V&A trustees have not discussed Tory fundraiser being held on its premises, despite conflict of interest fears

Governance experts have questioned the move but the government is understood to have no concerns about the matter

(Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images)
(Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images)

Trustees at the Victoria and Albert Museum have not held any discussions about a Conservative Party fundraiser being hosted at the charity tonight, despite conflict of interest fears.

Charity governance experts told Third Sector they were surprised that the board did not feel the need to discuss the decision to hold the event at the V&A, given that one trustee, Ben Elliot, is also co-chair of the Conservative Party.

The V&A is an exempt charity and is subject to both government and Charity Commission guidance, which states that “even the appearance of a conflict of interest can damage a charity’s reputation, so conflicts must be managed carefully”, and reminds trustees that “they have and must accept ultimate responsibility for directing the affairs of a charity”.

The V&A defended the event, saying that no trustees were involved in the decision about venue hire and that its board had no plans to discuss whether hosting the event was appropriate.

But one expert said that, if he was on the V&A board, he would insist that trustees meet to make sure all official guidance was being followed.

News of the fundraiser was first covered by political website The Sarawak Report, which said that guests were paying up to £2,000 to attend the event, and up to £20,000 to book a table.

This is the third time in just over a month that questions have been raised about whether the V&A is doing enough to manage links between its board and the Conservative Party.

The charity engaged with government officials in May about media reports that Sir Nicholas Coleridge, its chair of trustees, had offered a private tour of the museum as a fundraising prize at a previous Conservative fundraiser, while the Labour Party has said private events organised at the V&A by Elliot for his business associates “raised questions” about conflicts of interest.

V&A trustees are appointed by the Prime Minister and it is regulated by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, although the Charity Commission can raise any concerns it may have with the government. The museum's accounts show that it received over £79m in public money last year.

In addition to the joint guidance, the V&A’s agreement with DCMS requires trustees to abide by the Code of Conduct for Members of Public Bodies, which says: “You must ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between your public duties and your private interests, financial or otherwise.”

In an indication that the board would be expected to discuss potential conflicts of interest, the code of conduct also says: “In matters in which you have a non-financial interest, you should not participate in the discussion or determination of a matter where the interest might suggest a danger of bias.”

Charity Commission rules state that boards must take care to manage potential conflicts of interest where a “trustee’s responsibility (or loyalty) to the other organisation or person could compete with their responsibility to the charity” .

Katie Boswell, associate director for strategy and leadership at the charity think tank NPC, said: “Good governance is crucial for any charity to pursue their mission whilst avoiding becoming entangled in party politics. 

“It would be surprising, therefore, if the board had not discussed whether these activities risk undermining their politically neutral position either in practice or in perception.”

Jay Kennedy, director of policy and research at the Directory for Social Change, said that the trustees should insist on discussing the proposed activities and documenting its decisions. 

“It may be that the trustees have acted correctly in this case," he said.

"But especially given that the V&A also receives public money, if I were a trustee there I would be demanding that the board fully considers the relevant guidance, especially on managing conflicts of interest, and has made a record of the discussion in formal minutes which shows their reasoning.

“Trustees are meant to avoid exposing their charity’s reputation to undue risk, and conflicts of interest are a common way that reputational damage can happen.”

A V&A spokesperson said: “Our corporate events team were approached directly by a representative from the Conservative Party to discuss venue hire on a commercial basis.

“None of our trustees were involved in this process.”

Asked whether Ben Elliot would be attending the fundraising event, and if so whether he would be representing the charity or the Conservative Party, the V&A said that it did not hold any details about the guest list.

The Charity Commission directed questions to DCMS.

The department declined to comment but Third Sector understands the department believes there is no conflict of interest.

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