Charity Commission maintains secrecy over Mariam Appeal

Regulator refuses to release George Galloway inquiry papers despite advice from High Court judge

Charity Commission
Charity Commission

The Charity Commission has refused to release 10,000 pages of documents relating to its investigations into George Galloway's Mariam Appeal despite being encouraged to do so by a High Court judge yesterday.

The Times submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act to the regulator in 2007, aking it to release documents relating to three inquiries into the appeal between 2003 and 2007.

Galloway, the Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, founded the appeal in 1998 to provide medical assistance to Iraqis and to a four-year-old girl, Mariam Hamza, in particular.

The organisation ceased operating in 2003, when Dominic Kennedy, investigations editor at The Times, began looking into its sources of funding.

In the same year, the commission opened the first of three inquiries into the sources and use of the appeal's funds. The commission published two reports of its findings, totalling less than nine pages, but refused to release further details to Kennedy, saying that statutory inquiries were covered by an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act.

In an oral judgement yesterday, Mr Justice Calvert-Smith, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, supported the commission's position, which had previously been endorsed by the Information Tribunal. But he said the inquiry raised matters of "real public concern" and that the issue was of such seriousness that the commission should work towards the disclosure of certain exempt documents.

Kennedy told Third Sector: "The commission has fought for two-and-a-half years to avoid providing any background information from the 10,000 pages it holds on George Galloway's campaign.

"Even if the Freedom of Information Act does not give an automatic right to see inquiry documents, there is nothing to stop the commission volunteering appropriate information, as the judge made clear."

A spokeswoman for the commission disputed this, saying the judge supported the commission's decision to develop a general voluntary disclosure policy on what information it could publicly release under the Freedom of Information Act.

"The judge did not say that the commission should release the documents in connection with the Mariam Appeal inquiries," she said. "However, we will consider the full judgement when it is available."

Rupert Earle, a solicitor at Bates Wells & Braithwaite, who represented The Times, said the judgement showed the commission to be "risk-averse" regarding freedom of information.

 

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