Show me the money(raisers)

Charities in Scotland are mushrooming, with three new ones created every day, but the regulator is kept in the dark and not fed the information about those who are responsible for running them.

There are over 24,000 charities in the country, with 316 created in the first four months of this year, but, because of the inadequacies of the governing legislation, trustees are not required to register with the regulator, unlike in England. “We do not have the legal power to request that information,” a spokesperson for the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator confirmed.

The regulator did propose setting up a database of all trustees but, because of the incompetent drafting of the Charities and Trustee Investment Scotland 2005 Act (my conclusion), discovered that this would breach data protection laws.

Eh? The legislation, introduced by Jack McConnell’s Labour administration, is clearly not fit for purpose. But there appear to be no plans to reform it and give the regulator, David Robb, and his 50 employees real teeth.

The legislation in England and Wales is much more stringent and transparent. All trustees, who are legally responsible for running charities and can be personally liable, have to register and are vetted – and the Charity Commissioner is quick to step in to investigate alleged misdemeanours. The commission also announces publicly when a charity is being investigated, which does not happen here.

There is no suggestion that the vast majority of charities are run anything other than with strict probity, but it is easier in Scotland to commit fraud. Like James Reilly from Balmullo in Fife who stole £60,000 from the Dundee veterans charity, Tayforth, he launched. He was jailed for 13 months in November last year.

The new charities set up this year – which benefit, principally, from not paying tax – are predominantly tiny ones, for Brownie packs, church halls and monuments, mental health (Brothers in Arms) and animals (Barbara’s Wildlife Rescue). There is one standout, the Bothy Project, which is building beautifully-designed, idiosyncratic huts and cabins for walkers and climbers in Scotland. It was set up by artist Bobby Niven and architect Iain MacLeod.

The biggest charities are the universities, Edinburgh with an income of £929 million (an annual surplus of £130m and reserves of a staggering £2bn), and Glasgow, income £608m, with £795m reserves. Neither pays tax.

Private schools also avoid taxation by registering themselves as charities. Tony Blair’s alma mater, Fettes in Edinburgh, brings in more than £20m a year and 86 of its 800 pupils are on means-tested bursaries which, presumably, qualifies as doing “public good”, the test in the Act. Fettes was also able – perfectly legally – to make a £2.5m loan to one of its subsidiaries which runs Westwoods exclusive private health club (membership around £800 a year) in the school grounds.

The law surely is an ass.

Mind your language

There’s what I’d call a Humpty Dumpty Syndrome which is warping English. As the eponymous egg put it in Through The Looking Glass: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” An example, this classic official response from the Sky cycling team last week about their star rider, Chris Froome, who failed a drug test at the 2017 classic, the Vuelta in Spain, with twice the permitted level of salbutamol in his body. “Chris has not had a positive test, rather an adverse analytical finding for a prescribed asthma medication," said the statement. I beg your pardon?

Then there’s the phrase beloved of commentators, from sport to royalty, “years of age”. No! No! He or she isn’t “19 years of age”. No one would say “he’s six feet of height,” or the pool is “three metres of depth”. It’s 19, or 19 years old. I could rant on. And don’t get me started on misuse of apostrophes.

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things?”

"The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that's all.”

The grammar vigilante’s fightback has begun.

Woss going on?

Broadcaster Jonathan Ross reveals that he used the Siri phone app to set a reminder to phone Radio 2. It did. It duly bleeped and messaged: “Call Wadey 02.”

As Wossie put it: “This is just hurtful."

A minor English tragedy

Had I been suggestible, a touch more naive and taken up his offer of an exclusive interview over drinks in his hotel room, I might have featured as a peripheral character in the BBC’s Sunday night serial. I think, with stack heels, it would have been the perfect part for David Tennant in A Very English Scandal. As it was, I turned down cocktails and whatever came next and made my excuses and left Jeremy Thorpe’s company.

It was at a Liberal Party conference in Ayr. It’s difficult to believe, looking at today’s incarnation, the Lib Dems, that then, in the early 1970s, the party was a real force in the land, Premier League not Hackney Marshes. Thorpe was gregarious, charming, eloquent and one of the most famous faces in the country and he had, almost singlehandedly, revivified his party. He was also a rogue, a fantasist, a fraudster and – although he was subsequently exonerated – a commissioner of murder.

But that was to come. Then, his party held the balance of power, keeping Ted Heath’s Tories in government (plus ça change) but despite having taken almost 20 per cent of the 1974 General Election vote, the first-past-the-post system awarded them just 14 MPs. Thorpe fancied that he would become Home Secretary in a grand coalition, but his party wouldn’t wear it (unlike their successors) and it wasn’t to be.

And, of course, Thorpe was secretly gay at a time when it would have been the death of his ambition to admit it. He was also not at all discreet about his affairs, although a marriage seemed to have given him heterosexual camouflage.

My encounter with him came at one of those evening drinks bashes. I was a young reporter, but not inexperienced, one of his aides, clearly at Thorpe’s prompting, asked me if I wanted to talk to the leader. Of course, I replied. We were then left together in this public place but it quickly became clear that politics was not what Thorpe had in mind. He seemed to hang on my every word – well, obviously – but it was his leaning in, his touching and his whispering and suggestive smiling which made his intent obvious.

I didn’t play along and sting him for a grand scoop – I expect his alternative life was pretty well known anyway – but it all spilled out at his trial. Thorpe was a villain but he was also a victim of the censorious times. He would not have needed to go to such extraordinary and criminal lengths today over his sexuality. It’s a very minor English tragedy too.