Tory MPs met commission chief over charity inquiry concerns

Justine Greening and Stephen Hammond, local MPs for the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Conservators, discussed the inquiry into the charity at a meeting with Helen Stephenson

Justine Greening and Stephen Hammond
Justine Greening and Stephen Hammond

Two Conservative MPs held a meeting with Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission, at which she was asked to speed up the publication of a report into Wimbledon and Putney Commons Conservators, Third Sector has learned.

Stephen Hammond, the MP for Wimbledon, and Justine Greening, the MP for Putney, met Stephenson in December to discuss the ongoing inquiry into the charity, which maintains 1,140 acres of common land in south-west London.

The commission opened a statutory inquiry into the charity in August 2016 and appointed an interim manager the following May after a dispute erupted between trustees over whether the charity had lost out on as much as £1.5m when it sold rights to build an access road, known as an easement, on Putney Common.

The trustees granted the easement to the Conservative-led Wandsworth Borough Council for £350,000 in a deal completed in 2014 to allow it to develop the former Putney Hospital Site into a school and flats, but failed to obtain a legally required qualified surveyor's report.

In 2015 three trustees who had joined the charity after the easement was granted commissioned a retrospective survey that estimated the easement was worth £1.9m, a figure disputed by the other trustees.

A subsequent surveyor’s report carried out at the behest of the commission concluded the charity lost out on at least £325,000, but Third Sector understands this was disputed by some who believe a price of £1.35m mooted in the same report is more accurate.  

The charity's interim manager is compiling a report into the charity. 

The Charity Commission declined to comment when asked if MPs had put pressure on the commission to wrap up the report more quickly than planned, but confirmed that Stephenson had taken part in a meeting between the regulator and two MPs to discuss the issues facing the charity.

Asked if he had put pressure on the commission to ensure the report was completed and published more quickly, Hammond told Third Sector"It is the case that I asked that the commission to complete and publish before the election as I was concerned that unless that was done the electors would have imperfect information and whoever was elected might have been affected by the conclusions of the report."

Hammond also said of the meeting: "We discussed the progress and likely timing of publication of the report by the independent examiner."

Three of the trustees of the charity are appointed by Whitehall, while the remaining five spaces are filled by trustees elected by people who live around Wimbledon and Putney Commons and who pay a levy towards their upkeep.

The most recent election took place in February with the results announced on 1 March.

The trustees of the charity said in a statement: "WPCC is aware that a meeting took place between Justine Greening MP, Stephen Hammond MP and the Charity Commission. However, we have no knowledge of the content or nature of the discussions."

In a statement released in December to assist those standing for election, the commission said the interim manager would submit a final report to the commission when he had gathered further information on valuation matters and completed his review.

The report is yet to be published.

After that, the statement said, the commission would look to close the inquiry as soon as was reasonably practicable. It said it expected this to be within the first six months of 2018 but could not put a definite timescale on it.

Greening did not respond to requests for comment.

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