Editorial: Inquiry system needs a review

The saga of Liam Fox's charity The Atlantic Bridge reinforces the case for a review of the Charity Commission's inquiry system, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

Until recently it looked as if the Charity Commission's 'light-touch' investigation of The Atlantic Bridge was vindicated. The trustees of the charity, set up by the former defence secretary Liam Fox and run by his self-styled assistant Adam Werritty, co-operated fully; and the 'regulatory case report' told it to cease its activities because they were closely aligned with Conservative policy. Job done, with none of the accusations of heavy-handedness or political bias that might have come with a full statutory inquiry.

But now it has emerged that the charity was at the heart of the network of unauthorised influence that led to Fox's resignation, and the commission's investigation is under scrutiny again. Stephen Newton, the political blogger who made the original complaint about Atlantic Bridge, has gone on the offensive over the commission's decision not to seek repayment of misapplied charitable funds from the trustees and its alleged failure to deal properly with the 'US trips for donations' offer made by the charity. Geraldine Peacock, chair of the commission until five years ago, has also called for the case to be reopened.

It seems unlikely that the commission will court political controversy by taking further action in this case, especially now that the charity has been wound up and its assets transferred to another charity (which has not been identified, although it surely ought to be). But there is a strong case for the commission's whole system of investigations to be looked at again, perhaps by the review of the Charities Act 2006 that is due to begin next month with the appointment of someone to conduct it.

Alison McKenna, principal judge of the charity tribunal, has already pointed out that the shift towards non-statutory investigations, the results of which cannot be challenged, has diluted the accountability of the commission. And too many aspects of such inquiries, including publicising them and publishing reports, are entirely at the commission's discretion. A more robust and transparent setup would allow charities under scrutiny to know where they stand.

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