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Minister expresses doubts over Charity Commission’s Garden Bridge inquiries

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Culture minister Mims Davies has criticised the Charity Commission in Parliament as an MPs debate on the Garden Bridge scandal was confirmed for next week

Davies was responding yesterday (Thursday) to questions about the £43 million of public money wasted on the cancelled Heatherwick-designed Thames crossing from London Labour MPs Rupa Huq and Steve Reed.

Reed asked the minister how the public ‘could have trust in charity regulation if the Charity Commission won’t properly investigate a scandal of this magnitude’ and pressed her on what she would do to ensure a full investigation was carried out.

Davies, who represents Eastleigh in Hampshire, insisted ‘lessons will be learnt’ but added: ‘I will admit that I’ve had issues to do with concerns in my own constituency about the Charity Commission, so I am very happy to take this further.

‘I am the charities and lotteries minister and, if we don’t have confidence in our charities to make sure that they are looking after other people’s money properly, then we need to carry on and do more and I’m happy to take that away.’

I will admit that I’ve had issues to do with concerns in my own constituency about the Charity Commission

Both Reed and Huq – who have separately raised the Garden Bridge twice in Parliament in recent days – were savagely critical of the project’s failure and its impact on public confidence.

Huq, MP for Ealing Central & Acton, has now been granted an end-of-day adjournment debate next Friday March 15, a half-hour session which will allow MPs to speak more extensively on the matter.

Yesterday (7 March) she told Davies: ‘Forty-three million pounds of public money for a bridge across the Thames in which zero construction occurred has led us all up the garden path.

‘And now, we know the [Garden Bridge] Trust is being wound up, the Charity Commission says there’s to be no further investigation, so can [the government] instigate an independent inquiry so lessons are learnt and no project again has the same fate?

‘A regulator that’s not regulating is frankly useless.’

We’ve seen public tendering and procurement processes bypassed

Reed called the Garden Bridge a ‘total fiasco’. The MP for Croydon North is a former leader of Lambeth Council – one of the two local authorities that gave the bridge planning permission.

‘We’ve seen public tendering and procurement processes bypassed, contracts awarded before the business case was even drawn up, and a cosy relationship to say the least between the chair of the trustees, senior figures at the Charity Commission itself, as well as the former mayor of London.’

On Tuesday, Huq questioned transport secretary Chris Grayling about the Garden Bridge, comparing the loss of taxpayers’ money to the £33 million squandered on the ‘phantom ferry’ Brexit contract.

‘It [the Garden Bridge] isn’t even directly a transport project,’ she said. ‘Vital rail upgrades elsewhere in the country were cancelled when this money was committed. It’s taxpayers’ money and they [the Tories] shouldn’t laugh at this appalling waste.’

A Charity Commission spokesperson defended its performance and drew attention to recent reassurances it had received from Transport for London commissioner Mike Brown, himself in the line of fire over the scandal.

‘It is because large amounts of public funds have been expended on a project that has not come to fruition that we took some exceptional steps in our scrutiny of the trustees’ conduct and management of the Garden Bridge Trust,’ the spokesperson said.

’These steps included our direct approach to the commissioner of TfL, to ascertain if TfL as the main public funder of the project had any concerns about the charity’s use of their funds. We received confirmation that TfL had no such concerns. We also sought assurance from the National Audit Office (NAO), as the body responsible for oversight of public funds, that they were suitably across the project. 

‘The commission’s regulatory remit is specific, and in the context of the project, narrow: our role is to hold trustees to account against their charity law duties. We cannot take a view on the value for money or the merits of public infrastructure projects, nor can we second-guess decisions by policymakers to initiate public infrastructure projects.

’However, given the public interest in this case, we intend to publish a concluding report setting out our final position on the running of the Garden Bridge Trust, and setting out wider lessons that policymakers and others can draw from the failed project.’

 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The Charity Commission's acceptance of assurances from the TfL commissioner that there were no concerns on the way that the garden bridge trust had used large sums of public money is surely quite a large time bomb with quite a short fuse.

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