It is a very strange story – perhaps only possible in the UK. But here it is.
I wrote this for the New Statesman, but at the end you will see I have some fresh information.
It is the largest charity you have almost certainly never heard of. With assets in excess of the Nuffield Foundation or Joseph Rowntree, the National Fund is the 34th richest charity in Britain.
Established by an anonymous donor in 1927, the National Fund has grown from £500,000 to £400m today. Its income of £4.7m puts it on a par with Oxfam or Save the Children. Yet, the only ”charitable activity” listed in its 2016 accounts are £147,000 in fees for the trustees, accountants and the others who manage it.
Questions have been raised about the purpose of this strange organisation since the 1930s. The Labour MP Frederick Bellenger asked in 1939 whether the deeds of the National Fund should be altered, but was told that the government could see no reason for this to be done.
In the last few years, MPs have returned to the issue. In 2015, Nick Hurd – now Minister of State at the Home Office – asked “what progress” the Attorney General was making in discussions about the National Fund’s future. “Options are being considered for the future of the Fund, consistent with its object of extinguishing or reducing the national debt,” replied the Attorney General, Jeremy Wright. “A proposal will be set out in due course.”
In case you were wondering, the £400m in the National Funds coffers will only make a tiny dent in the public debt, which stood at £1.7trn (or £1,734.8bn) at the end of November 2017.
Perhaps we should all be grateful that the National Fund has never achieved its goal. If it had finally managed to pay off the entire government debt, the impact would probably have been catastrophic. Government debt, or “gilts” as the individual securities are known, is the backbone of the pension industry. Extinguishing gilts would have left pension funds scrabbling around to find alternative assets to hold.
As the official record states, meeting of the Commissioners “were at first held regularly, usually at the home of the Chancellor, but that the last recorded business meeting took place on 12 October 1860. The reason for the sudden cessation is unknown, no hint being obtainable from the minutes.” The Commissioners were reconvened in February 2016, with much the same membership (including the current Speaker, John Bercow).
Exactly what the Debt Commissioners do is something of a mystery. As the government admits, they have “no statutory provision requiring the production of an annual report or other published information about their activities”.
Perhaps almost as odd as the soon to be extinguished National Fund.
This from a spokesman for the National Fund
I asked some additional questions:
May I ask two follow-up questions.
- This issue has been under consideration for many years. Do you have any idea of how soon these discussions will take before a resolution is reached?
- What legal steps will be required to vary the terms of the charity so that it can be liquidated.
I received this answer:
I now have the answer to the other questions you raised – as you can see, some of this is outside of Zedra’s control:
- The matter is currently in the hands of the Attorney General. The latest update from the Attorney General’s office gave no indication of the likely length of the continuing delay in the Court Application process.
- A Court Hearing is required. The Attorney General will apply to the Court for a Scheme to use the National Fund to repay the National Debt. We understand that following the issue of proceedings there will be a Masters Hearing followed by a full Court Hearing. Judgment will be given & arrangements made with the Treasury as appropriate.
Zedra took over the role of liaising with the Charity Commission following the acquisition of Barclays Trust business in April 2017. The initial proposal was to create a scheme to allow for the Trust to become grant making to fulfil a greater public benefit. The Charity Commission felt it appropriate to refer the matter to the Attorney General’s Office and the resolution has therefore been out of the trustee’s (Zedra’s) hands.
This from the Charity Commission
“The future of the National Fund has been under consideration for a number of years and is of serious concern to the Commission. Given the size of the national debt and the current value of the charity’s assets, the Commission considers it unlikely that the Fund’s charitable purposes can be achieved.
The Commission is committed to ensuring that charitable assets are used for charitable activity and has been engaging with the Attorney General and the Fund’s trustees to help resolve this legally complicated matter. The matter is with the Attorney General to consider what steps are necessary to resolve the issue.”
This from the Attorney General’s Office
“We are working with the Charity Commission and the Fund’s trustees to help resolve this legally complicated matter. We will provide an update in due course.”