In a series of helpful tweets by Julia Unwin, who was on the Panel recommending Baroness Stowell as preferred candidate as Chair of the Charity Commission, she affirmed that there had been a rigorous process and that Stowell had given an excellent interview and received unanimous support from the Panel as the best candidate. Unwin received a cool response from Baroness Glenys Thornton, Shadow Health Minister in the Lords:
“It really is not seen to be an independent person you have appointed. Perception is important”.
Baroness Thornton has hit the nail on the head, leaving us all in the sector and beyond in a quandary.
Before continuing, and for the sake of complete transparency, I disclose that I applied for the post myself and was not shortlisted. I make no complaint; though I believed in my application, I could give you some good reasons for preferring others, and I have learned over the years that when one door closes, others open. But if you think that anything that I say on this subject is bound to be contaminated by sour grapes, please stop reading now.
For those still reading, it is ironical that over the years NCVO has taken the lead in insisting that perception (not necessarily reality) of party political bias is detrimental to the work and effectiveness of the Charity Commission. That was the core reason for their 2015 proposals for reform of the appointments system. Now they are saying that we should accept and welcome Baroness Stowell as Chair but continue to seek reform of the process. But right now the issue is whether or not to welcome, accept or resist the appointment of this particular candidate, in the light of Baroness Thornton’s irrefutable objection.
As NCVO has explained so well, perception of party political bias is a destructive force, blighting the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Commission. Suzi Leather will I am sure have given a wonderful interview to her Panel and has brilliant gifts, but her tenure as Chair was compromised in key respects by the fact that she was a Labour Party member and perceived to be close to the Labour Government. William Shawcross is also found by many to be a thoroughly good egg and a person of courtesy and integrity, but his perceived closeness to Conservative circles, his vocal hostility to the Labour Party in recent publications and the fact that he was only supported by a slim majority of the Select Committee split on party lines cast a shadow over his effectiveness. History therefore tells us not to place unlimited faith in a successful interview before a public appointments panel of excellent people like Julia.
After all, Suzi Leather was a mere Party member. William Shawcross, too, had never had a formal Conservative Party role nor been a member. But Baroness Stowell has worked in the engine room of the Conservative Party Leader and has herself recently actually led the Conservatives in the House of Lords. In my view, confirmed by Glenys Thornton, it is simply impossible to see that such a person can ever be perceived to be “demonstrably independent”, however professional and dispassionate she may well be in person, just as Suzi Leather was (as I know from personal experience) and just as I gather that William Shawcross was too. So we are now asked to welcome someone with a far more conspicuous and unambiguous party political background than any other Charity Commission Chair in history. Each time Baroness Stowell sits down as Chair of Charity Commission, a very large elephant will sit down beside her.
On her other side will sit a slightly smaller elephant. This is the unanimous verdict of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, led by its Conservative Chair, that they could not support her candidature. Only one of these reasons was the party political perception problem. Another was the very sparse knowledge and experience she was able to demonstrate of the charity sector. With our experience of the Shawcross years, and the continuing relative scarcity of people on the Board with significant charity sector experience, this too is a non-trivial obstacle. Another was what the Committee unanimously felt was an unconvincing performance in answering their respectful and pertinent questioning. Everyone will for ever know that she was unable to convince even one member of the Committee to support her. What a dreadful way to start a public appointment.
Some including Julia Unwin have said how suspicious they are of politicians second-guessing the decisions of an independent Panel and rigorous process. But there are two sound reasons why the Select Committee is assigned a role in the process. Firstly, the Commission is accountable to Parliament, not the Government of the day. Parliament, yes, politicians, across party lines, represent the public interest in a flourishing charity sector. The Commission is a non Ministerial public body, independent of the Government of the day. That is why NCVO assigned to Parliament in their 2015 reform proposals a much more important role to a cross Party Parliamentary Committee than the one it has today. So Parliament’s considered view really matters.
Secondly, politicians may be more attuned to the issue of party political perceptions than the non-political Panel members. They may understand best how politically loaded the role of the Commission is: think of public schools, political campaigning, whether think tanks are charities, whether a particular religion is charitable, whether a charity infringes party political neutrality, and so on. They may understand that someone who has had such high profile party political roles has a mountain too steep and difficult to climb. Politicians have their own expertise in this crucial dimension, which is not to be pooh-poohed. And if there is a role for a Select Committee in the process for good reasons, Ministers should not carry on as if its careful inquiry had never happened.
My simple conclusion, disentangling these core issues from the fake news about the Panel’s views that was also circulating before being corrected by Julia Unwin, is that this appointment is wrong. Each umbrella body, each charity, each person who treasures the public interest in the charity sector and wants it regulated in the most effective way possible should now ask themselves: do we keep tactical silence? Do we pretend to ignore the two elephants accompanying the preferred candidate as she enters the Commission offices in Petty France? Do we hope that the candidate will withdraw? Depending on your role, it is a quandary. But it is not the characteristic of most of civil society to go along too quietly with something that affects them and their causes deeply and which they believe to be wrong.