Policy, campaigns & research

Charities fight back against threats to their independence

DSC’s Director of Policy and Research, Jay Kennedy, explains in this article why the independence of the Charity Commission and of the charities it regulates is so important, how it is threatened by these actions, and what you can do to help.

In an op ed a few weeks ago the former Culture Minister Oliver Dowden made deeply flawed statements about charities and signalled his attempt to influence the recruitment process for the next Chair of the Charity Commission.

Citing a handful of examples, Dowden claimed there is a ‘worrying trend’ of charities being ‘hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials’, and that they were ‘hunting for divisions’. He went on to proclaim that the next Chair must ‘restore charities’ focus to their central purpose’ and that ‘candidates will be tested on how they will harness the oversight powers of the Commission to commence this rebalancing’.

It was such a bad article that I don’t want to give it any more web traffic, though it was subsequently published on gov.uk so maybe that horse has bolted. Throughout, the article demonstrated a profound lack of understanding of charity law and the system of charity regulation in the UK, totally misrepresented the nature of recent government support for charities during the pandemic, and appeared to conflict with key principles around public appointments such as appointing on ‘merit’, and standards in public life such as ‘objectivity’.

The Charity Commission is accountable to Parliament, not the government of the day, and its independence must be protected. Why? Because the independence of individual charities is absolutely critical to a healthy and functioning civil society in a democracy like ours.

Ministers do have the right to make public appointments to regulators like the Charity Commission and other arms-length bodies under the current system. But they don’t have the right to shape regulatory priorities or strategy by the back door, or to skew the reading of the law in ways Parliament did not intend by attempting to influence appointments processes based on their own political ideology. Ministers make appointments on behalf of Parliament, which they are accountable to, not on behalf of a political party. And they certainly do not have the right to right to direct the activities of individual charities or to interfere in the Commission’s regulatory actions.

Pretending this isn’t an issue won’t make it go away. At the Charity Commission’s recent Annual Public Meeting, Chief Executive Helen Stephenson was asked about Dowden’s intervention. In her response she reiterated a line from her introductory speech: ‘The Commission does not, and must not, examine people’s world views or ideologies before deciding whether they have a right to have their concerns examined by us’.

On its face that appears reasonable and correct, but seriously let’s get real here. It’s not about ‘people’s world views or ideologies’ as such, it’s about the source. The Culture Minister is not just any person. They have influence over the Commission’s budget and governance, and access to the media. Nor are the individual or groups of MPs that have attacked the National Trust, for example, just regular members of the public. They have voice and influence – power – that most others do not.

The Charity Commission must not be seen to prioritise the ‘concerns’ of politicians or certain newspapers above those of others. It must be impartial – not just in the application of the law, but in the prioritisation of regulatory actions and where limited resources are allocated. Far from a trend towards ‘woke charities’, the real trend over recent years suggests that regulatory impartiality is coming under greater and greater political pressure.

We need to remember that the Charity Commission is a quasi-judicial body. It has substantial powers to make enforcement actions, wind up charities, direct the use of charitable assets and ban trustees – volunteers – from doing things. Its decisions can affect the rights of individuals to participate in civil society. These are already strong powers to regulate voluntary action – arguably stronger than exist in any other free society on the planet.

All of this is why DSC has supported an open letter to Dowden’s successor, Nadine Dorries MP, who took over as Culture Minister during the recent government reshuffle. The letter has been published by the Good Law Project, which has launched a legal challenge arguing that the former Culture Minister breached the Charities Act, rules on public appointments, and potentially the Equality Act in his article. They are now awaiting a response from DCMS to their initial notice of legal action. We sincerely hope the new Minister steers a much different course than her predecessor.

DSC believes charity is too important not to make our voices heard on this. There are some simple things you can do to lend your support, which don’t need to take up loads of time:

  • Sign the petition launched by the Good Law Project
  • Share the petition and the article in inews with your contacts and networks
  • Share your actions and views on social media – use @GoodLawProject on Twitter and Instagram, and @GoodLawProject.org on Facebook

The ball is now in the Government’s court. Stay tuned to @DSC_Charity and our enews for the latest, and we will keep you informed as the story develops.