Regulator facing formal complaint from ex-trustee of actors’ charity

06 Jun 2024 News

Robert Bathurst, former trustee of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund

Actors’ Benevolent Fund

A former trustee of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund (ABF) is planning to make a formal complaint to the Charity Commission following the regulator’s announcement last week that it had ended its investigation of the charity.

Last Friday, following a two-year intervention involving a trustee dispute, the Commission published a statement confirming that it had closed its regulatory compliance case into the ABF and that it had “learned lessons itself as to how such cases should be handled in future”.

The Commission’s director of regulatory services Helen Earner said it had “also apologised for not including all past and present trustees in the early stages of our case, which was a fair challenge to our approach, but has not had a material impact on the overall outcome”.

Now, one former ABF trustee Robert Bathurst has told Civil Society he is in the process of making a formal complaint in regard to the Commission’s statement, which he said contained “mealy-mouthed words” from Earner instead of a full apology.

Fellow ex-trustee and actor Siân Phillips accused the watchdog of attempting to “brush things under the carpet” and said it was “hard not to see” her and others taking the case to the parliamentary ombudsman, as quoted by the Guardian.

Bathurst also criticised the Commission for failing to engage with its concerns about the “integrity” the charity’s recently-held trustee elections.

Start of intervention

The Commission began its intervention in 2022 when some ABF trustees – including former president Penelope Keith and fellow actors Phillips and James Bolam – raised concerns over an alleged misuse of funds during the tenure of former general secretary Jonathan Ellicott.

According to reports, Ellicott lodged an official complaint of bullying and harassment, which was not upheld, before leaving the charity at the end of March that year.

After the initial concerns were raised, some trustees including Keith, Phillips and Bolam were removed from their positions by other ABF board members, in what some have described as a “coup”.

The Commission used its legal powers to appoint temporary trustees based on member votes counted during the ABF’s annual general meeting in 2022 and ordered the charity to hold a new election.

The regulator has publicly said it stands by its use of its legal powers but accepts that it could have done more to communicate with all parties at the start of its case.

‘This can never happen again’

Some of ABF’s former trustees are unhappy with the Commission’s public statement that it made last week at the conclusion of its case, saying it is at odds with a private apology it made beforehand.

Former trustee Bathurst, who has acted as a representative for the group of trustees that were ousted despite resigning beforehand himself, said the Commission privately apologised to Keith on 17 May via its chief operating officer Nick Baker.

It then shared a draft press release without any apology, to which many former trustees objected, before adding a reference to the apology in its final statement.

“That resulted in the mealy-mouthed words from Ms Earner hidden in the body of the Charity Commission’s press release published on Friday,” said Bathurst.

“I am in the process of making a formal complaint in regard to the Commission’s statement.

“Needless to say, Nick Baker’s private apology was much more fulsome than the ultimate public statement issued by Helen Earner.”

A spokesperson for the former trustees added that had been pleased with the private apology but were “disappointed” with the press release, which they said “underplays the Charity Commission’s utter mishandling of this matter and the impact that has had”.

They said the Commission had failed to properly investigate concerns about a possible misuse of funds.

“Had the Charity Commission acted and engaged appropriately, which is their duty to uphold the law, then this matter likely could have been resolved years ago,” they said.

“The former trustees have always had the charity’s beneficiaries’ interests at heart. This is why they have fought so hard to put the charity in safer hands.

“For the sake of the sector, the Charity Commission must acknowledge their mistakes, properly, publicly, and learn from them so that mishandling like this can never happen again.”

‘Serious concerns’ about trustee elections

ABF elected a new board of trustees in January but reported “serious concerns” to the police and the Commission about almost half of the votes cast.

Bathurst, who ran as a candidate, said the former trustees had “raised serious concerns about the integrity of the AGM results” and shared evidence with the Commission.

“The Charity Commission failed to engage with that information at all and sought to avoid it while it closed its case. It has been cover up after cover up,” he said.

Bathurst added that he hoped all involved in ABF could “find a constructive, reasonable way to move the charity forward on a legitimate basis, without sweeping things under the carpet”.

The Commission and ABF both referred to their recent statements on the conclusion of the compliance case.

“This is a hugely positive step forward for the charity, along with recent confirmation of the king being our patron, all of which signifies a new chapter for the ABF, and is the result of a great deal of work carried out over the past two years to improve the charity’s governance,” a spokesperson for the charity said last week.

In its statement, the Commission said it was satisfied that the January election was valid and that the new trustees were working together in the best interests of the charity.  

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