'No evidence of charitable activity’ at Gaza aid charity

The Charity Commission has published a highly critical report on Viva Palestina, the aid charity founded by former MP George Galloway, saying it may not have conducted any charitable activity or distributed any humanitarian aid, and finding its former trustees were responsible for mismanagement

Galloway founded Viva Palestina as a large-scale fundraising appeal in 2009 to finance aid convoys to Gaza but was not a trustee of the organisation. It did not apply to be a charity but, according to the report, the Commission ‘formed the view that it was a charity and should be registered’, based on media coverage of its activities.

The report says the Commission ‘exhausted all reasonable methods of dialogue’ with the trustees over registration, which led it to open a statutory inquiry. That inquiry finished in 2010 and resulted in an action plan, which the charity regulator says was not followed through, leading to a second statutory inquiry in 2013.

The Commission went on to appoint an interim manager in 2014 to take charge and froze the charity’s accounts.

In its final report, now published, the Commission says it finds that the trustees failed to fulfil their legal duties including to maintain proper financial records, safeguard the charity’s assets, file financial accounts, and to address concerns raised by the regulator.

While the inquiry saw some evidence that monies had been used to purchase medical supplies in line with the charity’s objectives, the Commission concluded that the charity’s financial and other records were so poor that ‘it was difficult to establish with any certainty whether any charitable activity had taken place’ and that the inquiry found ‘little or no evidence that humanitarian aid was distributed to those in need’.

The Commission did establish, however, that one of the charity’s former trustees had received payments from the charity and that mobile phones and radios were purchased with charity funds at ‘significant expenditure’. Spending on mobile phone contracts during 2010, 2011 and 2012 was £8,536, £17,796 and £6,942 respectively. There are no records of where these assets are now held.

The inquiry found that the charity had a PayPal account operated by a person who was not a trustee of the charity. This account appears to have received income from both donations and sales.

Other issues highlighted included unauthorised payments: one former employee claimed that they had been instructed to make financial transactions by one of the founders and a former trustee of Viva Palestina, who had no authority to do so.

The Commission says it found a lack of clarity among the former trustees as to who was responsible for the charity’s day-to-day running. It concluded that the trustees ‘failed to act with reasonable care and skill in the control of their charity’s funds and the charity’s day-to-day management’, which it says amounts to misconduct and/or mismanagement.

Michelle Russell, director of investigations, monitoring and enforcement at the Charity Commission described Viva Palestina as ‘a wholly inadequately managed charity’.

‘Our inquiry shows that the former trustees did not pay proper attention to the legal responsibilities involved in running a charity and handling funds donated by the public. We found little evidence that the intended beneficiaries received the support intended, despite the extensive fundraising by Viva Palestina. The former trustees thus badly let down the public to whom the charity is accountable,’ she said.

Since the charity had ceased to exist for a significant period of time, the absence of any meaningful records and the lack of clarity over who had control of the charity and its administration and who was a trustee, meant the Commission was not able to exercise its powers to disqualify persons from acting as trustees.

However, the regulator said the names of individuals who failed to co-operate with the inquiry or to clarify their role in its governance and administration have been noted on the formal records, in the event that they should seek to become trustees at charities in future.

Charity Commission, Decision Viva Palestina (formerly a registered charity)

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