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Charities regulator in talks with RIBA over ‘damaging’ election controversies

Portland Place
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The Charity Commission has held crunch talks with the RIBA at Portland Place following the media storm surrounding the recent presidential election

In a letter sent to RIBA president Ben Derbyshire following the talks, the charities watchdog said the meeting’s purpose was to assess the ’potential for reputational damage and loss of public confidence’ as a result of press interest in the campaign.

The meeting follows the RIBA’s decision to submit a ‘serious incident report’ over comments made by presidential candidate and trustee Elsie Owusu during her election campaign, which the institute described as ’damaging’.

In the letter, which has been seen by the AJ, the regulator’s senior specialist case manager Anne Reading said the commission had noted comments on ‘institutional racism’ made by Owusu and expected the RIBA to ‘ensure sufficient resources are directed towards this area and clear milestones are in place to monitor progress in achieving the charity’s diversity objectives’.

The letter also delivers a stern reminder to trustees that they must adhere to code of conduct, act in the charity’s best interests, act collectively and protect the reputation of the RIBA.

It requests that the advice be shared with trustees at the next council meeting, which is being held today at Portland Place (27 September), and asks for a response within 14 days.

In addition to the incident report to the commission, in July the RIBA also sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter to Owusu, who at the time was campaigning to become the institute’s next president, intending to prevent her making ’damaging public statements’. 

These statements included Owusu’s claim at a hustings event in Leeds that RIBA’s chief executive Alan Vallance was being paid six times the average architect’s salary – which the body said amounted to ‘a flagrant breach of confidentiality, [was] unsubstantiated and [was] damaging to RIBA’.

It also included an article in The Times on 17 April, in which she claimed the RIBA was ‘institutionally racist’, and other press leaks which the organisation said it had ‘cause to believe’ Owusu had been involved in.

In response to the commission’s letter, Elsie Owusu said: ’The Charity Commission’s intervention is positive, timely and very welcome. Under the current dispensation, pleas to the RIBA Board and executive hierarchy for increased diversity, transparency, accountability and democracy are often met with aggressive denials and ‘closing of white male ranks’. These are the actions which tend to bring RIBA into disrepute.’

A number of inaccurate statements and unsubstantiated allegations have been made about the RIBA’s business

However RIBA president Ben Derbyshire said: ’For some time, a number of inaccurate statements and unsubstantiated allegations have been made about the RIBA’s business and behaviours by one of our trustees.

’The RIBA met with the Charity Commission earlier this month, to discuss these issues, and in particular recent coverage around the election for the next president of the RIBA.

’The commission has subsequently taken the unusual step of emphasising the responsibilities and behaviours required from trustees. They have reminded trustees that they should act with the RIBA’s best interests in mind and not undermine its reputation.

He added: ’They have also confirmed their support for the institute’s work on improving governance and diversity in the profession. RIBA trustees have specific duties to safeguard and promote the charity’s reputation and, by extension, to promote public confidence in the wider sector. 

’The Charity Commission letter sets out clear expectations and now all RIBA trustees must pull together to focus our collective energies on ensuring that the profession is inclusive, and that the RIBA is fit for the future. We welcome the Commission’s support and advice, and will be responding to them in due course.’

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