Why is this a big deal?
The Commission’s objectivity and independence is fundamental to how its legally binding decisions are perceived by charities and for its overall legitimacy within the sector it regulates. There has always been an expectation that the chair and the board will be politically neutral, and that they should possess knowledge of the sector and the law and regulation which supports it. The Commission’s independence is illustrated by its ‘arms-length’ status and accountability to Parliament not particular ministers or governments.
Baroness Stowell has a distinguished CV in many respects, having worked in the Conservative press office during the Major government, in various roles for the BBC, as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Coalition Government and the Leader of the House of Lords. The issue isn’t her personally, or even her particular political affiliation. If Labour were in power and appointing a long-time Labour politician to chair the Commission, the same alarm bells would be clanging.
We have to ask: do such political leopards really change their spots? Do party true believers suddenly set aside their worldview with the stroke of a pen on an employment contract? In her defence, Baroness Stowell has resigned the party whip – but at this point we can only assume that she will perform her role as a politician would: seeing issues through an ideological lens, heavily influenced by short-term media pressures and the opinions of other politicians and policy makers, as well as ‘public opinion’ in terms of what is felt to be ‘popular’ in the moment rather than evidence-based.
The difference between ‘public benefit’ and ‘public opinion’ is central to the regulation of charities. Does Baroness Stowell understand it?
The early signs haven’t been great. Baroness Stowell faced a tough pre-appointment hearing in front of Parliament’s cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Prompted with key lines of enquiry supplied by DSC and others, MPs exposed her lack of experience with charities and minimal understanding of charity law and regulation. She seemed unable to answer basic questions about what the Commission’s strategic priorities should be.
On paper, it’s very difficult to see how her largely political experience is relevant to running an independent, quasi-judicial agency charged with regulating hundreds of thousands of independent charities. Or at least, why she would be a better candidate than someone else with a non-political background and a better understanding of the issues. Unless, of course, politics are precisely the reason why she was chosen?
MPs on the DCMS committee seemed to share this view, and unanimously refused to endorse her candidacy – which is extremely rare. After the Culture Secretary Matt Hancock announced that government would press forward regardless, the Conservative chair of the committee, Damien Collins, wrote again to his fellow Tory to raise their concerns. The response was basically: computer says no. Everything’s fine. We’re going ahead.
A dangerous trend is developing
What’s going on here? Is this just a snafu – government running a messy process and not wanting to back down and lose face? Blatant nepotism? Part of an agenda to control a sector that is viewed by some Conservatives as an irritating opponent, or in need of a strong corrective hand? Are there internal factional tussles at play within government? Or is Baroness Stowell really the best person they could find to fill the post, as the esteemed Julia Unwin argued?
Either way, this appointment confirms a trend that began with her predecessor: government asserting greater control over the Commission by appointing people with the ‘right’ political views to govern it. Put simply, it has chosen one of its own.
We must all be on our guard
Baroness Stowell may be a wonderful person and could turn out to be a very effective chair. It’s nothing personal, but DSC won’t be giving her the benefit of the doubt. From our perspective, the ball’s now in her court to convince charities that she can lead an independent regulator, in a way that is based on evidence and the law, not political bias and party loyalty.
The cornerstones of independent charity regulation risk being eroded. DSC will be on guard, scrutinising every decision. We encourage others to do the same.