JERRY MANDER, our dodgy-goings-ons-in-Sutton correspondent, on the stern warning issued to a Muslim charity in Carshalton
The Liberal Democrats who control Sutton Council are in a spot of bother with the Charity Commission – again – just weeks before the local elections.
The Charity Commission has issued a damning statement over the “unacceptable” political conduct of the Muslim Cultural and Welfare Association of Sutton (MCWAS), and warned the trustees not to repeat the conduct or risk losing their charitable status.
The Commission’s findings raise serious questions about the behaviour of LibDem MP Tom Brake, together with LibDem Sutton councillors past and present.
Charity law forbids charities from supporting political parties and they are not allowed to make political donations or give other financial support or resources to election candidates.
MCWAS was formed by Lal Hussain, who also happened to be a Sutton LibDem councillor from 1998 to 2006. Hussain died in 2017.
As Inside Croydon reported last year, in 2011, Sutton Council handed MCWAS a 125-year lease on a council-owned building, Wentworth Hall, for £225,000 – reckoned to be barely one-quarter of the market rate for a property that might otherwise have generated £1million for the Council Tax-payers of Sutton.
Presumably very grateful for this beneficial arrangement, MCWAS’s LibDem-friendly activities have included staging fund-raising dinners for Brake and hustings events before the 2014 local elections which excluded candidates from political parties other than the LibDems. This prompted a formal complaint to be filed to the Charity Commission, which has only just concluded the resulting investigation.
In its statement, the Charity Commission said: “We engaged with the Muslim Cultural and Welfare Association of Sutton last year, in connection with concerns raised about the charity’s links to a political party and its candidates.
“We established that the charity had engaged in non-recent social media activity that brought into question the charity’s independence and party political impartiality (the tweets in question dated back to 2014).
“This is unacceptable for a charity; our guidance makes clear that a charity ‘must stress its independence and ensure that any involvement it has with political parties is balanced. A charity must not give support or funding to a political party, nor to a candidate or politician’. The trustees have understood this, and reassured us that they have put steps in place to prevent such problems arising again.
“Concerns were also raised with us that the charity had organised a fundraising event for a local candidate. The charity has made clear that it did not organise the event in question, and provided us with evidence that it was organised by a third party organisation (not a charity). The charity has also made clear that its facilities are used by a range of political parties and groups.
“We have since concluded our engagement with the charity, but have explained to the trustees that should any further evidence come to light to point to apparent connections to party political matters, they will be in a serious position and we would need to consider taking regulatory action.”
Charity status has significant financial benefits for organisations such as MCWAS.
They do not have to pay tax and can reclaim an extra 25 per cent in Gift Aid on donations. But with charity status comes a range of responsibilities, including the requirement to refrain from political activities or providing finance or support for political parties.
Inside Croydon understands that political rivals in Sutton are furious over Brake’s part in this affair and are considering making a formal complaint to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
“It beggars belief that Brake was not aware that MCWAS was a charity, and so would have known that accepting support in this way broke all the rules,” one Sutton political figure said.
The evidence seems very clear cut.
For example, immediately prior to the last council elections in May 2014, Brake and a number of serving LibDem councillors and candidates for the elections attended a congregational Jummah at Wentworth Hall. Pictures show Lal Hussain at the centre of proceedings, and Tom Brake addressing the congregation with a microphone while interviewing the candidates. Photographs were posted on the MCWAS website, but have since been removed.
Then in November 2014, MCWAS advertised and hosted the fundraising curry evening for Tom Brake. The event was publicised on Brake’s website, and MCWAS advertised the event on its social media channels. This was similar to previous events organised by Hussain for the benefit of Sutton LibDems, staged in November 2010 and in January 2006, when Hussain (then a councillor) was able to welcome to Carshalton six LibDem MPs, including Brake and Paul Burstow, then MP for Sutton and Cheam, plus Chris Huhne, Simon Hughes, Susan Kramer and St Vince Cable.
MCWAS’s defence that the 2014 curry fundraiser was organised by a third party seems a little imaginative.
The logos of MCWAS, event sponsor Akash (a Wallington restaurant) and the LibDems appear on the advertisement. The contact details for tickets on the MCWAS social media channels are those of Lal Hussain. It was, therefore, pure coincidence that at the top table at the event were Brake, Lal Hussain of MCWAS and the owner of the Akash, Yawar Khan, together with Paul Burstow and two invited LibDem speakers.
MCWAS also told the Charity Commission that its facilities were used by a “range of political parties”. It would be interesting to see what evidence MCWAS presented to the Commission to support such a claim. Inside Croydon has contacted both Labour and Conservative parties in Sutton, and both state categorically that they have never used Wentworth Hall for meetings or any other events, nor have their candidates been invited to attend hustings staged there.
In the photos showing the council candidates from May 2014 were the then serving councillors Colin Hall and Muhammad Sadiq, of the Wallington South ward, and a candidate in Beddington South, Abdullah Okuyucu. Okuyuku failed to be elected.
Colin Hall died in 2015, but former Mayor Sadiq is standing again in Wallington South on May 3, while local takeaway owner Okuyucu is standing again for the LibDems, this time in Belmont.
The LibDems’ political rivals will be keeping a close eye on events at Wentworth Hall over the coming days ahead of the election.
For although Lal Hussain’s interest and influence may have gone, the MCWAS fixation with Brake remains. As recently as January, in a television feature about the mosque and broadcast on the Islam Channel, MCWAS committee member Nadir Khan explained how “we provide meeting facilities upstairs where our local MP, Tom, he comes here a lot of times to do his sessions, workshops here…”.
There was no mention of the other political parties who are apparently so keen to use the facilities.
The clear bias towards LibDem candidates and providing facilities for an audience with worshippers has raised questions of whether the mosque’s leadership at the time in 2014 may have attempted to exert “undue spiritual influence”, to persuade them to vote at elections for a particular candidate or party. This conduct is banned under electoral law, and was one of the reasons that Lutfur Rahman, the controversial mayor of Tower Hamlets, was unseated by the courts in 2015.
The suggestion bears some analysis, based on evidence available on the MCWAS YouTube channel. It’s clear that Lal Hussain was not shy in using his connections to Sutton’s ruling LibDems to get his own way. When LibDem councillor for Carshalton Central Hamish Pollock responded to local residents’ concerns about building work at the mosque in 2013, Hussain damned him personally in an address to the MCWAS congregation.
Of course, nor is this the first time that the Charity Commission has had to investigate Sutton-based charities and their links to the LibDems, who have controlled the local council – and its funding streams, so vital for local voluntary groups – for nearly 30 years.
Last year, Alan Salter was sentenced on three counts of fraud, for stealing more than £13,500 from two local charities and a client. Salter had been a LibDem councillor while conducting the frauds.
A Charity Commission investigation into one of the charities that lost its funds, Sutton Seniors Forum, said that a “connected party relationship” existed between the charity and the LibDems and that this played a part in the decisions taken by trustees not to immediately report the missing funds to police. One of those trustees was Brenda Dombey, the mother of Ruth Dombey, the LibDem council leader.
The latest warning to MCWAS from the Charity Commission will need to be followed very carefully by the people who run the mosque, not least because one LibDem candidate, Abdullah Okuyucu, is listed as a trustee of MCWAS on its annual accounts.
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