How would you like a glimpse into the future? It may not have been the biggest political story of the day, but that’s exactly what the charity sector got today when the Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) committee held a pre-appointment hearing for Martin Thomas, the government’s preferred candidate for Chair of the Charity Commission. If he does become the next Chair of the Charity Commission, he’ll be responsible for (among other things) setting the policy direction of the Charity Commission and developing relationships with the government, Parliament and the charity sector. So how did he do?
The ghost of Charity Commission Chairs past
The pre-appointment hearing is non-binding, and effectively a formality. However, it can really set the tone for the Chair’s forthcoming term. It’s probably fair to say that the previous Chair of the Charity Commission had a complicated relationship with the sector, and at Tina Stowell’s pre-appointment hearing the committee said that Stowell had “a complete lack of experience” and lacked “any real insight, knowledge or vision”.
Martin Thomas, by contrast has a wealth of experience in the sector and is currently on the board of three charities while also being the chair of NHS Resolution, an arm’s-length body at the Department of Health and Social Care. He displayed a good understanding of the role of the Commission and its relationship with Parliament, and he repeatedly stressed the importance of the independence of the Charity Commission and how it is accountable to Parliament. This is particularly important when we remember that the previous Culture Minister, Oliver Dowden suggested that he would try to influence the recruitment for the next chair and that the next chair would have to “restore charities’ focus to their central purpose”. When asked directly about these comments, Thomas said that he didn’t think that they were necessary, and that the point made by Dowden that charities should stay aligned to their charitable purposes was true, but it was also trite – a small comment that hopefully alleviates fears about this being a political appointment.
The committee seemed keen to avoid a repeat of the previous pre-selection hearing, in which Stowell gave what was described as the “worst interview he had ever seen” by the Chair of the committee and she was appointed without the approval of the committee. Thomas noted that this was an issue throughout Stowell’s tenure that never really went away. When pressed on whether or not he would accept the position if the committee did not recommend him, Thomas didn’t commit to a firm yes or no, and instead said that he would have to look at the committee’s reasoning.
Political with a small ‘p’
Another question raised during the hearing was whether or not Thomas believed that the charity sector had become too political, to which he simply replied “no”. Damien Green posited a vague hypothetical scenario of charities with an educational purpose trying to contextualise statues and objects in relation to the British Empire, to which Thomas replied that the Commission’s role isn’t to second guess, inspect or police how charities do their job.
John Nicholson, another committee member gave examples of abuse he had received from the LGB Alliance which received charitable status and asked if organisations like this could be granted charitable status. Thomas gave what I believe to be one of the most interesting responses here – he first stopped to think and then said that he doesn’t know the answer. That simple act of thinking and admitting that he didn’t know really demonstrated thoughtfulness, humility and maturity that the role (and arguably any leadership role) requires. He then went on to talk in more depth about the Commission’s decision to register LGB Alliance, but stated that as a prospective chair he didn’t want to comment on a legal process as this decision is currently under review.
Diversity was another issue raised during the hearing, and we were told that of the 12 people who applied for the Chair of the Charity Commission, a quarter were women, one-sixth were from an ethnic minority community, and only one declared a disability. Thomas went on to say that he would seek to influence changes on the board (the Chair cannot make changes directly, that responsibility lies with the Culture Minister) and that the board of the regulator should be as diverse as the range of charities it regulates.
Thomas also referred to the trustee body as a whole and said that trusteeship shouldn’t be an extra feather in your cap as a result of being part of the establishment or middle-class life, and the Commission should open up the way it communicates with people so that they don’t feel that there are cultural or societal barriers to becoming a trustee.
Overall, it seems that the prospective chair is a good choice for the role. He has extensive experience with charities, he understands the law that applies to charities, and he displayed a good understanding of the statutory relationship between the Charity Commission and Parliament.
The committee is essentially a formality and doesn’t have the power to veto a preferred candidate. If the appointment goes ahead, Thomas will become the next Chair after the current interim Chair’s term ends on 26 December.
You can view the recording of the meeting here.
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