National Trust could face inquiry into its 'purpose'

Christopher Hope
·6-min read
Baroness Stowell said it was important that the National Trust did not 'lose sight' of what members expected - Geoff Pugh
Baroness Stowell said it was important that the National Trust did not 'lose sight' of what members expected - Geoff Pugh
Chopper's Politics Podcast - Stowell, Wragg, Bridgeman
Chopper's Politics Podcast - Stowell, Wragg, Bridgeman

The National Trust could face an official investigation by the charity regulator for straying from its "clear, simple purpose" to preserve historic buildings and treasures.

Speaking to The Telegraph's Chopper's Politics podcast (which you can listen to on the audio player above), Baroness Stowell of Beeston, who chairs the Charity Commission, said it was "important" that the National Trust did not "lose sight" of what members expected, adding that it was right that it was facing questions.

The commission is examining whether the Trust has breached its charitable objects. Regulators approached it earlier this month after members of the public complained about its controversial review into links between its properties and the British empire and slavery.

That could lead to a formal investigation in the coming weeks, with the questioning of the Trust's recent conduct by the regulator extremely embarrassing for a charity with 5.6 million members.

The National Trust has made a series of other moves that have been unpopular with members in recent years including making volunteers wear rainbow lanyards to support LGBT causes, while dozens of curators are being laid off to save money amid the coronavirus pandemic.

MPs were infuriated when the Trust's 115-page interim review, entitled "Connections between colonialism and Properties now in the care of the National Trust, including links with historic slavery" found that one third of its protected sites had ties to the "sometimes uncomfortable role that Britain, and Britons, have played in global history".

Winston Churchill's Chartwell residence, in Kent, was given as an example, with the wartime Prime Minister's home being highlighted alongside those of slavers.

Chartwell, the former home of Sir Winston Churchill - Robert Morris/ PA
Chartwell, the former home of Sir Winston Churchill - Robert Morris/ PA

Lady Stowell said: "The National Trust has a very sort of clear, simple purpose, which is about preserving some of our great historic places and places of great beauty and national treasure.

"What people expect of the National Trust is that they focus on that purpose, they don't lose sight of that. And when they do things which somehow seem to some of their supporters, some of the people that they're relying on... they shouldn't be surprised if that leads to questions and criticisms."

Asked whether the commission had contacted the Trust after the report was published, Lady Stowell said: "Sure. It's important that I and the commission exist to represent the people who are supporting the National Trust or any other charity."

She said it was important that members of the public "know that we get what it is that they care about, we understand. And that's part of what we're here to do – we will ask questions."

Commission officials made contact with the Trust two weeks ago after complaints from members of the public. It is not expected to become a statutory inquiry, but the commission has powers ranging from ordering the Trust not to commission other similar reports to giving it an official warning. 

A National Trust spokesman said: "As is expected of all charities, the National Trust reports to the Charity Commission on any significant issues affecting our work. We updated the commission about media comment received in relation to the colonial history report published in September, and will be providing the commission with a further update.

"We always answer any questions the commission has with full transparency. We will continue to update the Charity Commission, and we are not aware of any formal action being taken in relation to the media coverage about our report."

The National Trust welcomes back visitors following the coronavirus lockdown - Stefan Rousseau/PA
The National Trust welcomes back visitors following the coronavirus lockdown - Stefan Rousseau/PA

Lady Stowell, the Leader of the House of Lords from 2014 to 2016, acknowledged the work charities have done to respond to the coronavirus crisis and the financial difficulties many face, saying: "A lot of the good, well-run charities are responding to this in the way that you would expect them to, which is that they're cutting costs."

But she stressed that she wanted charities to look at taking action to curb excessive executive pay. Earlier this year, the commission asked charities to submit information on all salaries above £60,000 in bands of £10,000, with the evidence forming the basis of a major report on charity executive pay before the end of the year.

A source said the report was about "shining a light on pay and reminding charities that the public on whose support they depend expects them to be able to explain and justify when they are paying big salaries".

Lady Stowell said: "There's a minimum standard, so there's a legal regulatory obligation on charities in terms of their disclosure. But actually, is that enough?

"If you really know that the people who you are relying on sort of need a constant reassurance that you are what you say you are, then you find ways to be able to demonstrate that to people. When it comes to explaining or justifying pay, it is not good enough to say 'this person could have earned X amount somewhere else', which is what you often see in a business."  

Lady Stowell said the commission was seeking more powers to make it easier to throw charities off the official register if they are found to be breaking rules, as well allowing organisations to become temporary charities, adding: "I've started talking to the Government about this, that we have powers that allow us some greater control over what comes on and off the register, because it goes back to what we were talking about in terms of people's expectations of a charity when it is registered."

She urged larger charities to appoint people to their boards who understand the perspective of the supporter "rattling the tin for them or volunteering for them" and warned them not to take supporters for granted, saying it was "no longer acceptable in this day and age for any institution to rely on the fact they've been around" as a reason why they should continue.

"People are no longer willing to give charities the benefit of the doubt just because they're a charity," she said. "They expect a charity to constantly show that they are different from a business, that they are motivated in a different way. You can't, as a charity, just assume that what you've enjoyed in the past will continue into the future."

Announcing that she will stand down from chairing the commission in February, Lady Stowell said the public's trust in charities had begun to recover after it was damaged by scandals at Oxfam and Save the Children.

"We have carried out inquiries into some of the biggest name charities and not been in any way shy in doing so," she said. "That has led to real change and improvement amongst those charities themselves. There's some evidence of public trust and confidence starting to increase again as a result of that. But... this is a job that will never be done."

Listen to The Telegraph's weekly political podcast, Chopper's Politics, presented by Chief Political Correspondent Christopher Hope, on the audio player at the top of this article, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred podcast app.