Michael Ellis QC, the Attorney General, has refused a request by the Charity Commission to refer matters relating to the governance of the Royal Albert Hall to the charity tribunal.
The regulator has been trying for years to persuade the charity to change its constitution so that its trustee body no longer has a majority of members who own seats in the hall and can sell tickets privately at vastly inflated prices.
The commission first asked the Attorney General for consent to refer the case to the charity tribunal in 2017.
Later that year, the commission asked again for consent, but the case appeared to remain in limbo until last week, when Ian McCulloch, president of the Royal Albert Hall, wrote to members saying a decision had been reached.
“I am pleased to report to you that the Attorney General has decided that it would not be in the public interest for the Charity Commission to refer to the charity tribunal any of the commission’s questions concerning the hall’s constitution and the commission’s own powers in relation to the hall.
“He has therefore refused in its entirety the commission’s application for consent to make the referral.”
McCulloch said in the letter that the hall could not yet gauge the full implications of the decision because it did not necessarily change the commission’s view of its governance.
“We will try to ascertain what that view now is,” he said. “The decision does, however, remove the distraction and cost of the tribunal proceedings sought by the commission.”
It is understood the Attorney General concluded that some of the questions posed by the commission did not fall within the scope of the relevant provision of the Charities Act 2011 and others were not considered to be in the public interest.
Richard Lyttelton, who was president of the hall between 2010 and 2011 and has been campaigning for reform on the issue, said the matter showed the need for the commission to be freed from the oversight of the Attorney General in such situations.
“Ten years and three presidents later, through a combination of apathy, buck-passing, ruthless exploitation of an antiquated constitution and refusal of the hall’s trustees to self-regulate – to say nothing of the pusillanimity of the regulator – the sun still shines on those who make hay to the tune of hundreds or thousands of pounds a year,” he said.
The construction of the hall was partly financed in 1866 by the sale of 1,276 of its 5,272 seats to private investors. Ownership of seats, which have been inherited or traded over the years, confers "membership" of the Corporation of the Arts and Sciences (the formal name of the hall).
When the commission first asked for a referral to the charity tribunal in 2017, 19 members of the 24-strong ruling council – the charity’s trustees – were seat-holders.
Seat-holders can do as they like with tickets for their seats, which are their private property. They can use them, give them to friends or charities, return them to the box office to be sold at face value, or sell them on the open market for the best price available.
At the same time, however, the seat-holders elected to the council are in a position, by setting guidelines and influencing the choice of events through the programming and marketing committee, to take decisions that might affect the open market price of their tickets.
The nature of the hall’s governance arrangements is a complicating factor because it was laid down by Royal Charter, a supplementary charter and Acts of Parliament of 1927, 1951 and 1966. It can be changed either by a new act or by a scheme to amend existing acts.
The commission has the power to impose a scheme, but only if it can demonstrate that the trustees should apply for one in the interests of the charity but have unreasonably refused or neglected to do so.
A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office said: “After careful consideration, the Attorney General has declined to give the Charity Commission his consent to refer its questions to the charity tribunal.
“The Attorney General continues to be grateful to the Charity Commission for the excellent work it does in regulating charities in England and Wales.”
A Charity Commission spokesperson said it was considering its next steps in relation to the decision.
“We are grateful that the position on the application, which was first made in 2017, has now been clarified,” the spokesperson said.
The Royal Albert Hall did not respond to requests for comment before publication of this article.