The minister for civil society has told Parliament that she has “had issues in my own constituency about concerns around the Charity Commission” and that she is due to meet the regulator soon.
Mims Davies, minister for sport and civil society, was responding to a question from the shadow minister, Steve Reed, during Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Questions this morning.
Reed had raised the issue of the Garden Bridge Trust, a charity which received around £40m in public money for a new bridge across the River Thames that was never built.
The charity is currently in the process of winding up and the Charity Commission has previously said that no charity law had been breached, but it is monitoring the closure of the organisation and will publish a report with wider lessons for the sector.
“I want to press the minister further on the Garden Bridge issue; it has been a total fiasco,” Reed said. He went on to assert that there was “a cosy relationship to say the least between the chair of trustees, senior figures at the Charity Commission itself, as well as the former Mayor of London”.
He questioned whether the issue could affect public trust in the sector and called for a full inquiry.
“How can the public have trust in charity regulation if the Charity Commission won’t properly investigate a scandal of this magnitude?" he said. "And what is the minister going to do herself to ensure this investigation is conducted, not just a report but a full investigation?”
'Very happy to take this further'
Davies replied that: “There has been an investigation and lessons will be learned. But I am due to meet with the Charity Commission very shortly.”
She explained that the government had increased the Commission’s budget by £5m just over a year ago, “to increase the core regulatory functions”.
But she added that her own constituents had also expressed concerns about the regulator.
“I’ll admit I’ve had issues in my own constituency about concerns around the Charity Commission so I’m very happy to take this further,” she said.
Earlier this week, the Commission’s chief executive, Helen Stephenson, told the regulator’s annual public meeting that the Commission was still struggling to handle its increasing workload and described its capacity as being “on a knife edge”.
Charity Commission response
A Charity Commission spokesperson said: “It is because large amounts of public funds have been expended on a project that has not come to fruition that we took some exceptional steps in our scrutiny of the trustees’ conduct and management of the Garden Bridge Trust. These steps included our direct approach to the Commissioner of Transport for London, to ascertain if TfL as the main public funder of the project had any concerns about the charity’s use of their funds. We received confirmation that TfL had no such concerns. We also sought assurance from the NAO, as the body responsible for oversight of public funds, that they were suitably across the project.
“The Commission’s regulatory remit is specific, and in the context of the project, narrow: our role is to hold trustees to account against their charity law duties. We cannot take a view on the value for money or the merits of public infrastructure projects, nor can we second-guess decisions by policy makers to initiate public infrastructure projects. However, given the public interest in this case, we intend to publish a concluding report setting out our final position on the running of the Garden Bridge Trust, and setting out wider lessons that policy makers and others can draw from the failed project.”
Editor's note: 15.00 7 March
This story has been updated to include comment from the Charity Commission.