Board of Trustees, Charity Commission, Gender, Governance

What is the point of the Charity Commission?

David Pilgrim posts….

A couple of years ago, we sent a dossier of case studies to the Charity Commission, enumerating our concerns about governance failures in the BPS. At that time they noted that they were ‘engaged’ with the Society, which was clearly not compliant with charity law. It did not have, and still does not have, a truly independent Board of Trustees and it repeatedly denies relevant information to its members. Our list of postings on this blog has made these points over and over again, with evidence.

Little or nothing has happened since then. We now have one bureaucracy (the BPS) ostensibly under the legal jurisdiction of another one (the Charity Commission) showing the same problem: neither can be trusted to assure the public about probity. As far as governance and accountability are concerned they are both about as much use as a chocolate frying pan. This is not to say that individuals in both organisations, who deal with concerns put to them are not pleasant and well meaning, but the upshot for anyone trying to complain about problems is that inaction is the name of the game. 

The norms and culture of both organisations are at odds with reasonable expectations of democratic accountability. It might be better if the Commission did not exist at all – at least then complainants would seek other forms of redress. But it does exist and so we are left with a double problem: the BPS is still poorly governed and the body responsible for rectifying that state of affairs has been ineffectual. I am making strong claims here which might be thought of as nihilistic. However, below I lay out why that is not the case.

This empirical summary of the fix we are all in about reforming the dysfunction in the BPS, with its toothless regulator becoming a ‘passive bystander’ in the face of wrongdoing (Cohen, 2001), is fair comment. We have tried and failed to go through the proper channels. The use of the broken complaints procedure in the BPS failed because it persistently fails all of its members and the general public.

Our campaign for visible and credible reform has run into the sands as well because of the gap between the rhetoric of the Charity Commission and its lack of regulatory potency in practice. My understanding is that it is not even going through the motions any longer of ‘being engaged’ with governance failures in the BPS. It could be that the tinkering on the margins by the BPS (i.e. the laughable sop of a couple of independent Trustees now to be appointed) was enough for the Commission to declare ‘mission accomplished’. Who knows in this mysterious world of public bodies claiming to value transparency but actually offering us bullshit in practice (Spicer, 2020)?

Accordingly, both BPS members and the general public expecting a regulator of charities to, well, regulate charities, are now betrayed twice over. Moreover the relationship between the BPS and the Charity Commission bears scrutiny for two particular reasons, beyond the general failures of each one. I now explain those two points.

‘Engaging’ with Mermaids

The reader may have seen some important recent news, in the wake of the interim Cass Report and the closure of the Tavistock GIDS clinic. That closure remains important because of its ambiguity. Gender critics have invested it with the hope that the castration of children, in the name of medicine, will now come to a halt and exploratory psychological therapy will not be criminalised. However, those promoting the ‘affirmative model’, despite its lack of empirical evidence (Biggs, 2022), look to diverse service providers carrying on with the aspirations of transgender activist organisations. One of these is Mermaids. 

News broke recently that the Charity Commission is to investigate its role in providing girls with breast binders. The timing is important. The fact of the supplying of the paraphernalia for young people to deny their immutable natal biological state is not new. Mermaids have not suddenly leapt into action, but have encouraged this and other related practices for years. Thus, the Commission may be blowing with the political wind, for now, post-Cass. 

My point here is that this ‘engagement’ initiative raises the prospects for those welcoming the news that this will lead to a dramatic regulatory intervention. Given the track record of the Charity Commission to prefer ‘engagement’ and to rarely close a charity, or take it over as its new statutory managers, the gender critics would be wise not to hold their breath. This intervention from the Charity Commission may work in disrupting the breast binding supply chain, but it may not. 

Mermaids may well defend what they consider to be good practice – what will the Charity Commission do then? Analogously, the BPS ignored the advice and directives of the Commission for years with no detrimental consequences for the cabal running the Society. If a regulator is toothless or is perceived to be (which is as important in this case) then the public purse paying for it is being depleted for no plausible reason. 

The ubiquity of conflicts of interest

One of the complaints we have made to, and about, the BPS is that it is riven with conflicts of interest at the top. Charity law, amongst other things, intends to minimise or eliminate such a tendency. As I noted, the Commission has failed to put the BPS house in order in this regard and now seems to have given up the effort completely. However, there is a particular twist in the tail of this failure, which neither the BPS membership, nor the general public, are likely to be aware of; being kept in the dark is par for the course in BPS-land. 

When the fraud in the BPS came to the attention of its ‘leaders’, the Board of Trustees, there was probably wailing and gnashing of teeth, as threats to personal interests were dawning and scary legal liability might auger a grim future. Some probably favoured keeping the scandal under wraps, whereas others knew the cat would soon be out of the bag and maybe amongst the pigeons. 

The fraudster, now in prison, was the PA to the CEO. Multiple sign offs of fraudulent claims (coming from the coffers supplied by members’ fees) were made by her managers. The CEO and the Finance Director were duly suspended, pending the internal and police inquiries. The former is for now ‘back in his office’ but the latter disappeared within a month of his suspension. He found immediate employment elsewhere in the National Lottery Community Fund (NLCF). Yes this is absolutely true folks. 

That story deserves more scrutiny elsewhere by critical historians of the Society. However, my concern here is more about a different point about a particular conflict of interest, which demonstrates that the BPS is not the only public body that resists public accountability. As a member of the public and a critical observer of the machinations in the BPS in recent years, I tried to make some inquiries about how this rapid and effortless ‘moonlight flit’, implicating a very senior financial operative occurred. Did the BPS provide him with a reference and, if so, did it mention the investigation and his suspension? Was there due process of checks by the NLCF?

These are pertinent questions in their own right but another aspect of the story emerged while pursuing them. I attempted to contact Helen Stephenson, who has been the CEO of the Charity Commission since 2017. In 2022 she was also appointed as a Trustee of the NLCF, raising an immediate question about a potential conflict of interest. I wrote to her pointing out that prima facie conflict of interest.  Her office refused to engage with me about the inquiry (Stephenson was on holiday they said). They also said this was a matter for the NLCF and not the Charity Commission. The buck was being passed. 

Accordingly, I sent an email to the Customer Services of the NLCF (the only contact point available), who refused point blank to pass on the concern to the CEO or Chair, as I had requested. Nor would they deal with the concern directly. Basically, I was told to go away in a firm British manner, in which those in power are used to dealing with the public when under threat.  I have now written to my MP telling the sorry tale, but am still travelling more in hope than expectation.

So there we have it. Not one, not two but three public bodies are indifferent to the rights of the general public and are happy to swat away or ignore public interest inquiries. Those at the top of all three organisations should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, though this is not a likely scenario. In the meantime, the mystery of the ex-Finance Director of the BPS and his equivalent role in the NLCF may encourage journalistic interest, as might the clear conflict of interest implicating Helen Stephenson. Please write to your MP about this. Any update from mine will be posted on this blog. 

References

Biggs, M. (2022) The Dutch Protocol for juvenile transsexuals: Origins and Evidence. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy (online 19th September).

Cohen, S. (2001) States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering. Cambridge: Polity. 

Spicer, A. (2020) Playing the bullshit game: how empty and misleading communication takes over organizations. Organization Theory 1, 1-26.