National Trust did not breach charity law, Commission concludes

Melanie May | 15 March 2021 | News

The Charity Commission has concluded its compliance case involving the National Trust, finding that the charity breached no laws and that there are no grounds for regulatory action against it.

The Commission had received complaints about a report by the National Trust into historic slavery and colonialism links at some of the places under its care. Concerns raised about the charity included the report’s examination of the links between Winston Churchill’s former home at Chartwell (pictured) and colonialism and whether the charity had, in undertaking this work, acted outside its charitable purposes.

 

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Regulatory compliance case findings & conclusion

The regulator considered that these concerns required examination because they had the potential to damage significantly the charity’s reputation and undermine trust and confidence in charities more widely. This led it to open a regulatory compliance case in September 2020.

The case assessed whether the report was in furtherance of the National Trust’s purposes, and examined its trustees’ decision making, including in managing the potential risk to the charity’s reputation in commissioning and publishing it.

The regulator examined a range of evidence and material, including the National Trust’s governing documents, recent annual reports and accounts, and the research report itself, and held a formal meeting with the charity.

It has concluded that the Trust has provided a well-reasoned response to the question of how the publication of the report furthered the charity’s purposes, and that the trustees were able to demonstrate that they explicitly considered and determined that commissioning and publishing the report was compatible with its charitable purposes.

The regulator is satisfied that the trustees recognised and considered the potential negative reaction that could result from the publication of the report by, for example, consulting a panel of 2000 members before commissioning it, which found considerable support for research into challenging histories, provided the findings were appropriately researched and contextualised.

With the report’s publication generating strongly held and divided views, the regulator however states that it is reasonable to conclude that the Trust’s planning and approach did not fully pre-empt or manage the potential risks to the charity, and that it could have done more to clearly explain the link between the report and the Trust’s purpose.

However, overall, the Commission is reassured that the charity acted in line with its charitable purposes, and the trustees fulfilled their legal duties and responsibilities.

Since the report’s publication, and in light of the criticism, the National Trust has worked to make clear why it commissioned this work and to reaffirm its role as a charity for all, with the regulator welcoming its commitment to learning lessons from this experience, and to taking into account a wide range of views and opinions within its membership and wider society.

Helen Earner, Director of Regulatory Services at the Charity Commission, said:

“We take all complaints about charities seriously, and given the level of scrutiny of this matter and the reputational risks to this much-loved household name charity, it is right that we examined this matter in detail.

“In this instance, the National Trust was able to provide us with a well-reasoned response, supported by clear evidence of how it had carefully considered how this interim report fitted with its charitable objects, and we are satisfied that there are no grounds for regulatory action against the Trust.

“We have already seen and welcome the charity’s commitment to learning from and responding to its recent experience, including in ensuring the Trust always remains an organisation that people of diverse opinion and positions feel able to support.”

 

National Trust response

In a blog written in response to the Charity Commission’s findings, National Trust Direct0r-General Hilary McGrady said the charity welcomed the regulator’s conclusion, and that it must continue to take a wide-ranging and evidence-based approach to history:

“We have been reminded that we must work hard to place particular themes such as historic slavery and colonialism in a broad context at the places in our care.

“For these reasons, we support a ‘retain and explain’ approach to history, and will work with government and other organisations in culture and heritage as they develop their own thinking.

“This approach will underpin our research, interpretation and programming and help us to maintain an open and positive relationship with our broad range of stakeholders and members, present and future.”

 

Photo of Chartwell by Rob Reaks from Pexels