No quangos here

How the Churches Conservation Trust resisted pressure to become a non-departmental public body

Circomedia circus school is based in CCT’s St Paul’s Bristol
Circomedia circus school is based in CCT’s St Paul’s Bristol

The Churches Conservation Trust won a long battle to prevent itself being classified as a non-departmental public body.

"If you read about this in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, you'd say the rabbit had gone mad," says Frank Field, Labour MP and former chair of the Churches Conservation Trust.

He is talking about the morning in 2005 when the CCT, a registered charity, received a letter from the National Audit Office, which audits public authorities, saying changes to its definition of non-departmental public bodies meant the CCT would now be classified as one. Twenty NDPBs are also charities, including Arts Council England, the National Gallery, the British Council, museums, training boards and research councils.

But the status of the CCT is described by its chief executive, Crispin Truman, as a "classic English compromise" between church, state and charity.

Its constitution was created by an Act of Parliament and its trustees are appointed by the Queen, on the advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport 'sponsors' it, providing 55 per cent of its annual funding, and nominates one trustee. The rest of its income, nearly £5.4m in 2008/09, comes from the Church of England (22 per cent of its annual funding) and voluntary contributions.

"The NAO had a whole list of charities it wanted to become NDPBs," Field says. "The letter, which came out of the blue, said we all had to become NDPBs because we were receiving a certain amount of money from the Treasury. It was absolutely crazy."

He felt such meddling with the status of independent organisations would set a dangerous precedent. "Democracy is not only about voting," he says. "It is about people in their own organisations having protection from being ridden roughshod over by the state."

When Truman wrote to the NAO expressing his board's resistance to becoming an NDPB, the auditor apologised for not having consulted the CCT about the change but insisted the reclassification would not change anything for the charity. Truman disagreed. "It would have made it more difficult to attract independent funding at a time when we were being expected to raise more money of our own," he says.

Although the DCMS showed support for the charity's position, the Charity Commission said it was content with the new arrangements. Field wrote to the Cabinet Office. "I told them they couldn't unilaterally change the CCT's status without the co-agreement of the General Synod of the Church of England."

But his argument was given short shift and, in October 2006, the Treasury placed a parliamentary order that would have made CCT open its books to the NAO. Finally, Field wrote to Prime Minister Gordon Brown in February 2008. Soon afterwards the trust's classification as an NDPB was reversed and the order was withdrawn.

Field is scathing about the officials responsible. "They loved raking it around," he says. "I hope whoever came up with this absurd idea was knocked on the head and put back into his box. Officials who have nothing better to do than this should be sacked."

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