The more you read the National Audit Office report on the regulatory failings of the Charity Commission, the clearer it becomes that David Orbison, the former commission case worker, was onto something significant when he rebelled over the case of African Aids Action. He protested at the decision by senior management to close the case because he was convinced from his inquiries that there were serious shortcomings at the charity that required more determined intervention. The ensuing row led to his resignation and eventual success in claiming constructive dismissal, a decision against which the commission is currently appealing.
Looking back, AAA was a prime example of what the NAO is talking about when it refers to the commission’s failure to take tough action over serious regulatory concerns and its propensity to allow non-cooperation by trustees to delay investigations unreasonably. Third Sector published a leaked copy of an early draft of the report and was eventually able to compare it with the final report: the former had its defects and was arguably too undeveloped and aggressive, but the latter read like an extended exercise in the appeasement of an adversary that was quick to make accusations of racism and intemperate threats. In the context of the time, it appears likely that the commission was running scared of a racial discrimination action or a re-run of a recent case at the charity tribunal, which had lambasted the commission for its cavalier handling of a case where, paradoxically, it had actually gone in too hard and unfairly disqualified a trustee of a Hindu temple in south London.
Meanwhile, Orbison is still waiting for the much-delayed announcement of the decision on the commission’s appeal against his partial victory in the employment tribunal. Its argument all along has been that he was just an insubordinate employee who wouldn’t toe the line. He might have been an awkward customer in some ways, but recent developments confirm there was always a lot more to it than that. In a more decent world, the commission, which has already spent more than £100,000 of its dwindling budget on this case, would withdraw its appeal and close the matter. This seems highly unlikely, given organisational pride and the commission’s legalistic and bureaucratic instincts. No doubt it will see the case through to the bitter end: but there’s little prospect, all things considered, that it will go down to the credit of the commission and its senior management in the long term.