Trustees cave in under pressure from angry charities regulator
A call has been made for Shetlanders to boycott the forthcoming drive to recruit independent trustees to sit on the new-look Shetland Charitable Trust. The hope is that public revulsion towards the selection rather than election of a majority of trustees will force the charity regulator OSCR to step in and halt the reform plan.
The existing trustees voted 10-6 today to reluctantly accept the creation of a new trust made up of eight independents selected to serve with up to seven councillors. But although the template was created by the trust’s own reform group it appears nobody in the current trust now has faith in it. They agreed to ensure that the constitution is looked at again by an independent body with a view to more changes in 2017.
Trust vice-chairman Jonathan Wills led a forceful rebellion to defy OSCR and block the introduction of selected trustees, despite dire warnings of court action for misconduct if there was continued insubordination. He said trustees had been subjected to “intimidation, half-truths and coercion” by the charity regulator.
His hope was that a revised plan could be brought forward later this year to ensure most trustees were elected.
Today’s approval of the long-awaited reforms – which will be implemented in the next few months – was condemned as a sad day for Shetland by a number of trustees and the end of democratic control.
Trustee Gary Robinson – the council’s political leader – branded the reform “defective”. When the vote was lost he declared it was “the last democracy in the trust”.
He said he believed all the trustees knew that “the usual suspects” would come out and put themselves forward to join the trust. Once that happened he was sure there would be a public backlash against the reformed trust.
Earlier he was involved in a bad-tempered exchange with trust chairman Drew Ratter after Mr Ratter said he was “astonished” by the council leader’s involvement in trying to block the reform. The chairman was forced to retract the remark but even he criticised the demand for reform as another example of “the centralising impulse in Edinburgh”.
The decision means Shetland Charitable Trust will cease to exist in its current form within six months. Most of the 20 councillors who sit on it will stand down.
The meeting took place against a background of severe pressure from OSCR which had threatened to suspend trustees and grab the strings of the £200 million purse unless “positive, urgent” action was taken to reform the charity.
OSCR’s chief executive David Robb lost patience some time ago and repeated the threat last month after learning of continuing dissent over the changes agreed by the trust in December last year.
In a letter he accused Dr Wills and his supporters of “flouting” the findings of the trust’s own reform group by persisting with their call for the eight independent trustees to be elected by the people of Shetland instead of selected by a three-strong panel chosen by trustees.
Mr Robb suggested any trustees dissenting from the reforms approved by OSCR in July should consider their positions. He made it plain that misconduct proceedings could result if the trust did try to put forward an alternative reform proposal at this late stage.
The high-stakes intervention was the latest in a series of damaging skirmishes between Scotland’s biggest charity and its official regulator which has threatened repeatedly to take drastic action. It maintains close scrutiny of all trust business and requires to be kept fully informed of activities.
Last year the council convener Sandy Cluness resigned from the trust in protest at what he saw as moves by centralised forces to bring Shetland to heel. He had been prevented from mounting a referendum on trust reform by OSCR and he feared loss of council control would destroy the good work done in the community done by the trust since the 1970s.
Mr Robb said OSCR would prefer not to have to resort to action against trustees in the Court of Session but warned: “Should there be any delay implementing the approved reorganisation scheme, OSCR will proceed to examine the options available.”
At today’s meeting trustee Allan Wishart said he had bitter experience of Court of Session battles and warned that taking on the establishment at this point was “simply madness”.
The proposals for the new-look charity were finally approved by OSCR on 3rd July following four years of procrastination and delay by trustees and a long public consultation, which gave rise to 68 objections.
Since then OSCR has already castigated the trust for failing to rubber-stamp the change within two weeks of official approval.
Mr Robb expressed “considerable disappointment” that some of the trustees were still unwilling to proceed in the manner already agreed with OSCR.
The deadline for implementation is 31st March next year at the latest.
The trust’s legal adviser Simon Mackintosh from Turcan Connell confirmed to trustees that failure to implement the scheme would be treated “extremely seriously” by OSCR. Actions could include suspending trustees and staff, taking control of spending, freezing bank accounts and having the charity shut down with its assets transferred to another charity.
The job of recruiting members of the public to be trustees will now get under way immediately. The process will be conducted by trust chief executive Ann Black.
Turcan Connell said that once the new-look trust is in place the charity will at last be free to concentrate on its work rather than its internal structure and governance. It should be more secure against allegations of conflicts of interest and free to engage more confidently in business dealings with Shetland Islands Council.
Today’s high-tension proceedings were watched by councillor Billy Fox, the anti-Viking windfarm campaigner, who resigned from the trust in June. He sat on the sidelines at Islesburgh Community Centre next to Viking chairman Bill Manson. Mr Fox sported a home-made badge with the words “Shetland Charitable Trust Beneficiary” on one side which he turned around during certain trustees’ contributions to reveal the words “Viking Energy Trust Beneficiary” on the reverse.
Afterwards he said reports at the meeting were “the final piece in the jigsaw” to get “the usual suspects” onto the board of the trust and onto its company boards, particularly Viking’s.
“Since 2007 Shetland Charitable Trust’s business has been essentially driven according to the needs of Viking Energy.”
Today’s meeting involved 16 reports amounting to well over 300 pages but the documents were only released to the public and the media the day before.
In a roll call vote those who backed the reform were: Drew Ratter, Allan Wishart, George Smith, Peter Campbell, Steven Coutts, Malcolm Bell, Alastair Cooper, David Sandison, Valerie Nicolson and Bobby Hunter. Those against were: Jonathan Wills, Gary Robinson, Amanda Westlake, Andrea Manson, Gary Cleaver and Theo Smith.