What sort of person does Parliament and the public deserve to have as the next Chair of the Charity Commission (the Chair), succeeding Baroness Tina Stowell who will stand down next February?
In addressing this question I am building on the excellent letter of 3 November from charity leaders co-ordinated by ACEVO – but adding a few points, drawing on my experience as a Charity Commission Board Member as well as within the charity sector, and, as an individual, allowing myself to be a bit more forthright:
The Appointments System
The current system for appointing the Chair is deeply flawed. The Charity Commission is accountable to Parliament and is a Non- Ministerial Public Body. Yet Ministers have excessive influence over the process and take the final decision. Last time, shockingly, the relevant Minister, Matt Hancock, stuck two fingers up to the unanimous view of the House of Commons Select Committee on the DCMS (The Select Committee) that Baroness Stowell should not be appointed, and appointed her anyway. As the ACEVO letter rightly says, the result of the system has been political appointments of successive Chairs with damagingly close associations with the governing political party of the day. NCVO made proposals for reforming the system in 2015 but these have not gained traction. We are therefore stuck with a flawed system. But that is no reason not to try to influence it for the good.
What is the Job?
For goodness’ sake, can the job and person spec be based rigorously on the tasks of the Charity Commission as set down by Parliament in the Charities Act? No more nonsense, pace William Shawcross, about the Commission’s being essentially a policeman! (The mandate clearly includes encouraging good practice in multiple dimensions.) No more mission creep, pace Baroness Stowell! (The Chair is not the Archbishop of Canterbury.) No more one-eyed focus on the trust and confidence objective alone when Parliament identified four others of equal importance! Stick to the Act – please.
Key Qualities of the next Chair
Here are four essential qualities of the next Chair, on top of the Nolan Principles of Public Life and the generic competencies required by leaders of any public body:
- In depth knowledge and understanding of the charity sector (Essential). It is not enough to have been a Trustee of a couple of organisations. The Chair must have an informed understanding of the remit assigned to the Commission in the Charities Act – including all five of its objectives – and command respect from the Charity Commission staff and major stakeholders (including the sector) in interpreting that remit in practice. The Chair must grasp the utterly varied contribution of different types of charities, in different subject areas, to the life of the nation, and honour its diversity. We cannot have another Chair with a limited stereotype of what the charity sector is and does. Can you imagine any other Regulator to which the powers that be appoint someone as Chair who knows little about the subject to be regulated?
- Independence of Political Partisanship (Essential). The credibility of successive Chairs of the Commission has been compromised by visible party political associations, undermining perceptions of independence and impartiality. Party political neutrality is particularly important for the Regulator of a sector which itself must by law avoid party political bias.
- Independent-minded commitment to the public interest (Essential). The Commission must be seen to be accountable to Parliament and to the public interest, not the interests of charities, nor the interests of the Government of the day. The Chair must demonstrate robust independence of mind and commitment to the public good as interpreted by Parliament and the courts. The Chair must be able to communicate effectively the nature of the public interest in a thriving charity sector, and distinguish this from gusts of popular opinion.
- Track Record of Governance of a similarly large, complex organisation in the public eye (Essential). The Chair should understand how such an organisation works, respect the distinctive expertise and role of the staff, offering a balance of support, affirmation and challenge, and should foster shared understanding and commitment amongst Board members and the Executive. Ego and solo performances should be subordinated to the Commission’s collective purpose, bringing out the strengths of other Board members and staff. The Chair must have sufficient experience of the media to be un-phased by media squalls and deal calmly, deftly and proportionately with matters of topical sensation and debate.
How can the current appointments system deliver?
There are four requirements, aimed at producing a Chair with those qualities, that could be met even in the current system:
- There should be a person specification for this job that is a product of consultation with key stakeholders including the Select Committee and sector representatives. It should include all four essentials noted above.
- The Public Appointments Panel should continue to include someone with extensive personal knowledge and experience of charities (as has, to be fair, been the case in recent Chair appointments)
- The Panel and the Secretary of State should stick to the published person specification, especially the qualities marked as Essential. That might seem obvious, but last time we ended up with the recent Leader of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords, even though the person spec had specified someone “demonstrably independent”! That candidate also had very sparse knowledge and experience of the charity sector even though that requirement was in the person spec, too.
- Because the Commission is accountable to Parliament and is non-Ministerial, the appointment process should be carried out in the spirit of a collaborative venture with the Select Committee on behalf of Parliament. The Select Committee should have input into the person spec as well as interviewing the recommended candidate before the appointment. The Minister should be satisfied that the successful candidate has cross party support in the Select Committee. Never again should the Commission, and the sector it regulates, be damaged by a Chair who has been supported in Parliament only by the majority Party on the Select Committee (William Shawcross) or whose candidature was rejected by that Committee altogether (Baroness Stowell).
Trustees need a good Regulator
I am writing in Trustees Week. Life has been harder than it should have been for many Trustees as a result of poor, political Ministerial appointments that have neglected the essential characteristics outlined here. It doesn’t have to be that way. In a triumph of faith over experience, can we hope that all involved in this appointment will make the flawed appointment system work for the public interest?