MP questions how regulator handled investigation into breast cancer charity

Conservative Lee Rowley writes to the Charity Commission to query claims it made about Wendy Watson, founder of the National Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline

The Charity Commission has been questioned by an MP about its handling of an investigation into a breast cancer charity that resulted in the regulator issuing its first official warning.

Lee Rowley, the Conservative MP for North East Derbyshire, has sent a letter to the regulator asking for it to clarify claims the commission made about Wendy Watson, founder of the National Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline.

The charity was given an official warning in July 2017. The Charity Commission criticised Watson for allegedly being paid £31,000 for running the charity when she was chair, which the regulator said was not properly authorised.

The commission’s 2017 warning said that the charity was spending too much on staff, charity shop and sales costs, which meant that it was spending only a fraction of its income on running its helpline.

But some of the claims made by the Charity Commission were questioned by Rowley in a letter sent to the commission last week.

Third Sector understands that the letter raised two points with the Charity Commission, the first querying that Watson was on the payroll of the charity while also serving as a trustee.

Watson’s P45 and records from HM Revenue & Customs appear to show that she left the charity on 6 April 2016 and was therefore not an employee at the time of the commission’s first visit to the charity.

On 18 October 2016, Watson brought up the possibility of her returning to the charity as an employee with the Charity Commission and no objections were raised, the letter said.

Watson returned to work at the charity in November 2016.

The letter called on the commission to withdraw comments made at the time of the official warning that unauthorised payments were made to Watson.

The letter also questioned the commission’s comment that Watson was the only signatory at the charity, pointing out that another trustee attended a meeting with the Charity Commission.

The letter raised the commission’s failure to circulate minutes from the October meeting with the charity, which Watson claimed reduced the ability of the trustees to respond to the commission’s claims.

The Charity Commission has subsequently accepted that it did not circulate the minutes of the meeting to the trustees at the time, and they were sent to Watson in July 2019, Third Sector understands.

In a statement, Watson said that she had had a brain tumour at the time of the official warning, which left her unable to challenge the commission’s verdict.

She said many statements made by the commission were based on the minutes from the October meeting that were not circulated.

"It transpired that these minutes were never made available to anyone present for verification, surely a violation of procedure," she said.

"In addition, the Charity Commission conceded that they could not trace any of the case notes taken during this meeting. I can only conclude that the minutes were compiled from memory, and then reconstructed in the form of lucid recollections.

"This then formed the basis of a release to the media, which proved to be materially damaging to our charity and to my persona.

"The consequence of this is that I am unable to receive any funding from major sponsors, who are sympathetic with my case, but unable to comply due to the effects of public perception."

A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said it had "received correspondence that is being considered, and a response will be provided in due course".

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