The Charity Commission needs a low-key, non-political Chair

Many of us in the charity sector are enjoying the relatively calm and business-like approach of the Charity Commission while it has an a-political Chair.

The last two Chairs had, in the case of William Shawcross, publicly stated that it would be a disaster for Britain if Gordon Brown were to win the General Election, and, in the case of Baroness Tina Stowell, led the Conservative Party in the House of Lords. Neither of them had very impressive experience of the breadth and depth of the world of charities. In my opinion, the charity sector itself and the public interest would have been better served during their tenure if they had said absolutely nothing publicly, since what they did say was so frequently ill-thought-through, of poor quality, destabilising and quite often an embarrassment to their own staff. Dame Suzi Leather was as the previous Chair in a different class in my view, but because she was a Labour Party member as well as quite prominent in public, her tenure was marred by perceptions that she too (and therefore the Commission) was politically biased, especially in relation to public benefit and fee-paying schools.

Since Baroness Stowell stepped down after one term in February, an interim Chair, one of the legal Board members of the Commission’s Board, has taken on the functions of the Chair but without trying to cut a dash in public. I do not know how well he is doing, but the truth is that you don’t need to be quoted in the newspapers to bring the best out of the members of the Board by good chairing, making sound appointments, exercising wise judgement about how best to deal with issues, and supporting and if necessary challenging the Chief Executive. The Chief Executive is fully able to make public statements where necessary.

Indeed, since February, even if individual charities may have had cause for complaint, we’ve had a sensible and stabilising blog from the Chief Executive reiterating the Commission’s position on political activity and the proper parameters of charity law, as set out in the relevant guidance (CC9), which the last two political Chairs had explicitly or implicitly confused and undermined in many speeches. We’ve had technocratic improvements to the Register of Charities, giving the public additional information. We’ve had a regulatory alert to international development charities, reflecting existing best practice in that sector, about preventing exploitation and abuse. This avoided hyperbole and emphasised how the Commission had been working closely with Government and sector representatives and individual charities in preparing the alert. And we’ve had helpful updating of the guidance on running a charity during the COVID 19 pandemic, with the Commission’s answers to Frequently Asked Questions.

What we have not had is muddled and populist public messaging from the Chair. I guess nobody inside or beyond the Commission has missed this.

The Commission’s best contribution to the public interest in a thriving charitable sector flows from its independence, of the sector, of the Government of the day and of politicized quarrels; precision and clarity in its guidance; justice, consistency and calm in its quasi-judicial and investigative roles; and sticking in all this to the remit that Parliament has given it, drawing on its true area of authority and expertise. That is not analysis of public opinion or the creation of simplistic headlines, but its unique access to all charities in all subject areas, its data, its vast knowledge of the law and the sector, its ability to defuse mines and root out wrong-doing, and its power to coordinate the assessment and promotion of good practice.

A low-profile, non-political team player with no ambitions on public profile is much more likely to lead the Commission successfully in achieving those aims than someone who feels the urge to be a public prophet and is known to belong to one political tribe or another. The last thing a non-Ministerial department needs is a Chair who wants to behave like a Minister.

So let’s enjoy the interregnum. And will those responsible for recommending applicants for the Chair to the Minister please think very, very carefully about appointing a capable conductor of a well-established orchestra, not a solo trumpeter who likes to improvise his or her own tunes?


3 thoughts on “The Charity Commission needs a low-key, non-political Chair

  1. Very good to see you back in print, Andrew – and as articulate and forceful as ever.

    I wonder why the delay in appointing a new chair. Even if the interregnum is proving quite a good thing, it seems strange that the government hasn’t found someone suitable (to them at least). It seems unlikely they have found any sense of shame! In any case, given both their propensity to appoint inadequate cronies and what you say about the interregnum, probably the longer the delay the better.

    I hope you and Jenny and the family are all well. Kathy and I are still down in deep West Berks. Sorry you can’t make it to the next Amner meeting but enjoy your break.




  2. You are absolutely right and so wise to point all this out, I am afraid I had failed to register the lack of noise from the Charity Commission or its link to Lady Stowell’s absence but on reflection it has been very welcome as has the much improved web site, which I had also failed to connect to Lady Stowell’s departure, perhaps the government will decide to leave the present temporary incumbent in place – or is that too much to hope for?


    • Thank you Deborah. I think they are committed to finding a long term replacement, so unless he applied I don’t think the current interim will remain in the chair – but let’s hope they choose someone with of a similar a-political and low profile! Hope all is well with you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s