The National Trust did not act outside its charitable purpose in publishing its recent report on slavery and colonialism, the Charity Commission has found.
The commission opened a regulatory compliance case following complaints about the September 2020 report, which detailed links to empire and the slave trade at 93 National Trust properties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, including Chartwell, the former home of Winston Churchill.
The report, which was published in the middle of a divisive public debate about contested heritage, generated significant media coverage and drew criticism from senior government figures, including culture secretary Oliver Dowden and members of the Common Sense Group of Tory backbenchers. Two parliamentary debates were held on the trust’s future in the wake of publication.
The charities regulator said it had opened the case because the concerns expressed about the report “had the potential to damage significantly the charity’s reputation and undermine trust and confidence in charities more widely”.
The case assessed whether the report was furthering the National Trust’s purposes, and examined the trustees’ decision-making, including how they managed the potential risk to the charity’s reputation in commissioning and publishing it.
The regulator said the trustees had demonstrated that they had “explicitly considered” that commissioning and publishing the report was compatible with the trust’s charitable purposes.
It said it was satisfied that trustees had “recognised and carefully considered” the potential negative reaction that could result from the publication of the report. There was considerable support for the research among a panel of 2,000 trust members, it said.
However, the regulator said that the trust’s approach “did not fully pre-empt or manage the potential risks to the charity”, and said that more could have been done to “clearly explain the link between the report and the trust’s purpose”.
The regulator said it “welcomed the charity’s commitment to learning lessons from its recent experience, and its ongoing commitment to take into account a wide range of views and opinions within its membership and wider society”.
The Charity Commission’s director of regulatory services, Helen Earner, said: “In this instance, the National Trust was able to provide us with a well-reasoned response, supported by clear evidence of how it had carefully considered how this interim report fitted with its charitable objects, and we are satisfied that there are no grounds for regulatory action against the trust.”
In a blog this week, National Trust director Hilary McGrady said the organisation would “continue to take a wide-ranging and evidence-based approach to history”.
She said the trust supported the government’s “retain and explain” approach to history and would “work with government and other organisations in culture and heritage as they develop their own thinking”.
“This approach will underpin our research, interpretation and programming and help us to maintain an open and positive relationship with our broad range of stakeholders and members, present and future,” she said.
A National Trust spokesman said: “We welcome the Charity Commission's conclusion that there are no grounds for regulatory action against us, following complaints the commission received about the report we published on historic slavery and colonialism links at the places we care for. We are also pleased the commission is satisfied we gave due consideration to how the report, and the research behind it, would further our charitable purpose.”
The regulator's statement comes weeks after the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport held a meeting with heritage sector bodies to discuss how to put the “retain and explain” approach into practice, prompting concerns about government interference in the sector.