The Countryside Alliance, who you will remember launched a scathing (unjustified) attack on the RSPB earlier this year, and more recently against Chris Packham, is not a charity, though reports suggested it was planning to register as one last year: “What we have done over the past 15 years is essentially charitable” they claimed. The Charity Commission may not agree with that – which might explain why they have yet to gain Charitable status. Given that they spent £2.9M of its £4.7M income on campaigning in 2013, charity rules on lobbying may make for uncomfortable reading in CA Mansions.
The Alliance is a membership organisation – with a special discount membership rate for Gamekeepers; and cheap gundog insurance. Membership also entitles you to “access to a dedicated team of firearms experts”, should you need them.
It claims to speak for country folk, standing up for a rural way of life. Among reasons to join, along with campaigning on universal rural issues like broadband, The CA “champions British farmers and their produce.” They are the only organisation working “for the future of hunting: and “to repeal the hunting act”. Its new chief exec is Tim Bonner. Bonner is a former Tory district councillor and (failed) parliamentary candidate from the south-west.
The Alliance are also proud to “make the voice for shooting heard in Westminster” and campaign for shooters rights, especially the right to poison the countryside, themselves and their own children, with lead. The Lead Ammunition Group, set up by the Government to look into the use of lead in ammunition, has concluded these things are demonstrably true. A key organisation with close relationships to the Alliance is the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC). BASC are not at all keen to stop lead poisoning, as their chair Alan Jarrett noted in this recently letter. Alan Jarrett is Tory leader of Medway Council, where the Nightingales live.
The other thing the CA are proud to promote, as a reason to join, is the Countryside Alliance Foundation, a registered charity. This is slightly odd, as the Foundation is a separate entity. In fact, the charity is supposed to be very much at arms length from the very political, campaigning body that is the Alliance.
When the CA applied to register the CA foundation as a charity, they were initially rejected by the Charity Regulator, the Charity Commission. After further amendments to the CA foundation’s objects, they were allowed to register, but only with conditions. The CA foundation had argued that “promoting rural life” and “promoting the rural environment” were charitable objects. The Commission decided otherwise, arguing they were essentially meaningless phrases – these were removed. In confirming the CA Foundation as a charity, the Charity Commission reiterated how important it was that the “Foundation Directors understood their obligations to maintain independence from the Alliance” and to appoint Trustees independent of the Alliance.
I was therefore somewhat surprised to see the the membership form for the Alliance and Foundation was the same for both. Gift aid can be applied for the Foundation but not the Alliance. You are implored to gift aid your donation to the Foundation, with the following words:
Make sure the countryside not the Government benefits from your donation by ticking a box below.
Now does this sound like the measured language of a charity dedicated to “promoting the conservation, protection and improvement of the environment” and “supporting conservation projects that protect flora and fauna in the British countryside”? You decide. Imagine the hoo-haa from the likes of You Forgot the Birds, if the RSPB put “make sure birds not the government benefits from your donation” on their website.
What does this CA Foundation do to promote such conservation? Their flagship project is “Fishing for Schools”. Fly fishing, specifically. I know a little bit about fishing, charities and education, as some of my late brother’s friends were involved in them; and I know how valuable this work is. There’s also a Falconry for Schools project.
It’s interesting that these projects are not especially related to the work of the Alliance, especially with its focus on shooting. Perhaps this is part of the Foundations efforts to distance itself from the Alliance.
The Foundation is having a bit of a hard time at the moment, financially. Latest accounts show its income is only a third of what it was 3 years ago; and its flagship fishing for schools project has been halved over the last couple of years. £75k doesnt go very far in the world of fly fishing. Worse still, the auditors have questioned whether the Foundation is a going concern. Liabilities exceed assets by over £200,000 in the last set of published accounts for the year t march 2014.
The Foundation has received a number of loans. This is where it gets a bit confusing – so anyone with a sharp eye for figures please correct me if I’ve got this wrong.
It appears that the Foundation received a loan from the Countryside Alliance in 2009 for £300,000. It then received a further loan from the Directors in 2010 for £200,000. The Foundation is paying interest to its directors on those loans. Interest is paid at 3% above base rate – not a bad return on investment at all (considering the risk is zero.)
Who are these directors? One of them, who held office from Feb 2012 to December 2013, was a certain General Barney White-Spunner.
Not General White-Spunner I hear you say – not the same General White-Spunner who was leader (Executive Chairman) of the Countryside Alliance? Yes, it is he.
Other Foundation trustees include Roger Wilson, also a director of Countryside Alliance Insurance Services limited (remember the gundogs) and Jeremy Quin. Quin was Managing Director of Deutsche Bank (UK regional management) until 2008 when he was seconded into the Treasury, presumably to help with the UK bank bailout arising from the Banking crisis. Jeremy Quin was elected Conservative MP for Horsham in may 2015.
Now whether you think the Countryside Foundation is sufficiently independent from the Countryside Alliance, or not, is beside the point. It’s for the regulator, the Charity Commission, to ensure that its stipulations are adhered to. But the Commission is having a bit of a hard time at the moment. It’s just been severely criticized for failing to spot, let alone act on, the financial/governance car crash that was Kids Company. It also lost half of its budget as a result of austerity cuts under the last government. Will it be in a position to investigate whether the Countryside Alliance and its Foundation have managed to “maintain independence”?
The Countryside Alliance is a powerful body and has its people in Government (Lord Gardiner) and Parliament (Quin, Simon Hart). They can throw their weight around, and make life difficult for people like Chris Packham. But they are in a state of shock today, with the announcement that the new Shadow Secretary of State for Defra is Kerry McCarthy, vice president of the League Against Cruel Sports, and a vegan. Look at this statement from BASC and this from Countryside Alliance.