Protesters gathered outside the Charity Commission’s yesterday evening to protest at ongoing delays to the regulator’s investigation into a charity which controls a football ground.
Save the OSD Ground is calling for the Old Spotted Dog Ground in Forest Gate to be returned to the local community in an ongoing dispute with the charity over the ownership and control of both a football club and its ground.
Since 1993 Newham Community Leisure, a registered charity, has held the lease for the Old Spotted Dog Ground, which is used by Clapton FC - a senior football team that plays in an Essex league.
Campaigners complained to the regulator in 2013 about how the charity was being run. They said they feared it was being run as a private business and was in breach of its charitable objectives.
Over 1,700 people have signed a petition calling for action from the authorities and campaigners handed it to the Charity Commission yesterday.
The Charity Commission confirmed that it had opened a statutory inquiry - its more serious kind of investigation - but said the report had not yet been completed.
The protesters want the Commission to publish the findings of its investigation, and are concerned that because the charity is now in voluntary liquidation its assets could be sold off.
Speaking to Civil Society News ahead of the protest, Kevin Blowes, a spokesman for the campaign, said: “We first complained to the Charity Commission about what was going on at the Old Spotted Dog back in April 2013.”
The campaign is unclear as to how much progress the regulator has made.
“It just keeps saying that they are still investigating”, Blowes said. “We can’t understand the continued delay.”
In a letter to accompany the petition, campaigners said: “The Charity Commission insists that it wants members of the public to report genuine concerns about irregularities in the manangement of charities. We have tried to do so and it is deeply regrettable tht it has been necessary to organise a petition to demand the kind of action needed to ensure public confidence in the integrity of the charity sector.”
Campaigners have set up a rival football team, Clapton Community Football Club, which is playing in a lower division.
Charity in liquidation
Newham Community Leisure went into voluntary liquidation last March and campaigners fear this is to avoid scrutiny of its activtiy.
It is over 200 days late filing an update with the Charity Commission and Companies House. Its annual accounts for the year ending December 2015 show it had an income of nearly £10,000.
Campaingers had tried to block the liquidation through the courts.
Liquidation documents show that the charity had assets of £350,000 in freehold property, £101,000 in leasehold property and £2,700 in cash. It had debts of over £200,000 and estimated that the surplus after paying its debts would be £229,000.
Football club boss denies wrongdoing
Clapton FC is still using the Old Spotted Dog ground, and its management has denied allegations of wrongdoing.
Vincent Mcbean is the chief executive of the football club and also a trustee of Newham Community Leisure Trust.
Last year he posted a response on the Clapton FC website denying that the ground was at risk and accusing campaigners of mounting a personal attack using social media.
The Charity Commission first investigated the charity in 2002 and concluded that “little or no charitable activity was undertaken at the Old Spotted Dog Ground”.
It ordered trustees to open the ground up for charitable use and said it would monitor the outcome.
The Commission also told the trustees to ensure that transactions between the charity and the football club were "at arm's length".
Charity Commission 'fully aware of concerns'
The Commission said it was still investigating and that it was working with key stakeholders but that it could not comment further while the investigation is ongoing.
A spokeswoman said: “The Commission has an ongoing statutory inquiry looking into the governance and financial management of the charity, Newham Community Leisure Trust. We have not yet drafted a report, however it is our intention to publish a report setting out our findings and conclusions on completion of the inquiry.
“We recognise the interest that the local community and supporters of the football club have in this matter, and are fully aware of their concerns.
“The Commission continues to work closely with other relevant individuals and agencies, including the Insolvency Service, to ensure that where possible, the property is protected and issues of serious regulatory concern are addressed.
“We are unable to comment further at this time so as not to prejudice the outcome of our inquiry.”