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
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.