Zoo charity that employs PM’s fiancee under investigation

The Charity Commission has launched investigations into two linked animal conservation charities over serious governance and financial management concerns.

One of the statutory inquiries focuses on The Aspinall Foundation, which earlier this year appointed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s fiancee Carrie Symonds as its head of communications. The regulator’s concerns predate her appointment.

The foundation was set up the late John Aspinall in 1984 and is involved in conservation work overseas and at two wildlife parks in Kent, Howletts and Port Lympne.

The other statutory inquiry is looking into the governance and financial management of Howletts Wild Animal Trust, which runs the Howletts and Port Lympne wildlife parks and shares a number of trustees with the Aspinall Foundation, although is a separate charity.

The Commission began examining the Aspinall Foundation in July 2020 “over concerns about the management of conflicts of interest” and its transactions.

A regulatory compliance case was opened last November to engage with trustees.

Although the Commission notes that the trustees have been fully co-operative it “has identified further questions regarding the charity’s governance and it will now examine all these issues as part of a formal statutory inquiry”. The opening of an inquiry is not a finding of wrongdoing, it added.

According to the register of charities The Aspinall Foundation’s accounts are up to date.

At the time it had 19 staff and six trustees. It’s chairman is John Aspinall’s son Damian.

For the financial year ending December 2019 it had a total income of £2.86m, half of which is from donations and legacies. It’s total expenditure was £2.85m.

Financial data for the year ending December 2019 for the Howletts Wild Animal Trust shows the charity had an income and expenditure of around £16.3m. It had more than 300 staff, with four trustees, including Damian Aspinall, and 128 volunteers listed.

A spokesperson for The Howletts Wild Animal Trust said: "The Howletts Wild Animal Trust remains firmly committed to its ethical and legal duties as a charitable body.

"Our Trustees will continue to work openly and transparently with the Charity Commission to ensure best practice governance and compliance. No further comment will be issued until the investigation is complete."

An internal governance review led by independent specialists was commissioned by the charity's trustees last autumn and has yet to conclude.

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