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Watchdog probes East Lancashire Africa charity
A BLACKBURN and Ribble Valley charity, which received £170,000 from Comic Relief, is the subject of a major investigation by the sector’s national regulator.
The Charity Commission has opened a ‘statutory inquiry’ into the Africa Relief Trust (ART).
The probe centres on whether claims made for discounts on businesses rates by the charity for using several empty properties across the UK, including a number in Blackburn with Darwen, are valid.
The commission is concerned that if they are not legally correct, the unpaid cash due could force ART into bankruptcy.
It is also examining whether the four trustees of the charity, the owners of the empty buildings, or anyone else, made a personal profit from the discount claims in contravention of charity law.
ART gives a modest family home at 38, St James’s Road in the Blackburn as its address on its website but now operates from a property in Inglewhite Road, Longridge.
The probe is the most serious the regulator can undertake and can lead to police investigations and court action.
The commission undertook 1,528 compliance investigations in 2012/2013 but just 15 resulted in a ‘statutory inquiry’.
The probe into ART, which works mainly in Northern Uganda, centres on whether the trustees correctly claimed business rate relief on several premises in Blackburn with Darwen borough and other local authorities in the last two years and whether any liability for payments to those councils might jeopardise its financial viability.
The charity commission said it was examining ‘whether the charity trustees have properly discharged their trustee duties when making decisions to enter into tenancy agreements and occupy those properties to further their charitable purposes and whether any benefit to the landlord or other parties is incidental to that.’ It said its investigation began as a compliance case in September 2011 but escalated into a statutory inquiry ‘as the commission’s concerns about the risks to the charity’s assets and about the trustees’ failure to provide full and complete information mounted’ According to the Charity Commission website the trustees are Anthony Thomas Robert Peers, Rachel Carr, Ambassador Joseph Ocwet and Mrs Betty Ocwet.
Mr Peers was initially contacted by the Lancashire Telegraph by email and then rang to reveal ART now operated from Longridge. Mr Ocwet, a fomer Ugandan ambassador to the African Union, did not reply to emails.
The charity was first registered in 1999 and raised £5,573 between July 1 2008 and June 30 2012 and spent £5,291 over the same five-years - the only period returns are publicly available.
The BBC’s Comic Relief charity confirmed it gave ART £170,000 between 2001 and 2007.
When the Lancashire Telegraph visited the Blackburn address, which is not one of the properties subject to the rate relief claims and is Mr Peers former home, it had been sold to a new owner and then let by Harris Properties of Whalley Old Road to tenants.
Babar Salim, manager at Harris Properties, said: “We have let this property for three years. We know nothing about the Africa Relief Trust, Mr Peers or Ms Carr but the property has received letters and visits from bailiffs seeking to speak to them.”
While the property remains as ART’s address on the website, it now operates from Longridge and gives a PO Box in Preston as its contact address Blackburn MP Jack Straw, who received a letter from the commission about the inquiry, said: “This is obviously a matter of concern to me.
“The people of Blackburn are very generous and they need to know that money they give to charities is properly used for the purposes intended.”
Ribble Valley MP Nigel Evans said: “The Charity Commission do not embark on this type of inquiry lightly. The trustees of ART need to co-operate fully. The public are very generous in their giving to charities and need to be reassured that their generosity is not being abused.”
Mr Peers said that ART had behaved ‘100 per cent correctly’ in regard to business rates relief and was confident it could justify all its rates relief claims.
The 41-year-old former publican who grew up in Revidge, Blackburn, and attended the town’s Notre Dame RC High School accused the Charity Commission of poor communication, cancelling meetings and failing to give ART a chance to explain and justify its actions.
Mr Peers said: “The Charity Commission has behaved disgracefully.”
He said any visits by bailiffs to the St James’s Street, Blackburn property must be on behalf of local councils connected to the business rates relief question.
Mr Peers said: “I got involved in this after a chance meeting in 2010 with Ambassador Ocwet in London. The charity was dormant then. We have revived it and hope to raise between £60,000 and £70,000 this year.
