Charity Commission refuses to release correspondence with Atlantic Bridge

Jon Trickett, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request about the defunct charity founded by the former defence secretary Liam Fox

Charity Commission
Charity Commission

The Charity Commission has refused to release details of correspondence it had with the defunct charity the Atlantic Bridge Education and Research Scheme, founded by the former defence secretary Liam Fox.

Jon Trickett, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, last month submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act to the commission, asking it to disclose all papers submitted for its regulatory case report on Atlantic Bridge and any correspondence between the charity and the regulator during the investigation.

But in its response, dated 2 October, the commission says that although it does hold letters, emails, telephone memos and minutes of meetings, it will not release them because it is exempt from releasing information under the act if disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the exercise of its functions as a public authority.

Although the commission accepts there is public interest in its investigation into Atlantic Bridge, it argues there is a strong public interest in the commission being able to carry out its regulatory functions effectively.

Its reply to Trickett says: "To a certain extent, the commission is dependent on the cooperation of trustees and officers of the charities that it regulates: a significant amount of information requested of charities by the commission — as evident in this case – is provided voluntarily without the use of, or threat of, our regulatory powers of compulsion.

"Disclosure of correspondence between the commission and the charities that it regulates could result in the withdrawal of cooperation on the part of charity trustees, which would hinder the work of the commission to its detriment.

"Equally, disclosure of correspondence between the commission and the charities that it regulates would reveal how the commission conducts its regulatory work. The release of such information in the public domain could enable others to conduct themselves in such a way as to evade our detection."

Atlantic Bridge was founded by the former defence secretary Liam Fox and run by his associate Adam Werritty to further public education on both sides of the Atlantic. It was wound up by its trustees in September 2011 after a regulatory case report in July 2010 by the commission found that it promoted a policy closely associated with the Conservative Party and said that its "current activities must cease immediately".

The charity had as advisers several influential Conservative politicians, including the Chancellor, George Osborne. The commission concluded its activities might lead the public to question its independence from party politics.

A supplementary report in July this year revealed that the commission ruled out using its powers to try to recover funds spent on non-charitable activities. It said the regulator was satisfied that Atlantic Bridge had no outstanding funds when it closed after it gave £415.55 to the Winston Churchill’s Britain at War Experience.

That report also said Fox might have broken parliamentary rules by allowing the charity to operate from his parliamentary office while he was a trustee between September 2003 and June 2009, but it was not a breach of charity law.

Trickett had also requested that the commission publish a list of donors who funded the charity between February 2010 and September 2011, when it was wound up. But the commission's response says that charities do not provide information to it on their donors other than what they are required to disclose in their financial statements by the Charities Statement of Recommended Practice.  

He also asked the regulator to disclose documentation relating to the tax returns of Atlantic Bridge and the residual accounts after the charity closed, but the commission response says that any questions regarding charitable tax relief should be directed to HM Revenue & Customs.

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