The Charity Commission’s decision that the Atlantic Bridge’s UK charity must ‘cease its current activities immediately’ and break away from US non-profit the Atlantic Bridge Inc, is a major setback to those who would import US-style conservatism to the UK.
Officially founded by defence secretary Liam Fox and boasting three more cabinet minsters on its advisory board (William Hague, George Osborne and Michael Gove), the Atlantic Bridge was managed as an outpost of the the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC was exposed in 1998 when the US tobacco industry was forced to release thousands of internal documents as part of a multi-billion dollar settlement of dozens of lawsuits. These documents show that the tobacco industry used ALEC to lobby US legislators.
ALEC continues to be funded by the tobacco industry, but today is also supported by elements of the oil industry keen to promote climate change denial and of the pharmaceutical industry keen to block US health reforms. US members of the Atlantic Bridge led last summer’s high profile attacks on the NHS.
In a bizarre ruling, the Charity Commission has decided that the objectives of the Atlantic Bridge, as described in its governing documents, are charitable but that none of its activities have furthered those objectives. That is to say it is a charity on paper only and all its current work must stop. The charity now has a year to break away from its US arm and create a new programme of entirely different activities. This means no more oxymoronic Margaret Thatcher Medals of Freedom and no more dinners in LA with Fox News personalities.
There are many gaps in the commission’s short report. For example, one set of Atlantic Bridge accounts clearly states that donors to the UK charity may receive a benefit from the US charity; the commission is silent on this arrangement. Over the years for which accounts are available, the Atlantic Bridge spent £239,920 in pursuit of its non-charitable activities. The commission does not reveal how much (if any) of this charity money has been recovered.
The commission has a statutory obligation to ‘increase public trust and confidence in charities’, but has struggled to balance this with its obligation to promote compliance with the law. It has gone beyond forewarning the Atlantic Bridge that it was about to report by asking journalists not to refer to its action as an inquiry, but as an ‘engagement’. This was part of media strategy designed to protect the Atlantic Bridge’s reputation (and the reputations of all those cabinet ministers). So far, the commission has been most effective.
The commission has been inconsistent. It rightly, and famously, opened a statutory inquiry into the Labour leaning Smith Institute. That organisation had got many things wrong but the commission did find that, unlike Atlantic Bridge, most of its activities were charitable. The Smith Institute was subjected to a full inquiry and given just six months to reform.
All this means that this sorry episode is far from over. The freedom of information act is being deployed to get a better understanding of the nature of the Charity Commission’s ‘engagement’ with Atlantic Bridge and its attitude to recovering any misspent charity money.
More excitingly, a barrister from Matrix Chambers has advised that there may be several grounds on which to seek a judicial review and potential backers of that action are being canvassed (if you, or anyone you know, might be interested in supporting this, do get in touch).