Scandal of the parents' leaders

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Three top officers of England's largest and richest parents' group have been asked to resign by charity watchdogs and may have to pay back tens of thousands of pounds in salaries.

The Charity Commission made its recommendation, leaked to The Independent, following an investigation into alleged improprieties at the National Association of Parent Teacher Associations (NCPTA), a charity representing parents of children in over 11,000 schools.

The inquiry found the treasurer, press officer and administrator of the NCPTA had all been appointed to their paid part-time posts while still trustees of the charity. Under charity law, it is illegal to benefit financially from a trusteeship.

The three earn annual salaries of pounds 10,000 plus expenses and have been employed for up to five years by the charity, which draws its pounds 750,000 annual income from school subscriptions of up to pounds 80 a year. They have been advised by the commission to seek urgent legal advice over whether they should repay their wages.

The resignation call, which precedes publication of the commission's expected 40-page report of its inquiry, is being challenged by the charity.

The Charity Commission investigation, launched in February this year, marked the culmination of years of turmoil within the NCPTA, which was once dubbed "neanderthal" by the former education secretary, John Patten, and last year sacked two trustees who said that they wanted to put the organisation on a more professional footing.

Complaints made to commissioners included allegations of improper employment procedures, mismanagement and conflicts of interest. People connected with the association were accused of extra-marital affairs, drunkenness, junketing in expensive hotels and expenses improprieties. Members of local PTA federations, who affiliate to the national body mainly for the insurance cover it offers for events such as fetes, have complained of money being spent on costly meetings when schools are strapped for cash. Schools raise funds for subscriptions through events such as jumble sales.

The four-month inquiry involved a forensic audit of NCPTA accounts and an examination of the employment records and appointment of the three officers, who said they had resigned as trustees by the time they took up their posts. Press officer Margaret Morrissey, a Dorset publican and former Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate, was appointed as a salaried employee five years ago after first working for the charity while a trustee for a pounds 500 annual honourarium.

Andrew Smetham, head of the Purbeck School in Wareham, Dorset, was also a trustee at the time of his appointment as treasurer five years ago. Administrator Belinda Yaxley, the third employee called on to step down, was appointed in 1993 while still a trustee.

When launching the investigation, the Charity Commission told the NCPTA it had "particular concern" over the employment of former trustees and over the charity's management and financial controls.

At a four-hour meeting with trustees on 21 March, the commission's representatives advised the NCPTA to seek legal advice on whether the three officers had benefited from their trusteeship, whether they should stay in their posts and whether they should be asked to repay money.

The investigators said they were also concerned over the way trustees Sean Rogers and Sandi Marshall had been removed, describing the procedure as a "kangaroo court".

The Charity Commission last night declined to comment on the letter and said that details of the inquiry remained confidential.

Mrs Morrissey said she and her two fellow part-time officers admitted they had been trustees at the time of applying and being interviewed for their jobs, but said they were no longer trustees by the time they took up their posts.

She insisted she would not be stepping down, and added: "If I believed it was in the best interests of any parent, child or teacher in this country that I walked away from this organisation I would go, but I do not."

Current NCPTA chairman Judith Wood said the charity had "taken action on the letter", which was received last week. It was not certain that the recommendations contained within it would be included in the commission's final published report, she added.

Peter Williams, of solicitors Winckworth & Pemberton, acting for the NCPTA, confirmed a letter had been received by the charity. The NCPTA had asked the commission for more time to allow it to complete its own investigation and seek legal advice, he said. Though the action recommended in the letter was still a possibility, it was "something which has been overcome, even if it is only in the short term".

The three officers have each been interviewed by the charity's lawyers.