Strategy and planning, Government and the Voluntary Sector, Management & leadership

Charity Commission chair: sector leaders call for party political neutrality in the appointment process

ACEVO has coordinated a letter from ten charity sector organisations, including DSC, to the chair of the DCMS Select Committee. The signatories request that transparency, accountability and political neutrality be prioritised in the appointment process for the next chair of the Charity Commission. You can read the full letter below.

3 November 2020

Dear Mr Knight,

Transparency, accountability and independence in the appointment process for chair of the Charity Commission

We are writing as a coalition of leaders of charity membership and infrastructure bodies following the recent announcement that the current chair of the Charity Commission will not be standing for a second term in the role. We understand that the recruitment for her successor will begin shortly. We therefore want to take this opportunity to share our concerns with you about the lack of transparency and accountability in previous appointment processes, and the increasing party politicisation of the Charity Commission chair role.

Transparency, accountability and party political neutrality must be prioritised in this recruitment process, to restore trust across the sector that the non-executive of its regulator will act politically impartially.

A history of party political appointments

In 2018, following Baroness Stowell’s pre-appointment scrutiny hearing, the DCMS select committee unanimously recommended against her appointment due to serious concerns about her experience and political associations. The select committee’s report stated that “Lady Stowell’s experience in the charity sector is, to put it bluntly, negligible”. It also highlighted her long career in high-ranking government office, stating that “Baroness Stowell was unable to give us concrete examples of where she has demonstrated independence or neutrality.”

We were disappointed that the then Secretary of State did not heed the legitimate concerns of the committee, and proceeded with the appointment of Baroness Stowell without sufficiently addressing the points raised.

However, this is not the first time that concerns about the impartiality of the role of chair of the Charity Commission have arisen. William Shawcross and Dame Suzi Leather both faced criticism for their connections to the Conservative and Labour parties respectively. There is an opportunity now to break this pattern and prioritise the appointment of a candidate who is not a prominent member of, and has not held political office in, any party.

An independent, accountable, expert regulator

It is of vital importance that the non-executive of the Charity Commission understands the charity sector and the diversity of organisations within it. The chair of the regulator should demonstrate expert knowledge of the sector and of regulation and should carry this work out with independence from party politics. Fair, rigorous and transparent regulation builds trust in the sector and enables charities to have greater impact.

In recent years many people volunteering and working in the charity sector have voiced concerns about comments made by Baroness Stowell that the Charity Commission should not just consider whether a charity is meeting its legal requirements, but also whether it is ‘meeting public expectation’. This is a significant shift from the function of the regulator as defined by Parliament. As former Charity Commission board member Andrew Purkis has said: “Their [Charity Commission’s] preference for undefined ‘charity’ reflects a desire to spread their remit to embrace what they refer to as ‘the spirit of charity’[…] It is not what Parliament tasked them to do, nor do they have authority and legitimacy in this vast moral arena.”

Charities understand that their regulator will hold them to account, challenge them and disagree with them. However, they expect that the Commission will do this work with expertise and political independence at the highest levels of the organisation, and a clear commitment to the legal remits of regulation. Where these expectations have not been met trust between charities and their regulator has been damaged, and we would like to see that trust rebuilt.

As the recruitment process begins, we hope that all stages will be grounded in transparency, accountability and impartiality. We would appreciate your support in publicly calling for the same. We also ask that the DCMS Select Committee includes a review of the appointment process in the ongoing inquiry into the work of the Charity Commission. This will reassure the sector that any concerns which arise during the appointment process will be appropriately examined by a group of cross-party representatives.

Whoever takes over as chair of the Charity Commission will be responsible for regulating a sector which delivers services that, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, are never more needed. This recruitment process is an opportunity to reset the relationship between charities and the non-executive of the Charity Commission, and to end 14 years of criticism about party political appointments.

Yours sincerely,

  • Vicky Browning, chief executive, ACEVO
  • Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive, Directory for Social Change
  • Caron Bradshaw, chief executive, Charity Finance Group
  • Rita Chadha, chief executive, Small Charities Coalition
  • Kathy Evans, chief executive, Children England
  • Jane Ide, chief executive, NAVCA
  • Carol Mack, chief executive, ACF
  • Robin Osterley, chief executive, Charity Retail Association
  • Matt Plen, chief executive, Masorti Judaism
  • Sue Tibballs, chief executive, Sheila McKechnie Foundation

Originally published on ACEVO website.