Commission criticises RSPCA branch over 'shortcomings' in appointment process

A local branch of the RSPCA has been criticised by the Charity Commission for shortcomings in the appointment of a ‘cattery manager’.

A report published by the Charity Commission on 5 June revealed the regulator had opened an investigation into the RSPCA Tunbridge Wells and Maidstone branch following headlines last year that questioned the amount of money the charity spent on a cattery, which also housed the daughter of the RSPCA chair.

The chair of the local branch, Daphne Harris is also the chair of the national organisation. She was criticised in The Sun for spending £1m on the cattery, which housed 12 cats in Headcorn, Kent. It also claimed the cattery was inhabited by Katie Toms, Harris’ daughter, rent-free.

Aspects of the article were later found to be inaccurate, but the Commission still identified “a number of regulatory concerns”, which required further investigation, such as the appointment of Toms as the cattery manager and whether the process should have required the regulator’s consent.

The Commission was also concerned as to whether the charity had a duty to recover unauthorised benefit received by Toms whilst living in the residence at Headcorn, and whether the trustees properly handled conflicts of interest and properly managed the potential risk to the reputation of the charity.

The regulator found the connection through the appointment process of the chair’s daughter as manager created a “real risk” to the perception of independence of the recruitment process, which subsequently jeopardised public confidence in the charity.

It added that because the cattery manager did not resign from her position as a trustee when she was appointed to the post, the Commission’s consent would have been required.
Toms thus received benefits from her position as cattery manager, through the payment of a salary and provision of accommodation in “breach of branch rules”, which prohibit remuneration of a committee member.

The Commission further identified failures in the charity’s governance and deemed that it should have been of a higher standard, given the knowledge and experience of RSPCA chair, Harris.

The regulator added that the minutes of trustee meetings and the AGM provided to the Commission were “minimal” and did not “properly record decisions or appointments made”. The annual reports from the period were also deemed to be inadequate and not of the standard the Commission would expect in the circumstances.

“When donating to charities, the public expect and deserve to have faith that they are run properly and that those in charge take their responsibilities seriously,” Charity Commission's head of regulatory compliance Tracy Howarth said.

“One of the key duties of charity trustees is to manage any situation where a trustee’s personal or professional interests could conflict with their duty to act in the best interest of the charity.

“In this case, we found no evidence that there had been deliberate mismanagement. But we did find concerning gaps in record keeping and shortcomings in the process for appointing the Chair’s daughter to a paid position, which also involved purchasing a property at which she would live. In charities, good governance and sound processes matter – and where charities do not demonstrate the highest standards of governance, public confidence can be undermined.”

The Commission has since issued a strict action plan to the trustees, setting out a number of steps which need to be taken to resolve any weaknesses in the charity’s management and administration. This will include record-keeping and adhering to conflicts of interest policy.

“The Commission has made clear that if the trustees fail to comply with the action plan then they could be guilty of misconduct and/or mismanagement and that the Commission would likely take further regulatory action. We will be monitoring the charity’s progress in completing the actions,” its report concluded.

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