Regulator issues rare official warning to RSPCA over pay-off

The Charity Commission says trustees at the animal welfare charity mismanaged the process of agreeing a large pay-off to its acting chief executive, Michael Ward

RSPCA headquarters
RSPCA headquarters

The Charity Commission has issued an official warning to the RSPCA after concluding that the charity’s senior trustees mismanaged the process of agreeing a large pay-off to its former acting chief executive.

Michael Ward, chief operating officer at the RSPCA, who became acting chief executive after the sudden departure of Jeremy Cooper last year, left the charity in May amid claims that he had been given a significant pay-off following a row over alleged age discrimination.

The charity declined to comment on a report in The Times newspaper that 57-year-old Ward had been awarded "a significant sum" by the charity after he challenged the process for recruiting the chief executive in the belief that he was turned down for the role because of his age.

The settlement was "understood to be far bigger" than the £150,000 salary offered to the RSPCA chief executive, The Times claimed.

The RSPCA announced earlier in May that Chris Sherwood, chief executive of the relationships charity Relate, would take up the top job at the animal welfare charity on 1 August.

The commission said today it had concluded that the charity’s chair, vice-chair, treasurer and deputy treasurer at the time "committed a breach of trust or duty or misconduct or mismanagement in the administration of the charity" in areas including failing to ensure they were sufficiently informed before making a decision about the settlement to the former acting chief executive.

They had also "failed to act with reasonable care and skill in relation to the negotiation with the former acting chief executive", the commission concluded.

At the time, Daphne Harris was chair, David Canavan was vice-chair, Christine Beaumount-Kerridge was treasurer and Paul Draycott was deputy treasurer.

At the charity’s annual general meeting in June, Draycott was confirmed as its new chair, with Jane Tredgett becoming vice-chair and Paul Baxter deputy treasurer. Beaumount-Kerridge remains treasurer, and Harris and Canavan continue to be part of the charity’s council, which acts as its board of trustees.

Neither the regulator nor the charity would confirm the size of the settlement paid to Ward, but the commission said it was a "large sum".

The regulator’s official warning says members of the charity’s council should receive formal training to ensure they are fully aware of their responsibilities as charity trustees and make sure the council adheres to the charity’s code of conduct.

The charity should also commission an independent report on the processes it followed in recruiting and appointing a new chief executive, the commission says.

The recommendations of this report should be implemented by the trustees, the regulator has told the charity.

This is only the sixth time the commission has used the power, granted in the Charities Act 2016, to issue an official warning to a charity. If a warning is not heeded, the regulator has grounds to take more serious regulatory action, such as suspending trustees or appointing an interim manager.

The regulator said in a statement that the level of engagement it had had with the RSPCA in recent years was "concerning considering the charity’s size and importance" and the charity had "seen unusually high turnover among its chief executives, and significant periods of time without a substantive chief executive in post".

David Holdsworth, deputy chief executive of the Charity Commission, said the RSPCA’s governance had "fallen short, which has led to people asking legitimate questions about the pay-out to the former executive".

He said: "The use of our formal legal powers is a significant step, and not one we take lightly.

"I hope the trustees use it as an opportunity to work constructively with the RSPCA’s new chief executive and to show to their members, supporters and the wider public that they are committed to good and effective governance."

He said the charity’s recent election of a new council, the introduction of a new code of conduct and the appointment of a new chief executive provided the opportunity for a fresh start for the charity.

But he warned: "If the trustees are not able to satisfy us that they have responded meaningfully and promptly to our official warning, we will not hesitate to take further regulatory action."

A spokeswoman for the RSPCA council, the body that acts as its board of trustees, said it was "fully committed to the very highest standards of governance".

She said the council had implemented more than 90 per cent of the recommendations from an independent governance review, initiated in 2016 at the behest of the Charity Commission after negative press stories about the charity, and was working hard with its new chief executive on the outstanding items.

"We are confident that the society is moving in the right direction," she said. "The council remains united in its commitment to ensuring the RSPCA is a modern, outward-looking organisation that is fully focused on pursuing our goal of creating a world that is kinder to animals."

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