St Margaret’s Somerset Hospice cares for patients who are facing life-limiting illnesses, and their families. In July, the charity announced that it had begun a consultation with staff and volunteers to remodel its services: the proposal was to close the in-patient unit at Yeovil and increase community services. The trustees were conscious that the proposal would be a sensitive issue, so they reported the matter to the Charity Commission as a “serious incident”, in line with Commission guidance. After a consultation, the trustees decided that the in-patient unit should close.
The decision was extremely controversial and led to an investigation by the Charity Commission. It opened a regulatory compliance case to assess whether the trustees had followed proper processes, including following the principles that the courts had developed for reviewing trustees’ decisions and the Commission’s own decision making guidance. It also emphasised that it
“cannot determine whether the trustees made the right decision; rather, we look to see whether it was a decision that a reasonable body of trustees could make. We wanted to be certain that, in making the decision, the trustees were sufficiently informed through accurate and up to date information”.
The Commission concluded that the trustees had made an informed decision consistent with charity law and in accordance with its guidance. It was satisfied that they had, over several years, undertaken a comprehensive county-wide review (‘Fit for Future’), consulted widely with stakeholders, undertaken research and taken advice from experts in palliative and end of life care. Overall, they had demonstrated a desire to act in the best interests of their charity and the community it serves, and the charity’s mission and purpose had guided their decision-making. Following specific complaints, it had also examined the trustees’ decisions about the charity’s commercial ventures and it concluded that they had had no direct impact on the need to remodel services. In short, the Commission concluded that the decision to remodel the services was properly made and within the range of decisions that a reasonable trustee body could make.
But that might not be the end of the matter: the Somerset County Gazette reports that the MP for Yeovil, Marcus Fysh, has expressed disappointment at the findings:
“Whilst I accept that the Charity Commission has to work within certain parameters, I take issue with some of their findings. The bar of simply not breaking Charity Law is not high enough when safeguarding the good use of public donations … I am making urgent representations to the Government that this area of the law may need changing to protect donors’ intentions, particularly in cases where money is left in wills. In the meantime, I would urge those considering making a substantial donation to a charity to seek written confirmation of the objectives of the charity and if they are not happy with that being the scope to seek further written definition of their donation’s purpose.”
The obvious question is, so what does all this have to do with religion? And the answer is that the situation is strongly reminiscent of a case in 2013 involving a Roman Catholic religious order.
As we reported at the time, the trustees of St Anthony’s Private Hospital in Sutton, all of whom were members of the Congregation of the Daughters of the Cross of Liège, decided to sell it to a private company. Their reason for doing so was that they needed to reduce the scope of the charity’s activities because the nuns were all ageing and they needed to cut down on their commitments. That decision also caused a major local row, and it prompted the then MP for Sutton and Cheam, Paul Burstow, to present a petition to the Commons opposing the sale and to ask the Vatican to intervene to prevent it.
We suggested that Burstow’s appeal to the Vatican was ill-founded because, under the law of charitable trusts, charity trustees are under a duty to act solely in the interests of the charity and not otherwise. It would therefore have been improper for the trustees, having taken the decision that selling the hospital was in the best interests of the charity, to give in to outside pressure – even from their religious superiors – and reverse their decision.
The Charity Commission’s conclusions on the St Margaret’s Somerset Hospice case would appear to endorse that view.