“We originally used my private home in St James’s Road as a base but have now moved to Longridge. The bailiffs must have come from some of the local authorities who saw the address on the website. I will have to change it.”
ART was set up to assist people in social distress in Africa, more specifically to support those in the conflict areas of Northern Uganda.
According to its website: “The project put smiles on the faces of many impoverished and needy people in poverty stricken Uganda, unfortunately it was short lived and in a very small project area.”
Earlier this year ART gave £2,000 towards a trip by nine students from Darwen Aldridge Community Academy to Uganda.
A Comic Relief’s statement said:“Between 2001 and 2007 Comic Relief awarded the Africa Relief Trust grants totalling £170,000 for work to support people living with HIV/AIDS in northern Uganda. Comic Relief is committed to ensuring the money we give as grants is spent as agreed, which is why we make phased payments and guarantees have to show us how they have spent the previous money before receiving the next instalment. The final instalment of the grant was awarded in 2007. Comic Relief was satisfied that this grant was spent as it was intended.”
A Charity Commission spokeswoman said: “As our investigation is ongoing we will not be making any further comments regarding the Africa Relief Trust.”
'None of ART's income has gone on anything but charitable projects'
TRUSTEE Anthony Peers said: “The Trustees of Africa Relief Trust have acted 100 per cent correctly and honestly regarding current rating legislation when accepting donated properties in a bid to raise funds and hold charity awareness events on behalf of Africa’s most needy.
“In 2010 ART was dormant because fund raising had ceased and the charity was due to fold. It was at this point that I was appointed as trustee but it is only during the last 18 months that ART has been successfully active.
“On numerous occasions ART have offered to meet with the Charities Commission at their London headquarters but on each occasion they have cancelled, therefore ART have not had an opportunity to explain their actions.
“ART has funded five water boreholes in Northern Uganda and one in South Sudan at a cost of £51,000 since October 2012.
“This year we have funded the construction and furnishing of a primary school in Northern Uganda.
“Many councils’ non domestic-rating staff do not understand the current legislation regarding empty property rates. This continues to disrupt our need to further raise awareness for our lifesaving projects.
“None of ART’s income has been spent on anything other than charitable projects in Uganda and South Sudan.”
'The commission has issued alerts to charities warning them of the risks'
AN official statement, issued on July 25, says: “The Charity Commission has opened a statutory inquiry into Africa Relief Trust.
“The Commission opened a regulatory compliance case into the charity in September 2011 after concerns were raised regarding its business rates relief arrangements.
“As the case progressed, the commission’s concerns about the risks to the charity’s assets and about the trustees’ failure to provide full and complete information mounted.
“Statutory inquiries are opened to investigate regulatory concerns that the commission considers the most serious and allow the use of legal powers, including powers to direct trustees or others.
“The purpose of the inquiry is to examine regulatory concerns including whether the charity trustees have properly discharged their trustee duties when making decisions to enter into tenancy agreements and occupy those properties to further their charitable purposes and whether any benefit to the landlord or other parties is incidental to that.
“The commission has issued alerts to charities warning them of the risks associated with business rates relief.”
Owners can avoid business rates
Full business rates are due on empty commercial properties that remain unoccupied after three months.
Charities occupying commercial property qualify for a mandatory 80 per cent discount on business rates, provided the property is used wholly or mainly for charitable purposes. The local authority has discretion to grant the remaining 20 per cent.
The Charity Commission is aware of cases where charities are approached by retailers and landlords of hard to let property to enter into tenancy agreements relieving them of the requirement to pay full business rates.
It can be advantageous for charities to enter such agreements to lease accommodation for charitable uses, for low or nominal rents. They also sometimes receive donations from landlords that reflect a percentage of the business rates saved.
These arrangements can represent a significant risk for charities if they are not making sufficient use of the premises for charitable purposes and become liable for the full business rate.