Charitable trust scraps referendum plan under pressure from regulator

Shetland Charitable Trust has caved in to the charity regulator’s demand that it immediately scrap plans for a referendum on reform.

But Shetland Islands Council convener Sandy Cluness hopes some other organisation, such as the council, the government or even The Shetland Times, will take on the task instead.

Trustees agreed today they had little choice but to accede to the demands of the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator to respond by tomorrow confirming the referendum had been ditched. Failure to do so was likely to prompt instant court action by OSCR which trustees would have to pay for out of their own pockets.

The trust’s Edinburgh lawyer Simon Mackintosh warned that OSCR could proceed to the Court of Session without delay if it did not get the response it wanted by Thursday. That would mean the trust losing any control it still has over the slow but seemingly unstoppable journey towards reform.

Trust chairman Bill Manson said it was clearly very important to comply because OSCR’s talk of removing powers from trustees was “not a desirable step to happen”.

Mr Cluness wanted the compliance letter to carry the warning that a referendum was still the only way of gauging the community’s views on reform and the trust wanted time to figure out how to achieve one.

He maintains that the people of Shetland are the only ones that should decide who sits on their trust and what form it takes. They, he believes, are happy with the status quo and that option must be offered in a referendum, whether or not OSCR deemed it an illegal position to seek to maintain.

Mr Cluness was unapologetic that the trust and the council operate “in harmony”, as was specifically intended when the trust was established over 30 years ago. He said that sort of integrated approach is what government is now trying to establish in the public sector.

Offering his opinion on a referendum being held by another body separate to the trust, Mr Mackintosh said he did not think OSCR would be against that, or considering the results of such a vote as part of its own consultation process into the trust’s reform proposals, once they are finally put forward.

Council leader Josie Simpson, speaking as an individual trustee, said there was so much at stake for the community that he did not want to take a chance by defying OSCR and resisting reform, warning that the activities funded by the trust, such as the recreational centres and the care centres, could be shut down within months if OSCR stopped the trust spending its money.

On a vote, trustees were evenly split and Mr Manson used his casting vote to ensure the urgent letter to OSCR did not mention the desire to have a referendum by hook or by crook.

No decisions were taken today on the big question of progressing trust reform. That will be debated at another trust meeting next Thursday so that the charity can meet OSCR’s 28-day deadline for a firm proposal for reform and a timetable for implementing it.

During today’s meeting a number of trustees expressed resentment towards OSCR’s new chief executive David Robb who has accused them of misconduct and wrote a brusque letter to them last month threatening severe action. However, they agreed he should be invited to Shetland as soon as possible in the hope that he might realise that the charitable trust is a case for special treatment.

One of those calling for Mr Robb to make the trip was councillor-trustee Cecil Smith who said there was no point having “a bun fight by letter”.

Councillor-trustee Jonathan Wills was furious about being accused of misconduct by Mr Robb, along with the other trustees. Such allegations were “quite disgraceful and utterly false”, he said. But he reluctantly agreed that the trust had to meet OSCR’s demand this week, although it did so under duress.

Gussie Angus attacked Mr Robb’s “extraordinary behaviour” in conducting business through the letters page of The Shetland Times. He wondered whether OSCR itself might consider hosting the referendum.

Florence Grains condemned the “brash” tone of Mr Robb’s letter to trustees which she felt was not likely to win friends and influence people. Betty Fullerton was “horrified” when she read it while Allison Duncan found it “offensive”. Rick Nickerson was “astonished” and accused OSCR of being a bully.

Mr Cluness said he resented the letter and intends making that known to the Scottish government at a later date.



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