Analysis: Blowing the whistle

What happened when one woman went to the Charity Commission with information about the charity she worked for? Kaye Wiggins reports

Robina Husain-Naviatti
Robina Husain-Naviatti

Robina Husain-Naviatti attracted a flurry of media attention early last year when an employment tribunal ruled that the charity Forensic Therapies, which provided counselling in prisons, had unfairly dismissed her from her job as deputy director.

The tribunal heard she had raised concerns about potential financial impropriety at the charity involving about £300,000. She was awarded £47,000 in compensation and the story was picked up by national newspapers, which homed in on her Oxford University education and her work as a model.

The ruling was the most high-profile event in a sequence that followed a complaint she made to the Charity Commission about the charity in April 2009. It has since emerged, after a request by Third Sector under the Freedom of Information Act last year, that the Charity Commission dismissed her complaint without assessing the accounts and figures she provided to support it.

After continued pressure by Husain-Naviatti, the commission eventually referred the case to its outcome review panel and opened a new investigation into the case, which is still open.

Michael Linsell, the former chair of Forensic Therapies, denies all allegations of wrongdoing at the charity, but declines to comment further. The charity went into liquidation in 2010, saying it could not afford the legal fees associated with defending itself against Husain-Naviatti's allegations.

Husain-Naviatti says she believes her case illustrates the general difficulties of blowing the whistle on charities. In particular, she says, it highlights the Charity Commission's inability to deal appropriately with people reporting their concerns.

"From 2008 onwards, I was aware that there could be problems," she says. "I had seen evidence that my £35,000 salary was being funded in full by a grant from the Southall Trust, but I had also been told by the charity's director that it was being funded through a £525,000 grant from the Cabinet Office.

"I also saw documents that gave different figures about the value of that grant. I was disturbed that conflicting information about the finance was being given to different people."

Husain-Naviatti lodged a formal grievance with Forensic Therapies about these concerns in December 2008, but was dissatisfied with the charity's attempts to address them and made her complaint to the regulator in April 2009. Soon afterwards, she says, she was suspended and asked to resign. In June that year, she was made redundant.

"After that, I complained again to the Charity Commission and sent copies of financial records to explain my concerns," she says. "But staff at the commission didn't ask me for more information and said the trustees were satisfied there was no wrongdoing. Why should they trust the trustees? These were the people I was complaining about."

Husain-Naviatti says the regulator should change the way it deals with whistleblowers. "They treated my complaint as if it were an employment issue," she says. "They don't understand that when a person questions an organisation's finances, employment issues can follow, as they did in my case. Staff at the commission seemed to think I was a vexatious employee who was complaining because I had been made redundant, but it didn't happen in that order.

"They kept saying they couldn't deal with my employment issues - but I wasn't asking them to. I have suggested to the commission that it should run some training on whistleblowing."

Husain-Naviatti is also critical of the way the Charity Commission decides whether a complaint is serious enough to warrant a thorough investigation. "The commission quoted all these laws of proportionality when it decided not to investigate," she says. "But it should be assessing whether its decision not to investigate could damage the charity. It should be asking whether, if the allegations are true, the charity will be destroyed. In this case, clearly it would be."

She says her experience has undermined her confidence in charities as a whole. "Regardless of what was happening at Forensic Therapies, it makes you realise that things could also be going wrong at other charities and the commission might not be investigating."

A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said: "The commission is an evidence-based regulator. Based on the information provided, the concerns were not assessed as meeting the criteria for further investigation.

"However, as found by the outcome review panel, the commission's initial assessment did not include an in-depth financial assessment of the accounts and figures highlighted.

"Following the outcome review panel, we did open a new case to look at these again. This case remains ongoing. The commission has specific guidance on whistleblowing for both staff and charity employees."

The commission's website guidance on making a complaint under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, which protects whistleblowers, says charity employees who are aware of wrongdoing can give information directly to the regulator using a special email address.

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