Chancellor Gordon Brown’s base in Downing Street doubled the number of seminars it hosted for the Smith institute despite an official warning to the “think-tank”.
A second set of documents released under the freedom of information act (FOIA) shows that the Smith institute, a registered charity, initially asked to use 11 Downing Street on a monthly basis, and more regularly for any series of seminars.
The documents show that, in the past 12 months, it held 27 events. And this doubling of events came after, as revealed by a previous set of documents released under FOIA, the charity commission warned the Smith institute that its use of No11 raised questions over its political independence and, therefore, its charitable status.
The Smith institute, which was founded in memory of the late Labour party leader, John Smith, rejected the charity commission’s repeated warnings six years ago that it should stop holding seminars at No11.
It addressed other concerns raised by the charity commission, which closed the case with a warning that the Smith institute would need to be vigilant to ensure the distinction between promoting an educational, rather than a political, cause.
The latest batch of documents also reveals that Brown attended two of the Smith institute’s events held at No11 in the past 12 months, one on “China’s economics” and another on “corporate social responsibility”.
The Smith institute denies promoting Brown’s pol-itical objectives.
The newly released documents are embarrassing for the Smith institute because it had given the impression to the charity commission six years ago that it was reducing its use of No11.
In rejecting the recommendation in 2001 to stop using No11, the Smith institute’s director, Wilf Stevenson, told the charity commission in a letter: “The trustees consider venues to be largely an operational matter. Venues are chosen as to maximise our target audiences, and to minimise their inconvenience.” He said that the Smith institute was holding many of its events outside London and using other venues in the capital, although “we would not wish to rule out the use of Downing Street for our seminars.”
After more questions from the charity commission, Stevenson replied: “We have previously explained that we hold some of our seminars at 11 Downing Street because it attracts a high level of participants and is easily accessible.”
“As it happens, we would observe that since the original programme was drawn up, our proposed use of 11 Downing Street has decreased to two seminar series and two one-off seminars this year .”
The charity commission will no doubt be surprised to learn from the latest FOIA disclosures that the Smith institute more than doubled its use of No11 from its initial request.
Last year, the charity commission re-opened the case after the Smith institute confirmed employing Ed Balls, Brown's former economic adviser, as a paid research fellow when he was preparing to stand for parliament in the last general election.
And it has already returned to the use of No11. The latest set of documents includes an e-mail exchange between the charity commission and the treasury. The former, in an e-mail sent last week, asked the latter for details about the extent of the use of No11 by other charities since 2002.
The treasury replied three days later by detailing 54 charities that had held events at No11 on 72 separate occasions since 2002, but said that it was unable to provide a list of all the charities that had applied to use No11.
It said that no charge is made for room hire and that any charity can apply to the chancellor to request use of No11 as a venue for an event.
“This is fully in accordance with the ministerial code and long standing conventions governing the use of Downing Street as operated by this and previous governments.”
“Every external organisation that uses No11 does so on the same basis: they meet all additional costs of the event, including catering, additional security, and IT and AV equipment. This is to ensure no public expense is incurred when events are held by external organisations.”
It added: “The Smith institute asked in 1997 to use the facility for seminars on a once a month basis and sometimes, when they are conducting a series of seminars, on a more regular basis. The events are held on the same basis as every other charitable event.”
“Any charity that uses or wants to use 11 Downing Street can apply for more extended access if this is their wish and subject to availability.”
FOIA Centre commentary
The Smith Institute’s director, Wilf Stevenson, told the charity commission, as revealed by FOIA, that the venue for its events was chosen to “maximise our target audiences, and to minimise their inconvenience.”
As two sets of FOIA disclosures make clear, the Smith institute’s venue of choice is 11 Downing Street despite the strident warnings from the charity commission about the plain political associations of such a location.
This suggests that Stevenson had one particular prospective audience member in mind to “target” and whose “inconvenience” should be minimised. Indeed, the official resident of No11 did not have far to travel when he attended two of the Smith institute’s seminars in the past 12 months.
The Financial Times tonight described the treasury as mounting a “damage limitation exercise” to head off allegations that the Smith institute enjoyed preferential access to No11. However, the information now in the public domain strongly suggests that it does have preferential access, and it is also clear that the treasury is yet to provide further information to straight-forward questions from the charity commission.
Moreover, the Smith institute’s remarkably ready access to No11 is emblamatic of its relationship with Gordon Brown, and it is these links at a wider level that raise serious questions over its claimed charitable status.
Given No10’s present pre-occupation with fighting off a criminal investigation into the alleged award of peerages in return for “loans” to the Labour party, No11’s present occupant might observe that one advantage for a charity is that there is no comparable requirement for it to declare donors to the electoral commission – or anyone else.
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Smith institute warned on use of No11