MPs voice concern over Wimbledon and Putney Commons Conservators report

Fleur Anderson and Margaret Hodge questioned whether the statutory inquiry report was “whitewashed” due to legal threats

Two MPs have expressed concern that the Charity Commission’s statutory inquiry report into the charity which oversees Wimbledon Common was “whitewashed” due to legal threats.

The commission report of its statutory inquiry into Wimbledon and Putney Commons Conservators, which began in 2016, was published last month and criticised trustees for their handling of a long-running dispute.

But, as Third Sector reported at the time, there was evidence to suggest that Sir Ian Andrews, a former trustee of the charity, threatened to launch a judicial review over a draft version of a commission statutory inquiry report on the charity, and that subsequent versions of the report contain fewer criticisms of the actions of some trustees.

In statements at the time, Andrews, who served as a trustee from 2009 until early 2017, denied his threats of legal action had led to the original report’s publication being suspended, and the commission defended the independence of its findings but declined to comment on leaked drafts.

But Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking and Dagenham, and Fleur Anderson, the Labour MP for Putney, both voiced concern that the commission had been cowed into changing its report. 

“This story demonstrates either they got it wrong or they are running away from standing up for the conclusions by fighting the case in court,” Hodge said, adding that both options “create concern as to whether the Charity Commission is fit for purpose”.

Anderson, whose constituents include people who pay the levy to fund the charity, said levy payers had “been let down” by the report, which she said raised “raises far more questions and concerns than it answers”.

She said: “It is a whitewash of a report, despite taking five years to investigate.”

The commission opened the inquiry in 2016 following a dispute between trustees over whether the WPCC had lost out financially when it sold rights to build an access road, known as an easement, on Putney Common.  

The board, including Andrews, sold the easement to Wandsworth Borough Council for £350,000 in a deal completed in 2014, but failed to obtain a legally required qualified surveyor’s report beforehand. Subsequent surveyors' reports estimated the charity lost out on between £325,000 and £1.5m as a result, although these figures are disputed.

The inquiry report focused on the handling of the dispute by trustees, some of whom were in position at the time the easement was sold and some of whom were elected in 2015 and began to question the deal. It concluded the failure to manage the dispute was evidence of mismanagement.

In February 2020, lawyers acting on behalf of Andrews sent a letter to the commission, threatening legal action over a draft version of the report.

There are key differences between the draft, which said it was “evident that a significant loss was incurred” through the sale of the easement, and a later draft, which says the original trustees “did not comply fully with their trustee duties” when they failed to obtain a surveyors report.

The final published version of the report said only that trustees “should” have obtained a surveyors report but that the inquiry could not conclude whether this resulted in financial loss.

A Charity Commission spokeswoman said: “In all our inquiries, we make independent, evidenced findings without fear or favour. Our role is to serve the public interest by arriving at truthful and fair conclusions. 

"It is standard practice, in accordance with principles of natural justice as set out in caselaw and procedural fairness, for us to send draft conclusions in draft form for representations by those concerned.”

She said the commission “cannot and will not comment” on confidential draft reports leaked to the media and that such drafts “contain provisional conclusions that may change” as an investigation continued.

A statement from lawyers acting on behalf of Andrews issued last month denied that the threat of legal action from Andrews had led to the suspension of the original report’s publication.

“Following representations from a number of parties, including our client, the Charity Commission reconsidered their report and concluded that its original findings could not be justified or supported and they have been formally withdrawn,” the statement said.

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