A report published by the commission today says the regulator opened a case into the RSPCA Tunbridge Wells & Maidstone Branch last year after The Sun newspaper claimed that the charity had spent almost £1m on converting a house into a cattery that was run by Katie Toms, the daughter of Daphne Harris. Harris is chair of the RSPCA branch and the national body.
The story, which appeared on the front page of The Sun, claimed that £1m was spent looking after 12 cats at the house in Headcorn, Kent.
The Sun said the house had been bought by the local RSPCA for £464,935 in 2011 and a further £500,000 had since been spent on the property on improvements, wages and expenses.
A legal letter sent to the newspaper by the RSPCA when the original article was published said the house was bought in 2011 because of a shortage of feline care facilities in the area.
It said the cattery had rehomed 1,300 cats and supported the veterinary bills of 1,600 others in the area, not 12, as the newspaper’s article had originally claimed.
The RSPCA later received an apology from the newspaper for the inaccuracies in the original article.
Despite this, the commission says in today’s report that it opened a case because it had a number of concerns about the way the property was purchased and the fact that the facility was run by Toms.
Its concerns included whether the commission should have been asked to provide consent to hiring Toms to look after the cattery, given her relationship to the chair and that she was also a trustee, and whether conflicts of interest were properly managed.
The commission found the house had been purchased properly as part of a long-term aim to have a cattery in the local area.
The charity also ensured that Harris did not involve herself in the decision to appoint her daughter to look after the property, and that Toms resigned as a trustee before accepting the position, having applied as part of a fair recruitment process.
But the charity failed to produce a written record showing that Toms had resigned, which the regulator said meant that there was a breach of rules on remuneration of trustees because the resignation was not effective at the point at which Toms became manager of the cattery.
Despite this, the commission acknowledged the recruitment process was fair and that the wage paid to Toms was appropriate.
The commission found that, although steps were taken to manage conflicts of interest, the appointment "created a real risk to the perception of independence of the recruitment process and therefore jeopardised public confidence in the charity".
A spokeswoman for the RSPCA said: "The branch trustees, who are all volunteers, acted in good faith and believed that they had followed the proper procedures, but accept that, on this occasion in 2011, they fell short.
"Although we accept the Charity Commission’s findings, we would stress that having a cattery was a long-term aim for the branch, as the ruling has acknowledged.
"It was built in response to a clear and desperate animal welfare need in the area and following an eight-year search to find suitable premises that fulfilled the strict criteria set by the national society.
"It is a professionally run and successful rehabilitation and rehoming centre, which has helped the branch rehome 1,300 cats and paid towards the veterinary treatments of 1,600 others."