accounting of £11,500
6. Information about abusive conduct and a lack of recourse for people affected by it.

The final decision letter, issued 29 May 2015 is attached. The conclusion that it was “unlikely that the Commission would take regulatory action here in respect of the remaining issues and financial concerns you have raised” made no sense to me. The conclusion that “it is difficult to assess whether there has been deliberate fraudulent activity.” defies belief. There was plenty of evidence included and I would have been happy to discuss that.

Contacting me with anything other than outcomes wasn’t on the Commission’s agenda. It was completely impossible to get anyone to speak with me on the telephone or face to face. The aim was clearly to avoid examining anything more closely.

It was clear from evidence I provided that there was deliberate and intentional false representation, much of it only a month earlier (April 2015). The implication that the giving away of huge proportions of income without mandate; the misleading of an individual by the creation of an employment contract of no legal merit; the shielding of money for a church member and/or the payment of £11,500 to him followed by the disguising of it as a ‘charity donation’ weren’t of sufficient concern to, as a minimum, call into question the skill and knowledge of those now being accepted as trustees, was bemusing.

The PHSO final report and indeed the apology letter sets out that the Commission failed to connect my concerns with the charity’s, creation, application and registration. Frankly that claim looks disingenuous against the background of Liam Carroll’s final decision letter written just days after that registration. He makes explicit reference to that acceptance and claims to have considered my concerns to sufficient a degree to evaluate the likelihood of success in any further enquiry . He clearly connected the two things and chose not to take my concerns on board. Perhaps this is one of the ‘missed opportunities’ to which Paul Sussex referred. I would suggest that this is a significant failure given the seniority of the individual and the standard of care that should have applied to a 2nd review and final response.

Paula Sussex rightly says that the mistakes damaged my confidence. But they did so much more than that. They left previous and future donors in the dark about impropriety and the competence of certain trustees. They let those who potentially might have faced criminal investigations off the hook because, although the police were willing to investigate and indeed contacted me in early June 2015 to do so, by then though the Commission’s actions had prompted one of the individuals to take the decision to register the CIO without any form of restriction or guidance, as justification to threaten and intimidate me to withdraw my complaints. Faced with that and the fact that I was now less likely to be taken seriously as the Charity Commission had assisted in the creation of an apparently legitimate set up without challenge or public statement, I felt I had no option but to decline to co-operate with the police enquiry.

To this day, 27 months since first contact, the public and donors remain, as far as I know, completely in the dark that there was no charity in existence and that HMRC has required Gift Aid to be repaid. They know nothing about the dubious payments those individuals had made before incorporation and possible false accounting! There is no public information about who made the repayments to HMRC.

It’s hard to see how or why any member of the public should trust the Commission to meet its brief. There has certainly been some spectacular failure here. It is well over 2 years since I presented a concern that could have been quickly and easily addressed. The commission however has failed to deal with it. I am sceptical about the assurance I currently receive that these things will be considered.

I wonder how any one could see the catalogue of events here, read the article of John Cooper QC and be confident. Of course some cases get looked at but frankly recent examples show you taking literally years to reach conclusions and doing very little to properly address the failings of those who mismanage the money with which they are entrusted.

I ask you now to take my concerns and do all that you can to bring enquiries in my case to a head so that we can all move on.

My concerns are
1. the barriers placed in front of me to getting a sensible response to my initial enquiries.
2. The failure of the chairman and CEO to even acknowledge correspondence, let alone ensure that it is properly dealt with
3. The issuing of a final decision letter that looks more like a cover up of failings and the presentation of a barrier aimed at making further progress difficult.
4. The continuing delays – so far 7 months – in bringing these matters to a conclusion following the PHSO decision.

I hope that bringing this case to the attention of a wider audience might somehow encourage an improvement in performance.

Yours faithfully,

 

Steve King

Repeat referenda

Nicola Sturgeon wants another referendum in 2 years time. I’m slightly confused – will there be bi-ennial reviews by fresh poll on all referendum outcomes or does this Principle apply only to those where Scottish independence is rejected?

The circumstances in England will be very different in 2 years but there won’t be another EU referendum and my guess is that the Scottish issue will be reinvigorated only until they eventually split the union after which the ballot boxes will never again be needed for a reunite vote.

And still we wait

6 months have now passed since Paula Sussex assured me that

“the concerns you raised are now being considered to assess whether or not any regulatory action is required against the charity following registration”

Paul Sussex CEO Charity Commission 8/9/2016

In fairness a very nice senior manager is telling me that she is chasing things up, so the line isn’t completely dead but 6 months just to gather information does seem a bit excessive; this especially as this seems purely down to workload and not any complexity in the case.

The charity has now filed its first annual return. Interesting reading with a period that covers less than a year since its first registration, includes a reserve that very closely equates to the  amount they felt able to take from the ill gotten gains of those who committed the misdemeanours in  the first place, and no mention of the fact that they lost a trustee on the way through the year!

One day I will feel able to publish the whole story, but for now I keep my powder dry as I sit on my hands and await something substantive.

Case study – Chasing up the commission

Having had complete radio silence for over three months is probably an indication that things are being taken seriously , but it really is hard to sit around wondering what on earth is going on especially after it follows 6 months getting their final decision and then another year getting that position reviewed.

I still wonder how the public can have confidence in the charity sector when its regulator doesn’t ever seem to act proactively and takes an eternity to do even the simplest of things.

Today I write to them as below….. let’s see what happens….

Next week sees the 2nd anniversary of the email that created what [trustee name] called my “imagined” grievance which, as far as I am concerned, has never been addressed and on the substantive issues of which I believe the Trustees of the charity should be required to respond.

 

Most of that 2 years has been spent waiting for official bodies, yourselves, HMRC, the Home Office and PHSO to come to conclusions, and as you know it’s now over three months since we spoke.
I am keen to reach some end to these matters and am wondering whether  it is possible please for you to give me some indication of when you expect to be in a position to respond to my letter of 10 July 2016 to which I believe your current enquiries attend? I would like to formally put my concerns to the trustees and invite response for public consideration but believe your enquiries and conclusions should inform my actions.

 

I look forward to hearing from you.  Thanks and best wishes.

Charity Commission – so slow it hurts

It’s now 12 weeks plus since the Charity Commission assured me that it would look into my concerns about a particular charity and will soon be 2 years since I first contacted them on the subject.

A quick glance at their news pages here will reveal that they don’t win prizes for speed. It often takes several months before they announce an enquiry at all and then years before they issue the outcomes.

How they can possibly be capable of regulating properly when they act so slowly is beyond me. Someone really does need to get to grips with things for public confidence in the sector to improve.

I continue to hold back from a press release and public dissemination of what appears to be fraud, money laundering, abuse and false accounting so as not to prejudice what they may be doing. If anyone has something I can use to actually get this thing moving properly, please let me know.