Charities criticise regulator over National Trust remarks

The Charity Commission has confirmed there is no formal inquiry or any finding of wrongdoing against the charity

National Trust property Petworth, West Sussex. ©National Trust Images John Miller
National Trust property Petworth, West Sussex. ©National Trust Images John Miller

Many charity professionals, including a former board member of the Charity Commission, have hit out at the sector’s regulator after it mooted a possible inquiry into the purpose of the National Trust.

The Telegraph newspaper reported over the weekend that current chair, Baroness Stowell, appeared to suggest the charity could face an inquiry into the trust’s purpose after it published a report into its colonial history in September.

However, the commission confirmed that there is no formal inquiry or any finding of wrongdoing against the charity.

In response, many in the sector took to Twitter to accuse the regulator and its chair of politicising their roles, and using the National Trust’s report to insert itself into the middle of the UK’s culture wars.

Chief executive of the NCVO Karl Wilding wrote on Twitter: “The National Trust is a fantastic charity. Some people don't like it, inevitable for an organisation that is doing what all good organisations do, and changing with the times. The Charity Commission should ignore those who wish to deploy the National Trust in their culture wars.”  

In a blog post, former commission board member Andrew Purkis wondered why the regulator was forcing the trust to explain what is “so obvious” from its charitable purposes, especially when it is struggling with the financial impact caused by the pandemic. 

He asked: “Is it because the commission feels it has to show Oliver Dowden or the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph that they are responding to the concerns of that part of the public energised by a culture war against ‘wokeness’?”

Jay Kennedy, director of policy and research at the Directory for Social Change, said that the commission's chair, as a taxpayer-funded servant, should not be making statements in publications whose content is behind a paywall.

The regulator did not respond to any of the criticisms above, but stressed that the trust wrote to the commission in late September, updating it on the negative media scrutiny it was facing.

It was following this update, the commission said, and a wider consideration of matters, that it wrote to the charity to ask further questions in early October.

A spokesperson added: “We have written to the National Trust to understand how the trustees consider its report helps further the charity’s specific purpose to preserve places of beauty or historic interest, and what consideration the trustees gave to the risk that the report might generate controversy. 

“We await a detailed response from the charity, and in the meantime have drawn no regulatory conclusions.”

In a statement, the National Trust said that The Telegraph itself reported, under a misleading headline, that there is no expectation of a formal inquiry. 

“We have always researched the history of our places and doing so informs how we care for and present them. As is expected of all charities, the National Trust reports to the Charity Commission on any significant issues affecting our work,” said a National Trust spokesperson.

The charity said it had kept the regulator informed about the colonial history report it published, and some of the complaints it received from people who disagreed with it being published. 

Baroness Stowell announced over the weekend that she would step down as chair of the commission in February next year. 

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