The Charity Commission's handling of a case spanning 22 years "was so poor it amounted to maladministration", a report from the public bodies ombudsman has said.
The report by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, which oversees the behaviour of public bodies, upheld a number of complaints from the miners welfare charity the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation about delays and contradictory and confusing advice in the commission’s dealings with the charity that concerned a dispute involving the sale of land.
The ombudsman ordered the commission to apologise and to pay the CISWO about £20,000 in compensation for the costs the CISWO had accrued as a result of the case, according to the report produced in September but made public by the charity’s legal representative, Brabners.
The complaints relate to a query from the CISWO about whether another charity for miners, the Newbold Verdon Institute, needed the CISWO’s permission to sell off assets, which in 1992, the commission told the CISWO was the case.
But when Newbold was wound up in 2004, the commission said the charity did not need the CISWO’s permission to sell off its building.
The CISWO’s requests for further clarity over whether it was doing its fiduciary duty and was entitled to any proceeds of the sale sparked 10 years of confusing and contradictory statements from the commission, demonstrating "poor corporate memory", the report said.
The report said: "From the evidence we have seen, it is clear to us that the commission failed to explain their views and reasons for their decisions properly.
"They contradicted themselves, sent confusing letters, they refused to clarify issues and they sent mixed messages to the CISWO on a continuous basis.
"We consider that the commission’s service was so poor that it amounted to maladministration."
All of this, the report said, "coupled with the delays and a consistent failure to put matters right had a severe impact on the CISWO".
The £20,000 was to compensate the charity for its legal costs, and staff time and travel expenses, the report said.
A commission spokesman described the report as thorough and careful.
"We accept that our service in this case fell well below our usual standard and was unacceptably poor," he said.
"The substantive part of this report relates to actions taken by the commission some considerable time ago, but we would like to repeat our apologies to those involved and reassure charities and the public that we have already changed our systems and processes to avoid similar problems arising again.
"When customers request us to reconsider our position, we now conduct quicker internal reviews led by non-conflicted senior staff members, and no longer operate the outcome-review panel, which we accept was sometimes slow to respond to the customers’ needs.
"More generally, we are focused on improving the commission’s service to customers and we are confident that the changes we are introducing, including to prioritise complex and high-risk work and automate lower-risk work, will improve charities’ and the public’s experience of our services.
"We hope that charities are already noticing these improvements."
He said the commission was working closely with the CISWO and had agreed the consolatory payment and recompense for wider costs incurred by the charity.
Nobody from the CISWO was available to comment.