Not always so coy (John Tulloch)
I was intrigued to see OSCR’s chief executive David Robb writing, Pontius Pilate-like, and washing his hands of the Shetland Charitable Trust restructuring.
He was markedly less coy in 2012 when he threatened court action if the controversial plan to move to a majority of unelected trustees was not implemented. That led directly to the current dispute over trust restructuring.
Putting the current row into perspective, the charitable trust controls £230 million, over which the trustees have (trust deed) the “fullest powers … as if they were the absolute owners and beneficially entitled thereto … such powers to be exercised or not … (at) … their sole discretion at any time …”
Such sweeping powers are open to abuse by any self-selecting, self-perpetuating cabal that may win control as a ruling clique.
The trust deed states: “The trustees shall … (distribute trust money) … for any purposes which in … (their) … opinion are solely in the interests of the … Shetland Islands or (its) inhabitants …” i.e. the trust exists for its beneficiaries.
However, the plan is for the beneficiaries to have no say in how “their” money – not the trustees’, not the Scottish government’s and not the Queen’s money – is handled and distributed; nor, even, a say in how trust governance should be structured. It is a travesty of the founders’ intentions.
The seizure of such sweeping powers over such a colossal sum by a group accountable only to themselves is unthinkable.
On OSCR’s past involvement, The Shetland Times reported: “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 … it appears nobody in the current trust now has faith in it.
“Trust vice-chairman Jonathan Wills led a forceful rebellion … despite dire warnings of court action … He said trustees had been subjected to ‘intimidation, half-truths and coercion’ by the charity regulator.
“In a letter he (Mr Robb) 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 … and made it plain that misconduct proceedings could result …
“Last year the council convener Sandy Cluness resigned from the trust in protest. He had been prevented from mounting a referendum on trust reform by OSCR …
“Mr Robb said OSCR would prefer not to have to resort to action against trustees … but warned: ‘Should there be any delay implementing the approved reorganisation scheme, OSCR will proceed to examine the options available.’ ”
Clearly, the issue of charitable trust governance could properly have been resolved four years ago and true democratic accountability installed. The fact that it was not is a direct consequence of Mr Robb’s own, high-handed intervention.
Mr Robb’s latest letter states: “However, we also expect charity trustees, in the exercise of all or any of their duties, to take into account the views of their beneficiaries and the reputation of their charity.”
This Damascene conversion to democracy is late but welcome and it is hoped Mr Robb will demonstrate a similar level of conviction as he demonstrated against democracy on the last occasion (2012).
OSCR is a function of the Scottish administration. Its own website states: “Scottish ministers have ultimate responsibility for policy in relation to charity law and third sector policy. We work closely with the Scottish government’s charity law team.”
Thus, whatever finally transpires in the vexed saga of Shetland Charitable Trust, the Scottish government is ultimately responsible and the drawing of the First Minister’s attention to the ongoing dispute between engineering company HNP and charitable trust subsidiary Slap means she is, at least, peripherally involved.