Atlantic bridge - lessons to be learned for all charity trustees

The Atlantic Bridge Research and Education Scheme (Atlantic Bridge) was founded in 1997 by the former Secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox. In 2003 Atlantic Bridge was registered as a charity with the Charity Commission and Adam Werritty, Liam Fox`s associate, acted as Atlantic Bridge`s executive director. 

In 2010 the Charity Commission carried out a review of Atlantic Bridge`s activities which found that Atlantic Bridge was promoting a "special relationship" between the United States and the United Kingdom instead of studying, researching and educating the public about this relationship in furtherance of its charitable aims. Therefore the Charity Commission concluded that Atlantic Bridge`s activities did not further its charitable aims for the advancement of education and as a result, Atlantic Bridge was ordered to cease its current activities immediately. Nonetheless, the review also concluded that Atlantic Bridge was capable of operating for the public benefit and Atlantic Bridge was given a year by the Charity Commission to implement some changes. A year later with no changes, Atlantic Bridge was wound up voluntarily by its trustees in September 2011, but the controversy continued nonetheless. The Charity Commission looked into the possibility of exercising its statutory powers to recover funds from Atlantic Bridges` trustees which had not been used to support its charitable aims. At this point it looked as though the trustees of Atlantic Bridge could be personally held accountable to repay such funds to the charity if they were found by the Charity Commission to be in breach of trust. Fortunately for them, the Charity Commission`s further review found that whilst some of Atlantic Bridge`s funds were applied in pursuance of non-charitable activities, the Charity Commission could find no evidence that the trustees had acted in bad faith. Therefore the Charity Commission decided not to pursue any of the trustees personally.

The former Chair of the Charity Commission, Geraldine Peacock, was critical of the Charity Commission`s investigation, but the Charity Commission issued a statement that:

"If any additional information came to light during the case that warranted opening a statutory enquiry, [it] would have done so immediately."

Whilst the ultimate outcome for Atlantic Bridges` former trustees was positive in the sense that the Charity Commission decided not to pursue them personally, it brings to light some interesting legal and reputational issues.

All charities need to be satisfied that they are established for legally recognised charitable aims (e.g. one or more of the thirteen legally recognised charitable aims in the Charities Act 2011). Furthermore all charities should be established for public benefit as opposed to private gain.

The Charity Commission`s review also reported a blurring in the distinction between the Conservative Party and Atlantic Bridge and the independence of the charity from party politics was deemed to be questionable. The Charity Commission was concerned that Atlantic Bridge`s primary objective appeared to be promoting party politics closely associated with the Conservative Party. Atlantic Bridge was essentially a think tank used to network with the Republican Party in the United States and multi-national corporations. Several influential Conservative politicians also served on Atlantic Bridge`s advisory board. Whilst there is nothing wrong in politicians acting as trustees of charities or becoming involved with charities, all charities must observe the requirement that they are independent from party politics. Any politicians who act as trustees of charities should also have regard to their legal duties and responsibilities and put aside any political bias when fulfilling their roles as trustees. It was alleged that Atlantic Bridge had been politically biased, especially through Liam Fox`s associate Adam Werritty being appointed to run the charity and Atlantic Bridge`s focus on Lady Thatcher`s achievements as Prime Minister most notably the "special relationship" she established when she and Ronald Regan were in power during the 1980s.

All charity trustees should also have regard to the fact that they can be held personally accountable by the Charity Commission if as a result of their breach of duty a charity allows its funds to be applied for non-charitable purposes. A charity trustee is someone who is responsible for the overall control and management of the administration of a charity. Whilst the Charity Commission ultimately decided not to pursue Atlantic Bridge`s trustees because it found no evidence that they had acted in bad faith, charity trustees should not rely upon this and should also have regard to the reputational issues that might arise if they are themselves subject to a similar investigation.

Posted on: 13/07/2012

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.

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