Carrie Symonds, a network of family wealth and a charity investigation

Behind the Aspinall Foundation is a history of power, riches and links to the Tory party

When Carrie Symonds was welcomed to her job at the wildlife conservation charity the Aspinall Foundation in January, her new boss gushed that she had arrived at an “exciting time” for the organisation. Symonds, said Damian Aspinall, would be a “huge asset to us”.

Coverage of Boris Johnson’s fiancee’s appointment as head of communications focused on her well-publicised love of animals – useful, given the foundation’s charitable mission. It oversees Howletts and Port Lympne wildlife parks in Kent, home to exotic threatened species including rhinos, elephants, gorillas and cheetahs, which are prepared for a return to the wild in Africa.

What Aspinall, the chair of the foundation, knew at the time – though it is unclear whether Symonds did – was that trustees at the foundation and its sister charity Howletts Wild Animal Trust, which he also chairs, had been for months privately cooperating with the Charity Commission over a series of issues raised by the watchdog relating to potential misuse of the charities’ funds.

This week the commission dramatically escalated that process and launched a statutory inquiry – its most serious level of investigation – into what it said were “serious concerns about … governance and financial management” at both charities. Such investigations were not an indication of wrongdoing, it emphasised; equally, according to commission guidance, they are “not undertaken lightly”.

The Aspinall Foundation may well feel satisfied that it can count on the advice of Symonds, who is seen as one of the most powerful people in UK politics. Her partner, the prime minister, is also a fan: he visited Howletts with Aspinall in 2019. “We need organisations like the Aspinall Foundation to protect, conserve – and to restore,” he subsequently wrote. “It is British, and pioneering, and it deserves support.”

The inquiry is the latest chapter in the colourful history of the Aspinall, Goldsmith and Birley families, linked by marriage and friendships going back over half a century. All are powerful, well-connected and fabulously wealthy, with links to the Conservative party and shared interests in animal welfare and environmental issues. Family members have dominated the two charities’ small trustee boards.

Boris Johnson And Zac Goldsmith.
Boris Johnson And Zac Goldsmith. Photograph: Jeremy Selwyn/ANL/REX/Shutterstock

Zac Goldsmith, the environment minister, who was awarded a peerage by his ally Johnson after losing his seat as an MP in December 2019, was an Aspinall foundation trustee until August 2019. His brother Ben Goldsmith, a Tory donor who sits on the board of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is an Aspinall trustee.

Their half-brother and fellow Old Etonian Robin Birley, a nightclub owner and Ukip supporter who donated £20,000 to Johnson’s Tory party leadership campaign, has been a trustee of the Aspinall Foundation for a decade. Damian Aspinall’s daughter Tansy Aspinall is a trustee of both charities.

The Aspinall Foundation was created by Damian Aspinall’s father, John Aspinall, a gambling tycoon, member of the 1960s Mayfair set and close associate of Lord Lucan and the controversial financier and anti-EU campaigner Sir James Goldsmith, father of Zac and Ben. John Aspinall created Howletts as a private zoo in 1957. Some years later Robin Birley was attacked by a tiger there, sustaining serious facial injuries.

The Charity Commission’s interest focuses on what it calls “concerns over the management of conflicts of interest and related-party transactions” at the two charities. It does not specify what these are, but they may include a series of financial arrangements, details of which are tucked away in the charities’ latest accounts. They include:

  • The rental of Howletts mansion, an opulent 30-room country house owned by the foundation, to the charities’ millionaire chair, Damian Aspinall, for the use of him and his family for £2,500 a month (2018: £2,900 a month) – little more than the rent on a five-bedroom house in nearby Canterbury. Aspinall has also received loans from the foundation.

  • Payments of £12,500 in 2019 to Aspinall’s wife, Victoria, the foundation’s creative director, for “interior design services” (she was paid £50,000 in 2018). Aspinall’s stepmother, Sarah Aspinall, was paid a £30,000 pension by the Howletts charity (2018: £32,000), apparently for her past role as head gardener. Her son Amos Courage was until recently a Howletts trustee.

The Aspinall Foundation issued a statement this week saying it was “firmly committed to its ethical and legal duties as a charitable body. Our trustees will continue to work openly and transparently with the Charity Commission to ensure best-practice governance and compliance.” It said it would not comment further until the commission reported, likely to be next year.

Damian and Victoria Aspinall.
Damian and Victoria Aspinall. Photograph: Jeff Gilbert/REX/Shutterstock

Charities by law must show that what they do is for public benefit and does not give rise to more than “incidental personal benefit”. They receive tax breaks on most types of income as long as they can show that the money is used for charitable purposes. The commission may examine, according to one charity expert, whether the Aspinall Foundation blurred the line between family and public benefit, and whether the trustees exercised sufficient oversight.

The trustees are likely to incur prolonged, intrusive and potentially expensive scrutiny from commission investigators. “You jump when they say jump,” said one former commission insider. If the investigators find wrongdoing they have powers to ban trustees from charity boards, appoint the commission’s own trustees or even close the charity down.

The commission has recently emphasised the high standards required of trustees, cracking down on organisations where it considers mismanagement has undermined public trust in charities, regardless of their good works or intentions. Adjudicating on the Aspinall charities will be a politically sensitive task for the next commission chair. That £62,000-a-year post, currently unfilled, is in the gift of Johnson’s government.

Contributor

Patrick Butler Social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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