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‘I assumed I had been exonerated,’ former Charity Commission chair tells MPs

26 Jan 2022 News

Martin Thomas, the next chair of the Charity Commission

Martin Thomas thought he had been cleared over a complaint at a charity he chaired, when he applied to run the sector’s regulator, he has told MPs.    

Thomas resigned as Charity Commission chair before starting the job, just after being appointed last year. He has now written to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee to apologise and explain what happened. The committee published Thomas' letter last week.

In December, the Times reported that Women for Women International, where he was chair until last year, had submitted a serious incident report to the Charity Commission, naming Thomas as the subject of a complaint under investigation. 

Thomas told the committee: “Having heard nothing from the charity in the months following its investigation of the allegation, I assumed I had been exonerated.”

He said he had found out that this was “not entirely correct” on 15 December and informed the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport on 17 December

He added: “With hindsight I should have told the interview panel about the allegation and my assumption that it had been dealt with to the satisfaction of those involved.” 

DCMS viewed the failure to disclose the investigation and reliance on an assumption as “an error of judgement on a technical omission”, he said. 

“They said they did not think there was any intention to mislead. I then resigned by mutual consent,” he added. 

‘I have never intentionally bullied someone’ 

In his letter to MPs Thomas denied bullying allegations. 

“I have never intentionally bullied anyone and I deeply regret that anyone could have construed my behaviour in that way,” he said.

“In the charity sector, allegations arising from workplace behaviour are on the increase. And the precautionary serious incident reports they trigger are now being made on a routine basis - about 50% more each year than the year before.

“They can arise when disgruntled employees are not willing to accept what boards of trustees have legitimately decided to do.” 

Events at Women for Women International 

Thomas claims that tensions at Women for Women International arose from the decision to merge US and UK operations to “become more efficient”. 

An individual affected by the restructuring then “made a raft of allegations against the board and in particular two trustees, of whom I was one”, he said. 

This included: “It was said that I had been aggressive and inappropriate in tone in a phone call in spring 2021, and that I had dealt improperly with a protected vulnerability.” 

This led to the investigation being launched. But Thomas stresses that the investigation was not the reason he left the charity. 

‘I felt the organisation was imploding’ 

Thomas said the restructure had “caused wider unhappiness within charity” and that lots of accusations were being made. 

“I felt that the organisation was imploding, and decided to resign,” he said. 

“Before I was told what the findings were, or what the board had decided about the findings, I resigned. To be honest, I did not need the constant grief. 

“It was an unpaid role (as have been all my roles in 14 charities spanning 30 years) and I decided that my contribution and efforts would be better off invested elsewhere.” 

At this point, he says the board thanked him for his contribution and did not suggest there were outstanding issues. 

It was only last December that he learned via the Times that “certain aspects of my conduct were judged inappropriate”. He is seeking further information and considering legal action. 

“Natural justice and basic fairness suggest that I be given an opportunity to defend myself against what appear to be being presented by some as serious findings against me. I have instructed solicitors to pursue this,” Thomas told MPs.

Media storm has been ‘very distressing’

Thomas said that the fact that a photo of himself in Victoria’s Secret ended up in the public domain had been a “very distressing time for me and my family”. 

He acknowledged that out of context it could be “misinterpreted”, but insisted that the purpose of the photo was to highlight his argument that Victoria’s Secret would not be considered an appropriate partner. The charity went on to decline the donation. 

Furthermore, he said the mix-up that led to him sending the photo to a junior member of staff was down to the CEO having accidently put the wrong phone number in her email signature. 

“At no point in my career has anyone ever complained of any behaviour by me that has been sexual. I regret that the juxtaposition of The Times’ headline and picture, and some of the media storm that has followed, suggests otherwise,” he told MPs. 

Commitment to the charity sector

Finally, Thomas said he remains committed to the charity sector. 

“Its role in our country is vital. I am sad not to taking up the role at the Charity Commission, and will instead continue to work within charities themselves, as I have done for 30 years,” he said. 

Thomas also offered “best wishes” to the next chair of the Charity Commission. 

DCMS has not yet said how it plans to appoint the next chair. It could select someone who applied last year, or it could re-run the process. 

Ian Karet’s term as interim chair ends on 26 June 2022. 

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