A committee of MPs has come under fire for praising the Charity Commission's actions over the funding of the advocacy group Cage by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. The commission’s behaviour was criticised by the Lord Chief Justice in a recent judicial review in the High Court.
In its report on the regulation of fundraising this week, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee commended the commission for pursuing charities that funded Cage, which describes itself as "an independent advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the war on terror".
Cage has written to the committee complaining that this aspect of the report is "prejudicial and partisan" because evidence was taken from the commission but not from Cage or the JRCT. The JRCT has said it was "odd" and "peculiar" that the committee mentioned this "unrelated, ongoing regulatory case" in its report on the regulation of fundraising.
The judicial review, held last September, focused on whether the Charity Commission had been acting within its powers when obtaining an undertaking from the JRCT that it would never again fund Cage.
Cage withdrew the case in the High Court after the commission agreed to a statement that "there is no obligation on the trustees of JRCT to fetter the proper and lawful exercise of their discretion in future".
The committee’s report, published on Monday, said: "The Charity Commission should be commended for pursuing charities who use their funds to finance Cage… Cage is a political organisation, not a charity. The Charity Commission were right to resist Cage’s attempt to bring a judicial review, which Cage were wise to withdraw."
In its letter to the chair of the committee, Bernard Jenkin MP, Cage said the committee’s comments appeared to be "prejudicial and partisan". It went on: "As part of a comprehensive investigation, Cage should have been allowed to provide evidence to address the concerns which the committee have. Additionally, the charities which were contacted by the Charity Commission concerning their relationship with Cage should have been asked to provide evidence."
Asked about the report, a spokesman for the JRCT said: "We find it odd that, in the midst of a report on fundraising, the select committee has commented on the Charity Commission’s conduct in an unrelated, ongoing regulatory case.
"The select committee’s comments are also peculiar because they describe a judicial review of the commission’s actions in that case but appear to ignore key remarks made by the Lord Chief Justice during the judicial review hearing; it was these comments that led to a formal settlement."
In the hearing in September, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, criticised the "ludicrous time limits" under which the commission had required the assurance from JRCT, said he could understand how it was felt the "commission had behaved in an extremely high-handed manner" and acknowledged that the JRCT had "real cause for complaint".
He also pointed out that the commission’s argument in court that it had not sought to fetter the future discretion of the JRCT was "wholly inconsistent" with its press statement at the time, which said an undertaking had been given not to fund Cage "either now or in the future".
Asked by Lord Thomas why the commission had not clarified its position before the litigation began, Julian Milford, the commission’s barrister, said he accepted "that there was an opportunity to correct the position, and we did not do so. I cannot say anything else."
When the commission gave evidence to the committee in November, Michelle Russell, director of investigations, monitoring and enforcement, said: "The commission’s view is that we were reasonable and proportionate in terms of what we did in that case."
The Charity Commission chair, William Shawcross, also giving evidence, said: "Our view still is, and is not in any way fettered by the court case, that trustees risk breaching their duties for charity trustees by funding groups like Cage."
The commission has conducted operational compliance cases on the JRCT and the Roddick Foundation, which has also funded Cage, and is due to publish them soon.
A spokeswoman for the select committee said it would consider the letter from Cage at its next meeting.