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Women were failed by Presidents Club trustees, says regulator

Trustees of the Presidents Club charity, which hosted a gala dinner where female staff were allegedly groped and propositioned for sex, gave little thought to the women’s welfare while they took “careful steps” to protect the identity of male guests, according to a report by the Charity Commission.

The regulator said trustees breached their legal duties by failing to address the risk to the charity’s reputation posed by staging an all-male event at which female hostesses were instructed to wear “sexy” clothes. The report revealed that the Presidents Club, which gives donations collected from members to good causes, paid for the women’s dresses, although they were reused each year to cut costs.

While trustees acknowledged they “had not moved with the times”, according to the report, they “saw nothing wrong” with demanding that 130 female staff wear the uniform.

They were also found to have not done enough to prevent staff being harassed or to have investigated the allegations properly afterwards.

“The trustees thought insufficiently about the welfare of the women hired to work at their charity’s event while taking careful steps to protect the privacy of the male guests attending the dinner,” said the regulator’s chief executive, Helen Stephenson.

“Charities and their fundraising events should be places were all people are protected from harm, and where all people are treated with respect and care. It is clear from our findings that the trustees of the Presidents Club failed to put the proper steps in place to ensure the dinner fully met those expectations.”

The report comes six months after details emerged of alleged “stomach-churning” behaviour by guests at the Presidents Club dinner, attended by senior business figures and politicians.

The organisation has since announced that it would close down after disbursing its remaining funds to recipients such as the Great Ormond Street hospital. The children’s hospital initially vowed to hand back a £530,000 donation in light of the allegations but has since reversed the decision.

In its report, the commission said trustees failed in their legal duties to manage the charity’s resources responsibly and protect it from reputational damage. The regulator highlighted the “purchase of clothing for female staff to wear and instructions on how female staff should appear, neither of which we consider acceptable in a charitable environment”.

Trustees were aware before the dinner of the risk of “inappropriate behaviour” and members were reminded at the beginning of the evening of a new code of conduct, the report said.

Despite that, trustees did too little to prevent harassment or ensure that the agency who employed the women put in place procedures to allow them to voice any concerns.

The report said this was “in stark contrast” to meticulous measures designed to shield its high-profile guests, which included taking mobile phones from staff and making them sign gagging orders.

According to the commission, trustees have since admitted that the event “may be considered less appropriate to a larger number of people in today’s world”.

The report noted that the trustees denied the allegations of harassment and assault reported by the media.

It also noted that, while they did take some steps in light of the #MeToo movement, including issuing a code of conduct printed in the event programme, this did not “sufficiently mitigate the risks of holding an event of this nature”.

Presidents Club trustees include property entrepreneurs Harvey Soning and Bruce Ritchie, as well as David Meller, a businessman and Tory donor. Meller has now resigned from the charity.

The trustees said: “During the 33 years of the PCCT’s existence, approximately 200 charities benefitted from donations: of those seven suggested that they may return money. None has done so.

“Throughout its existence the PCCT held its annual men only ball, raising a total of around £18m for charity. The PCCT, its Trustees and its aims have always previously been viewed as above reproach. Our sole aim was only ever to raise money for charity. We believe it is regrettable that this was not acknowledged in the Charity Commission report.

“We are also surprised at both the report’s muted acknowledgement of the fact that not a single complainant has come forward since the FT’s article was published.”

The commission said nobody who worked at the gala dinner had come forward to complain in answer to a call for evidence, which was published on a government website. It did not issue any sanctions against the trustees, instead offering them “formal regulatory advice”.

Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson, who headed the group of MPs that called on the regulator to investigate, said this did not go far enough. “The report is scathing about the trustees, yet disgracefully they are getting away with no more than a slap on the wrist,” she said. “The Charity Commission should not be afraid to use its full powers and should disqualify these individuals from holding trusteeships until they can prove they are fit for the role.”

Allegations about the dinner emerged after an undercover investigation by two journalists from the Financial Times, who found that women were allegedly groped repeatedly and invited by diners to join them in bedrooms at the hotel.

Lots at a charity auction held at the dinner, hosted by comedian David Walliams, included a night at Soho’s Windmill strip club and plastic surgery, accompanied by the slogan: “Spice up your wife.” Walliams said he did not witness any of the behaviour that allegedly occurred.

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