The Charity Commission used a spurious argument to avoid publishing details of its investigation into Atlantic Bridge, the charity founded by former defence secretary Liam Fox and run by his associate Adam Werritty, according to the shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett.
Trickett asked the commission, under the Freedom of Information Act, to publish all papers submitted by Atlantic Bridge to the commission during its investigation into the now-defunct charity.
That investigation closed in July 2010 with a report that said the charity’s "current activities must cease immediately" because it promoted a political stance that was closely aligned with that of the Conservative Party. The charity was wound up in September 2011, shortly before Fox resigned as defence secretary.
The regulator has declined to publish the information that Trickett requested. A letter explaining its decision, seen by Third Sector, accepts there is a public interest in the information, but says: "To a certain extent, the commission is dependent on the cooperation of trustees and officers of the charities that it regulates. Disclosure of correspondence could result in the withdrawal of cooperation on the part of charity trustees."
The letter also said publishing the information would "reveal how the commission conducts its regulatory work" and this "could enable others to conduct themselves in such a way as to evade our detection".
Trickett told Third Sector: "I think the Charity Commission’s argument is spurious. I don’t accept the argument that it could damage its relationship with other charities. I think most charities want to know that if things are going wrong at a charity, it will be dealt with publicly so the good name of the sector will be restored."
He said he was concerned that charitable funds could have been used for political purposes and it was in the public interest to know what had happened.
"We can’t have people washing their dirty linen in private, and that is what the Charity Commission has allowed to happen – it is unacceptable," he said. "The commission is using a spurious interpretation of the law to avoid being held accountable for its actions while it was carrying out the investigation."
Trickett said the commission’s refusal to publish the information gave the impression that there could have been political pressure on the regulator from senior Conservative Party figures. "I don’t know whether or not this happened but that is certainly the impression it gives," he said.
Trickett said he was taking legal advice about what to do next, and this might involve appealing against the regulator’s decision not to publish the information.
The Charity Commission issued a statement that said: "As is always the case, when we apply an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act and do not release information, we explain the reasons why to the person making the request. Where required, as in this case, we carefully consider whether the public interest in withholding information outweighs the public interest in disclosure."