EXCLUSIVE: Shocking report into Charity Commission finds “cultural issues” as widow of disabled RUC officer “threatened” by Commissioners

An explosive report into the Northern Ireland Charity Commission has found evidence of “problematic cultural issues” within the public body, which contributed to inappropriate treatment of the widow of an RUC officer disabled in the line of duty by an IRA terrorist attack.

By Jamie Bryson

The independent report by Johnathan Baume, which looks at the actions of the Charity Commission and the Department of Communities, was commissioned by former head of the civil service, David Sterling.

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A RUC Widow, whose husband was disabled in the line of duty by an IRA terror attack, was sent a threatening legal letter on 01 November 2018 by Seamus Magee and Geraldine Donaghy, purporting to be acting on behalf of the Charity Commission.

Mr Baume describes the issuing of the letter as a “small example” flowing from “problematic cultural issues” within the Charity Commission.

In a withering rebuke, Mr Baume states at paragraph 10 of his report “regardless of whether or not CCNI had any legal grounds for such threats, it hardly seems an appropriate response by a public body to the grieving widow of a disabled police officer.”

The appalling threat came after the pensioner had stated publicly that the actions of the Charity Commission in relation to their pursuit of the Disabled Police Officers Association NI had hastened her husband’s death by heart attack.

It is not the first time issues have been raised around Seamus Magee’s work for the Charity Commission, and his perceived political connections to the SDLP. There was further significant prima facie issues around Mr Magee’s failure to declare that his brother was a BBC reporter who was regularly benefitting from what appeared to be ‘leaks’ from CCNI, and in return the BBC newsroom was largely entirely uncritical of CCNI, even in the face of damming High Court and Court of Appeal judgments.

The shocking report also found:

  • The approach of CCNI in continuing to defend actions taken without legal powers “potentially undermines the Rule of law”.
  • The supposedly independent Charity Tribunal may have been “hesitant in challenging the Charity Commission” and Mr Baume commented that a High Court judgment in May 2016 was “less than reassuring” about the work of at least that Charity Tribunal.
  • It was “nonsense” for the Scott Review (a review into the Charity Commission) to make a statement in defence of CCNI, which demonstrated a “lack of critical analysis and questioning of CCNI” when it came to Charity Commission CEO Frances McCandless publishing a quote publicly on her Facebook page which described the needy as a “shower of bastards”.
  • In relation to the “shower of bastards” quote, Mr Baume stated “many observers may find them to be offensive, and one can question whether it was appropiate for the Chief Executive of the Charity Commission to share a quote which describes the needy in such terms”. 
  • From 2013 onwards Charity Commission inquiry case files were found by a previous review to be “often in poor order” and it further found “on occasions inadequate audit trail in recording decisions taken”.
  • Reasonable FOIs from RUC widows and others were rejected, heavily redacted, and some were inexplicitly deemed “vexatious”.
  • The Charity Commission first “had doubts about its legal ability to delegate to staff” as far back as 2011 for which they received legal advice from the Departmental Solicitors Office which was treated as “unassailable”. Mr Baume comments that “governments and public bodies across the UK appear regularly before the courts, and it is not unknown for them to lose despite the ‘strength’ of legal advice.”

A Stormont source who provided the unredacted report to Unionist Voice has described its contents as “the most shocking report into a public body you are likely to see” and went on to describe the culture within the Charity Commission- prior to the appointment of current Chief Commissioner Nicole Lappin- as “mafia like” claiming there was “systematic incompetence and misconduct”.

Ms Lappin was appointed to the role of Chief Commissioner in August 2019 and since then has issued a number of formal apologies on behalf of the Commission in relation to actions of staff prior to her appointment, many of which flowed from the actions of former head of inquiries Myles McKeown, who reported directly to longstanding CEO, Frances McCandless.

Mr McKeown was replaced by qualified barrister Sarah Finnegan, who it is understood was selected- via a public recruitment process- due to her legal knowledge, which a Department for Communities source described as a “necessary ingredient to remedy the trail of mayhem Myles McKeown left behind him”.

There is no suggestion within the confidential report that either Ms Finnegan or Ms Lappin played any role in the shocking events set out across 36 paragraphs.

The report largely looks at events which pre-dates the appointment of both Ms Finnegan as Head of Inquiries and Ms Lappin as Chief Commissioner, however it does raise concerns around the continued stance of the Commission in trying to defend previous orders and decisions based upon a nuanced legal argument that whilst such decisions were wrong in law in procedure, that the Commission should nevertheless continue to defend them on their substance.

There are five recommendations within the report:

  • The 71 year old RUC widow be given a full apology by the head of the Civil Service for all the distress she suffered and the “misleading” and “confusing” answers she was given when she complained about the Charity Commission
  • A review is undertaken into how effectively the Department for Communities exercises its role in overseeing the Charity Commission
  • Consideration be given as to how the actions of the Charity Commission in relation to the Disabled Police Officers Association NI (DPOANI) be reviewed so that lessons can be learnt to minimise the risk of similar consequences and distress arising in future cases
  • Consideration be given to holding a “fresh review” into the Charity Commission
  • The Civil Service to satisfy itself that policies on the recording of potential conflicts of interest are being robustly applied

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