As a former chair of the Charity Commission renews her call for a full investigation of Liam Fox’s Atlantic Bridge, the Financial Times has reported that major donor Michael Hintze had to bail the charity out after it was hit by an unexpected tax bill. The bill appears to be for tax foregone in support of activities that were not charitable.
If true, it seems my two year campaign to see tax foregone in favour of the charity clawed back may have been successful after all. The FT story, which quotes an anonymous trustee who should know, implies the Atlantic Bridge was rendered insolvent by this tax bill. In this case trustees – which included Liam Fox and Lord Astor of Hever (still a defence minister) at the time the money was misspent – may have been personally liable.
But this account appears to be contradicted by briefings to other journalists including Jason Beattie, the Daily Mirror’s political editor, who told me: ‘Charity commission tell me they got assurances from Trustees that the surplus was handed to another charity but refuse/cannot say what these assurances were!’
Having been rendered insolvent by an unexpected tax bill, one would think there were no assets to hand over. In addition, the Charity Commission asserted, in its response to my proposed judicial review of its handling of the case, that action to recover misspent charity money would be disproportionate. The FT report implies it made this assertion after HMRC presented the tax bill.
Geraldine Peacock, who chaired the Charity Commission from 2002 to 2006, explains: ‘The commission chose not to use its statutory powers in this case and, when it does that, it ends up skimming across the top of the issues. Atlantic Bridge is an example of when the Charity Commission doesn’t do itself any favours. It should have done what it is supposed to do, which is to investigate all aspects of a complaint. It didn’t do that.’
Had the Werritty scandal not broken when it did, it is unlikely that we would have discovered that Liam Fox and Lord Astor’s charity had been forced to return money to the taxpayer that they should never have claimed. It is clear that the commission worked with the trustees to keep the story out of the public eye. It is also clear that authorities were happy to give these most senior Conservative politicians the benefit of the doubt when found to be on the wrong side of the law; lesser mortals should not expect to be so lightly treated.
Posts on the Atlantic Bridge are collected here.