Christian charity to remain under crisis management

Charity Commission confirms its decision to appoint interim manager at St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust

St Stephen
St Stephen

A charity that got into difficulties after taking over the SPCK chain of Christian bookshops four years ago is to remain under the control of an interim manager appointed by the Charity Commission.

The commission has carried out an internal review and confirmed its decision, made last year, to appoint the interim manager and transfer the assets of the charity to the Official Custodian for Charities. A further appeal by the charity can be made to the charity tribunal.

The St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust took control of the loss-making chain of 23 shops in 2006 as an alternative to the SPCK closing them.

The trust, which lists its charitable objects as "advancement of orthodox Christian religion", was registered in 2005. Its trustees are US-based J Mark Brewer and his wife and daughter.

SSGCT was at first allowed to continue using the SPCK name on the shops, but that permission was withdrawn in 2007 when concerns about the charity began to surface. Its accounts for 2007 are 785 days overdue.

In 2008 the commission opened an inquiry into governance and internal financial controls at the SSGCT and a charitable company, Saint Stephen the Great - its objects are based on advancing orthodox Christianity through publishing and acquiring or constructing buildings. It has the same trustees as the SSGCT.

Last April, the regulator appointed Peter Gotham of corporate insolvency firm Begbies Traynor, to run the SSGCT as interim manager. It handed the trust's land interests to the Official Custodian for Charities.

The charity has also been in dispute with former bookshop staff. Christine Peacock, a senior legal assistant at the Usdaw shopworkers' union, said Usdaw had agreed a settlement in September with Gotham of just over £300,000 for 32 former SSGCT workers who were pursuing a variety of employment tribunal claims for unpaid salaries, lack of redundancy payments and unfair dismissal.

Peacock said the SSGCT had tried to impose unilateral and illegal changes to employees' terms and conditions, such as reducing holiday entitlement below the statutory minimum and forcing them to work on Sundays. Those who did not agree were told they would have to leave.

St Stephen the Great also filed for bankruptcy in the US last year. The filing was dismissed by the courts amid concerns they were being misled.

Gotham declined to comment.

Who is the custodian?

The Official Custodian for Charities is appointed by the Charity Commission to hold charitable land in trust. This is useful for unincorporated charities that don't want to change the details of their land's ownership every time trustees change. The trustees are usually allowed to have control of the title deeds.

The Official Custodian, usually a member of the commission's staff, can also be appointed by a commission or court order to hold a charity's cash, investments and other assets in trust as a protective measure during an investigation. The current Official Custodian is Ken Brew, the commission's principal accountant.

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