Any political activist knows that party politics and charitable status don’t mix. And if they do and someone complains the effects can be toxic for the organisation and any leading figures involved.
The Smith Institute found this to its cost when it was torn apart by a Charity Commission investigation two years ago accusing its trustees and organisers of appearing to be too party political and too close to Gordon Brown. The damage to Labour was enormous and the Commission used its powers to hold a full inquiry and directed its trustees to reform the organisation or else.
This week it was the turn of the Tories – or did you notice it?
Atlantic Bridge- patron Margaret Thatcher and an advisory board composed of four prominent Tory Cabinet ministers, Liam Fox, George Osborne, William Hague and Michael Gove – was given a year to change its act- after facing exactly the same allegations as Labour. The charity which promotes the “special relationship” with the US – was found in a damning report to be little more than a promotion for Thatcherite party political beliefs and neo-Cons in the US.
But one reason why it may not have hit the headlines is that the Charity Commission was far softer on the offending Tory charity. For a start its press officer advised after they received the initial complaint from Labour activist Stephen Newton that the word investigate could not be used as they had not launched a formal investigation. Instead the phrase “engaging with the charity to address concerns” through a regulatory compliance case was used instead.
Now nine months later the report has been issued with the almost same findings against The Smith Institute. The key phrase is the finding that the charity is “promoting a policy which is closely associated with the Conservative Party.”
But instead of a six month direction the charity has been given a year to change and only then is there a threat against the charity’s trustees of further action.
But more significantly while it is clear that the charity had broken the rules for at least seven years nothing is being done about its tax free position.
These are not minor sums. This was the charity that was charging £700 a seat for VIPs and £400 a seat for ordinary mortals to hear Henry Kissinger speak at a luxury London hotel last year and see him presented with a Margaret Thatcher Medal of Freedom. The commission’s report discloses that the charity admits this event was part of a tax free fund raising drive. The donors – probably mainly higher rate taxpayers – could claim the money against their tax returns. And it is now clear that Atlantic Bridge can’t claim the same charitable status as the National Trust.
So why hasn’t this been referred to Revenue and Customs? Why aren’t more searching questions not being asked of the advisory panel of Cabinet ministers who presided over an organisation that clearly broke charity rules?
Atlantic Bridge is not actually being repentant either. In a statement they reluctantly promised to follow the Commission’s ruling and have taken down their website for “updating”. But it expressed its “ disappointment” at the Commission’s ruling and refused to answer any questions about the role of their trustees or advisory panel.
The Charity Commission is being a little too careful in handling this scandal. I wonder why.
A similar version of this blog has now appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website.