Charity Commission launches probe into arts charity after founder is sacked

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The Charity Commission has launched an investigation into concerns about the running of a user-led mental health arts charity that has sacked its founder, after she spent 25 years building its reputation.

Michelle Baharier (pictured) called on the Charity Commission to take urgent action to save CoolTan Arts, after she was sacked by what she says was a “kangaroo court”.

She was dismissed last week by a disciplinary panel set up by the charity’s board of trustees, but which she didn’t attend and plans to appeal against.

She claims the allegations of bullying and harassment were “pathetic” and “made up”, and were exaggerated by a small group of senior figures at the charity who had fallen out with her.

The Charity Commission is now investigating claims she has made about the way CoolTan is being run.

A spokeswoman for the commission said: “We can confirm that we have an open case into CoolTan Arts and we are currently in correspondence with the trustees about our concerns and complaints made against the charity.

“At this time we are unable to provide any further information until our case has concluded.”

Baharier believes the charity she built up from scratch could be forced into liquidation by the end of the year if the commission does not take urgent action.

CoolTan, based in Southwark, south London, offers creative workshops, self-advocacy, art projects, and a volunteering and training programme to service-users with experience of mental distress, as well as running “stigma-busting cultural walks” and a public art gallery.

Baharier, who had been suspended from her position as chief executive since last October, said she now fears for the charity’s future.

She said: “I have been treated as a criminal with no rights at all and have not even been allowed to collect personal belongings from CoolTan which have been there for 20 years.”

She said that what had happened to the charity was “a tragedy”, and added: “I am devastated at my loss, a precious unique charity which has been torn apart.”

She has secured backing from hundreds of supporters of CoolTan since her suspension last October, including leading figures in the arts and disability arts worlds, including Maggi Hambling – one of the charity’s patrons – Penny Pepper, Ju Gosling, Colin Hambrook, Clare Allan – another patron – and Caroline Cardus, and gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.

Among her concerns is that she believes CoolTan has spent a year’s worth of funds in the eight months since she was suspended, and is rapidly depleting financial reserves she built up over the last 25 years.

She is also angry that the trustees have paid expensive human resources consultants to deal with the dispute, rather than using the free services of the conciliation service ACAS.

The charity even tried to access her medical records from her doctor and community mental health team, she says, and claimed that she had lied about being a disabled person, when she has an Access to Work package to support her at work.

Baharier said she was also “really concerned” about the lack of mental health-related skills among the remaining CoolTan staff.

She said: “They don’t have many disabled people there anymore with lived experience.

“I cannot name one member of staff who has their own mental health experience, let alone the proper skills.”

She fears that with mental health provision “at an all-time low, when CoolTan goes bust it will send people into crisis”.

Baharier is now taking legal action over her dismissal, with an employment tribunal due to take place in October.

CoolTan’s interim senior management failed to provide a statement by noon today (2 June), as did the chair of trustees, although one trustee, Richard Truss, said that “the case against [Baharier], which we only very reluctantly pursued, was based on the evidence of a number of independent testimonies of staff members who had suffered bullying.

“We had no choice but to proceed, especially as many of them are quite vulnerable people.”

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