Watchdog investigates charity set up by UK billionaire over £16m ski clubhouse | The super-rich

A charity set up by the UK’s richest person, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, is being investigated by the Charity Commission after helping fund a £16m luxury clubhouse for an exclusive French Alps club where he and his daughter have skied for years.

The Guardian can reveal that the charities watchdog has opened a “regulatory compliance case” to investigate “concerns about the governance and management of the Jim Ratcliffe Foundation”.

Ratcliffe, 70, a multibillionaire tax exile who controls the petrochemicals and fracking company Ineos and is in the running to buy Manchester United, says he founded the charity to help build a new ski clubhouse in the exclusive resort of Courchevel to help underprivileged children learn to ski, and support other charitable endeavours.

However, the Guardian has found that the ski club boasts that its new clubhouse is “dedicated solely to its members”. When a reporter attempted to join the club they were told “admission requirements” include being approved by two current members, and paying a £25,000 joining fee followed by annual membership fees of £6,000.

The club describes itself as “an exclusive and prestigious club which brings together its members around common passions: skiing, pleasure and the art of living”.

Ratcliffe’s use of a UK charity to fund what appears to be a largely exclusive private members’ club raises questions about whether charitable funds have been used to fulfil its aim of providing a public benefit to a wide audience – or to support the hobby of one of the world’s richest people.

A Charity Commission spokesperson said: “We can confirm that we have opened a regulatory compliance case to assess potential concerns about the governance and management of the Jim Ratcliffe Foundation, and are engaging with the charity’s trustees on these matters.”

Skiers are pictured in Courchevel resort
Courchevel is a popular ski resort in the French Alps. Photograph: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images

The watchdog opened the case after questions from the Guardian about the charity’s work and governance. Launching a regulatory compliance case is not in itself a finding of wrongdoing, but it could lead to a statutory inquiry. The commission said it could not comment further.

The charity watchdog’s rules state that open membership is “essential” if a community amateur sports club is to meet the requirements of providing public benefit that applies to all charities. It has specifically proscribed sports clubs that have “restricted membership” from registering as community amateur sports club (CASC) charities.

A spokesperson for Ratcliffe said any suggestion that the Jim Ratcliffe Foundation was acting improperly or that the clubhouse was not operating in the benefit of the public was “both defamatory and wrong”. However, the spokesperson repeatedly declined to answer detailed questions put to them by the Guardian over several months, and did not explain what was “wrong” with the allegations.

“Ineos completely rejects the allegations relating to the Jim Ratcliffe Foundation made by the Guardian newspaper,” the spokesperson said. “The JRF exists to promote the health and wellbeing of young people, improving the life chances of children and supporting wildlife conservation.

“As part of these charitable activities, the JRF has donated money to the Club des Sports de Courchevel, a local charitable endeavour, to build a new clubhouse and training facilities.”

Ratcliffe’s spokesperson said profits from the clubhouse help pay towards “subsidy of more than 250 local children that now have access to world class training facilities throughout the year”. They pay €350-a-season to train at the club, which they said was much lower than €1,000-a-season cost at other resorts.

The spokesperson for Ratcliffe – a British tax exile with an estimated fortune of more than $15.5bn (£12.6bn) making him the richest living Briton according to the Bloomberg Billionaires index – also rejected suggestions that the clubhouse is private and said the members-only area “makes up less than 4% of the space of the building”.

The charity, which Ratcliffe registered with the Charity Commission in 2019, said in filings that its “focus and initial target” was “creating a long-term partnership with an endowment fund in France whose express aim is in encouraging ‘healthy recreation, by developing the practie of skiing and any other similar physical and sporting activity to reach a wider public audience’, by the promotion of facilities to further these activities”.

“The purpose of the project being undertaken is supporting the building of a new club house for Club des Sports Courchevel, which furthers a key objective of the charity, being to promote amateur sport. The significant investment in this project over an extended period of time will be in the interests of the general public.”

Ratcliffe’s teenage daughter competes at Club Des Sports de Courchevel. Ratcliffe owns a luxury chalet and the four-star Portetta hotel in the resort.

Prospective members of the clubhouse are told that they can take advantage of a tax break on their fees, based on the club’s “mission” to help young people. “Due to the intrinsic mission of the Courchevel Ski Club, members can benefit from a tax deductibility,” they are told.

The charity is registered at the Hampshire address of Ineos Capital, part of Ratcliffe’s multi-billion pound petrochemicals and fracking empire. It lists three trustees with the regulator, all of whom work for Ineos. The Charity Commission advises trustees to “avoid putting yourself in a position where your duty to your charity conflicts with your personal interests or loyalty to any other person or body”.

The new clubhouse, which was opened with a glitzy champagne ceremony in 2021, has been renamed “the Ineos Club House” after the company Ratcliffe founded in 1998, which now generates annual revenue of more than $65bn.

Accounts filed with the Charity Commission show that Ratcliffe personally donated £18.4m to his charity in 2021 and was the only donor. The charity then claimed another £7.4m in gift aid from the tax authorities, taking the total to £25.9m. His charity donated a total of £11.2m to the French endowment fund to support the construction of the new Ineos clubhouse. Accounts state that gift aid was not claimed on “restricted funds” that went to the French charity.

HMRC charity guidelines raise concerns about buildings being renamed after donors. “The naming of the building or part of the building needs to be unsolicited and not expected in return for the donation,” they state.

Ratcliffe’s spokesperson said the clubhouse was renamed in honour of Ineos because “the business has spent a total of £3,116,906.72 helping build it and sponsoring it”.

Bruno Tuaire, the general manager of the club, has said Ratcliffe has been “a regular at the resort for 15 years” and “a partner for eight years”.

Announcing the donation to local media in April 2019, Tuaire said: “This donation is not a surprise. Everything was organised with Mr Ratcliffe. His initial wish was to make us financially independent.”

Didier Barioz, the president of the Club des Sports de Courchevel, said: “The aim of the whole building is to enable the Club des Sports de Courchevel to become financially self-sufficient: all the benefits made from the building with the restaurant or the ski club go directly for the training of the children.”

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