At the end of July the Charity Commission published the conclusion of what it called an ‘engagement’ with Tory charity the Atlantic Bridge. The trustees had agreed to relaunch the charity within a year as a non-party political organisation and that their ‘current activities must cease immediately’. The new new Atlantic Bridge will not merely pay for senior Conservatives to rub shoulders with their US allies, but will make a meaningful and positive contribution to Anglo-US relations.
There is little doubt that this was a significant blow to those who would import US-style neo-conservatism to the UK.
But documents released under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) confirm that the Charity Commission decided not recover any money misspent by the Atlantic Bridge on activities that even its trustees agree did not further its charitable objectives.
This Q&A sheet, produced by the Charity Commission press office, shows that the commission was expecting questions around the roles of trustees Liam Fox, now defence secretary, and Tory peer Lord Astor of Hever. It was also ready to stonewall any questions around misspent charity money. Elsewhere in the commission’s FoI responses it is clear that the commission deliberately chose not to recover any misapplied assets, a decision it refuses to explain.
It is hard not to conclude that the Charity Commission has bent over backwards to protect the Atlantic Bridge — whose advisory board includes William Hague, George Osborne, Michael Gove and several other Tory MPs — from scandal. And this claim is not as bizarre as it may seem. The commission has a statutory obligation to protect the reputations of charities and Michelle Russell, who heads up the commission’s compliance division, has explained that formal inquiries are to be avoided. The commission has gone as far as burying its own inquiry reports to reduce any damage to the reputations of the charities investigated.
The Atlantic Bridge case shows what happens when this policy it taken so far the commission forgets its other statutory obligations; to ensure charities comply with the law and to enhance their accountability. The case raises serious questions around how much discretion the Charity Commission should have to pick and choose the complaints it investigates. So last week my solicitor, Mark Lewis of Taylor Hampton, who is also at the centre of the current News of the World phone hacking scandal, wrote to the commission to propose a judicial review.
We are prepared to ask the court to declare that the Charity Commission has a statutory duty to investigate allegations of wrongdoing and to do its utmost to recover charitable assets that have been misapplied, regardless of any damage that might be done to the reputations of those involved.
But we hope it won’t come to that and that over the next week or so the commission — or maybe even the trustees of the Atlantic Bridge themselves — will agree to take action to ensure that charity money that everyone agrees has been used to promote the Conservative Party is recovered and spent on charitable activities.
Posts on the Atlantic Bridge are collected here.