Charity Commission warns breast cancer helpline after 'unauthorised payments'

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A charity which made unauthorised payments and failed to keep proper records of decision-making is the first to have received an official warning from the Charity Commission.

The Derbyshire-based National Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline was set up by Wendy Watson in 1996 after she underwent a pre-emptive double mastectomy four years earlier, when she was 37.

The procedure became more well-known after Hollywood actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie had the operation to reduce her risk of developing breast cancer.

Figures from the accounts show that in 2014/15 the charity's total expenses were £909,634 - of which only 3%, or £27,403, was listed as being spent on "charitable activities", with £874,539 set down as "fundraising expenses and other costs".

The following financial year, total expenses were £947,824, of which £929,975 was spent on charitable activities.

The accounts also show the charity owed Mrs Watson £62,000 after she gave the money in an unsecured loan - with trustees approving a repayment of £30,000.

The figures from 2015/16 show her daughter was paid £17,849 in salary and expenses during the year for work as a fundraiser.

The Charity Commission said the cause's trustees "committed a breach of trust or duty" after "making unauthorised payments to a connected person" and "entering into an informal loan agreement with a connected person".

Mrs Watson resigned as a trustee in October 2016, according to a report, but the watchdog said the charity allowed the former chairwoman to "make key decisions about the operation of the charity, despite having resigned".

It added: "Given the nature and seriousness of the issues, the trustees were given a chance to resolve them but failed to fully comply with the action plan to do so, the commission concluded it was appropriate and proportionate to issue the charity with an official warning to promote compliance.

"The warning specifies the actions the commission considers the charity needs to take to resolve the outstanding and prevent further breaches."

These include ensuring that any payments to individuals are made lawfully and that consent from the watchdog is obtained if needed.

Mrs Watson told the Press Association: "I work on a voluntary basis for the charity. It's cost me, I've never made anything out of it. It's cost me tens of thousands of pounds to keep this helpline going, and I mean tens of thousands. And all it's ever done is save lives and save money."

In the last five years she said she has worked for "less than 60p an hour", adding that she has received "terrible" advice from a solicitor and an accountant.

She said she was named as a trustee when the helpline was made a registered charity in 2012, and said: "I thought it was OK. I had no idea that I could never be employed or paid, no idea at all."

Mrs Watson said: "I can categorically say I have not benefited one iota out of this."

She added: "After putting every bit of yourself into something that you've believed in and you know has done so much good - you know that, that it's done so much good - after you've done that, and then you get accused of whatever, just because you made some errors, simple as that."