The Charity Commission has launched a formal review of its controversial handling of an acrimonious long-running dispute at an actors’ charity supported by King Charles after complaints that it endorsed law-breaking and discrimination.
The move follows furious criticism of the commission by the actor Dame Penelope Keith, who has accused the regulator of legitimising an unlawful board takeover of the £40m Actors’ Benevolent Fund (ABF) and undermining public trust in charities.
Penelope, a former president of the ABF, and best known for her starring roles in the sitcoms The Good Life and To the Manor Born, said the regulator had flagrantly disregarded the law, breached its own code of conduct, and acted in biased and discriminatory fashion during its supervision of the dispute over the past 18 months.
She has accused the commission in a series of letters, seen by the Guardian, of setting a dangerous precedent by providing “a roadmap for unlawful and aggressive takeovers with significant assets”, of “taking sides” between rival trustee groups, and of effectively trying to cover up serious failures in its handling of the case.
Keith’s comments, which come amid a rise in fractious trustee disputes across the charity sector, will be uncomfortable for the commission, which said earlier this year it was reluctant to intervene in internal charity rows, saying it is not its job “to pick sides between rival groups of trustees”.
The ABF, which boasts King Charles as patron and donor, has been in the spotlight since a “boardroom coup” at the charity in 2022 in which Keith and fellow trustees, including the actors James Bolam and Dame Siân Phillips, were kicked off the board by a rival group of trustees, amid claims and counter-claims of bullying, abuse and mismanagement.
The charity provides about £1m a year in support grants to actors and stage managers who have fallen on hard times due to illness, injury or old age. It has a long history of royal patronage and celebrity support and its past presidents include the acting legends Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud.
The latest chapter in the feud appears to have triggered the prospect of peace talks between the ABF’s warring factions, who said in a joint statement on Monday evening they would begin mediation “very soon” to try to resolve the dispute – something both sides have failed to do for 18 months, despite being asked to do so by the commission.
The joint statement said: “We confirm that mediation will take place very soon and until this important process is complete it would be unhelpful to comment further. All parties maintain they have the best interests of the charity’s future in mind and are committed to the ability of the charity to serve its beneficiaries and members to the full in the coming years.”
At the heart of the dispute, which has divided the charity and its members, are the claims of Keith and others that they were unlawfully removed, and their successors illegally installed. She says the commission effectively rubber-stamped the appointment of the successor board this year despite it admitting their accession was legally invalid and based on “flawed” elections.
Although Keith acknowledged the regulator’s opening of an internal review as a recognition that “something has to be done”, she argued in a letter to the commission’s chief executive, Helen Stephenson, earlier this month that this amounted to the regulator “marking its own homework”, and called for an independent review.
“It is clear that any review of this concerning situation needs independence and objectivity,” she wrote. “Trust and confidence in the Charity Commission … is at its lowest ebb. The culture at the Charity Commission of trying to justify itself regardless and dig further into the hole it has made for itself – and a charity – is so well-evidenced that this needs outside review.”
Concern over the dispute has also led to written questions in the House of Lords, where the Tory peer Guy Black last week asked the government whether it had had discussions with the commission about its conduct in the case – the government said it had not.
A Charity Commission spokesperson said: “We have a clear complaints process that is open to everyone. We can confirm that we have received a complaint about our handling of the case involving ABF and are dealing with it in line with those standard procedures.”
She added: “We have engaged with the Actors’ Benevolent Fund extensively in recent months to help the charity move forward from a damaging dispute. We hope and expect all parties to the dispute will work together in the interests of the charity and its beneficiaries.”