Charity Commission's findings of investigation into Ripon Community Link

Attendees at Ripon Community Links annual general meeting: Barry Kay, Founder and President; the Mayor of Ripon, Coun Pauline McHardy; Victoria Ashley, Ripon Community Link Interim Chief Executive; Don Hanson, trustee; Carolyn Sands, trustee; Andrew Marson, trustee; Loretta Williams, trustee; Kathryn Harrison, Ripon Community Link Chair; and David Mortimer, trustee
Attendees at Ripon Community Links annual general meeting: Barry Kay, Founder and President; the Mayor of Ripon, Coun Pauline McHardy; Victoria Ashley, Ripon Community Link Interim Chief Executive; Don Hanson, trustee; Carolyn Sands, trustee; Andrew Marson, trustee; Loretta Williams, trustee; Kathryn Harrison, Ripon Community Link Chair; and David Mortimer, trustee

The Charity Commission has published the findings of its investigation into Ripon Community Link, which clears the charity of financial mismanagement, but makes several recommendations for its future.

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The commission became involved following the Link's sudden withdrawal of services from 12 of its most severely disabled members, and a dozen staff redundancies were also made.

Heartbroken parents and families affected by the cuts campaigned to reinstate the Link's full services, and called on the regulator to open a case.

In their report, the Charity Commission confirms that they have now closed their case, stating: "although we received concerns about the financial management, we found no regulatory issues to warrant our intervention.”

But the commission found that it was "not reasonable" to give members less than 10 days' notice of the loss of their service, and that consultation "should have been better."

The report reads: "We reviewed evidence that assured us that the trustees’ decisions about the future of the charity and its services appeared to have been properly made and we found no serious breaches of charity law or best practice. Meeting minutes could have been better in detailing the trustees’ discussions and decision-making.

"We consider that the consultation with stakeholders and the communication of the decision should have been better. In particular, as the trustees acknowledge, it was not reasonable to give beneficiaries less than ten days’ notice of the loss of their service (even if the contract only required seven days’ notice) which meant they had to find another provider at such short notice."

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The commission concluded that the decisions made by the trustees were made in good faith, but communication with stakeholders was not adequate.

The report reads: "We conclude that the decisions by the trustees were made in good faith in the best interests of the charity. A charity should be open and accountable. As the decisions about the withdrawal of service provision impacted directly on the beneficiaries, we would particularly expect effective communication and consultation with stakeholders. We found this was not adequate.

"We have assurance from the board that there are no current financial difficulties and the Board has taken steps to ensure the ongoing provision of services for all the current beneficiaries and that the future of the charity is not at risk."

Ripon Community Link's Chairman, Kathryn Harrison, said their board of trustees are committed to rebuilding local confidence in the charity.

She said: “The publishing of this report means we can now move forward and set our sights on the future success of the charity.

“It makes a series of recommendations, a number of which were already in train before the Commissioners’ visit. We also recognise there were certain aspects that could have been handled better and admit lessons have been learned.

“We have appointed new trustees who are fully committed to rebuilding local confidence in the charity. We have made huge strides in improving governance and have absolute confidence in the management in place at the charity.

"We are working hard building financial resilience. Our future funding strategy focuses on maintaining strong relationships with statutory partners and increasing our income generation by social enterprises and fundraised income.

“And we have examined all income streams and where cost efficiencies can be made. This combined action has improved financial viability and sustainability."

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Under its list of findings, the Charity Commission states that trustees should have considered, managed and recorded potential conflicts of interest in relation to: the people appointed to lead an external consultation carried out by the charity in January last year; the appointment of the interim CEO; aspects of staff training; external advice sought over the redundancy consultation exercise, and aspects of staff training.

The report also explains that there was no designated safeguarding officer for three months between the departure of the CEO in 2017, and the appointment of a social care manager, "posing a risk."

The Charity Commission then goes on to set out some wider lessons for the trustees. The report reads: "Trustees should ensure that when their main source of income is from public sector contracts that they: have a full understanding of the services they will provide; recognise any limitations in what they can deliver; identify any unique or distinctive qualities of the service they will provide, and use all these and other relevant information to set a price for those services

"Trustees must manage their charities within charity law. Being transparent in decision-making, no matter how hard this is to do, is vital for trustees in maintaining this trust."

The Head of Regulatory Compliance at the Charity Commission, Tracy Howarth, told the 'Gazette: “The public rightly expect charity trustees to be open and transparent in their decision-making - this is vital for maintaining trust and confidence in their charity.

“When a charity is involved in looking after people it is even more important that their beneficiaries are able to see that proper consideration has been given to the impact decisions will have on their lives.

“During the course of our engagement with trustees, beneficiaries and others involved with the Ripon Community Link we found that decisions were made in good faith in the best interest of the charity, but that communication with interested parties including beneficiaries should have been better.”