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Scottish charities regulator launches RIAS investigation

Neil Baxter
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The Scottish charities regulator has launched a formal investigation into the finances and governance of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland

According to documents seen by the AJ, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) has agreed to look at numerous aspects of the running of the organisation, which has come under increasing criticism in the last few weeks.

The news comes just weeks after Neil Baxter unexpectedly quit as the incorporation’s secretary and treasurer.

It is understood that OSCR has agreed that several aspects of the RIAS’s governance structure and Baxter’s remuneration warranted ’further inquiry’.

Last month the RIAS came under fire from a collective of nearly 100 architects calling for an overhaul of the structure of the ‘self-satisfied’ and ‘bunkered’ incorporation, and for the 101-year-old organisation to become more transparent, inclusive and accountable over its decision-making.

Writing under the banner ‘A New Chapter’, the group including Malcolm Fraser, Chris Platt and Jude Barber delivered an open letter in which they asked for details of the RIAS’s independent salaries benchmarking review, the full findings of the recent probity review and the results of the independent Governance Review into existing management practices to all be made public.

RIAS president Stewart Henderson subsequently admitted that recent investigations had ‘identified a lack of structured governance [which needed] to be addressed with improved management organisation and accountability measures put in place’.

But he insisted there had been ‘no attempt to cover up investigations’, saying there had been legal reasons why the information had not yet been shared in full.

An OSCR spokesperson said: ‘An inquiry being opened does not necessarily mean the charity has done anything wrong … we can confirm there is an inquiry but we cannot comment any further on the case.’

The RIAS has been contacted for a response.

Comment: Alan Dunlop

The RIAS is an organisation firmly rooted in the past, and the level of secrecy and lack of transparency is unhelpful in a member-funded charity. The governing structure is also archaic, for it is self-selecting and self-promoting. However, change will be difficult, for the forces of conservatism within the incorporation are strong and should not be underestimated. An investigation by OSCR is not a surprise. The recent resignation of the secretary and treasurer and the subsequent speculation in the press together with calls for the RIAS to release the output from ‘independent investigations into governance, probity and financial accountability’ suggest that there is something deeply disturbing at its core which needs to be aired and dealt with properly.

It is not clear how decisions are made at the RIAS and there is an absence of accountability and a confusion about authority. Given current events, it would seem that there is now an opportunity to refresh the entire structure.

So what changes to governance should be made? Looking at other similar, but more effective and prestigious organisations like the BMA, ICAS, and Institute of Engineering and Technology, operating structures have moved away from what is a now a very old model to clearly separate the member representative (president, whatever) from the executive.

Most charities and professional bodies now have a chief executive who is accountable to a board and who operates under their direction. There is no confusion about who determines strategy and policy and there are clear protocols for financial management. The RIAS could follow similar best practice and install a competent board, made up of trustees democratically elected by the members through their local chapters. The president would act as chair and titular head, and be elected.’

A spokesperson for A New Chapter

[We] continue to await a response from RIAS regarding our questions re. Probity and Governance Reviews. We are also aware that RIAS Representatives on Council (Trustees) are unable to share any information concerning these Reviews. From this, we can only conclude that their root appears to have been a long-standing culture where critical financial and governance matters were kept away from the Trustees – the legally-responsible body.

The lack of information being shared to Council, its Trustees and members is highly concerning and sits in stark opposition to good practice and governance. We are now also aware that our elected representatives on Council are bound by confidentiality agreements. We recognise that there may be legal issues in the Reviews that need sensitively handled and have steadily, and courteously, lobbied the President to seek an independent view, that removes anything too personal but is open about failings and responsibility for failings, and reports directly to the Trustees.

A New Chapter issued open letters to the President on 13 and 20 November to which no formal response has been received, so have reverted to the Charities Regulator who, we trust, will require them to apply the good practice and transparency that is the necessary prelude to the reform that is so desperately needed.

 

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