Orlando Fraser: more questions

Orlando Fraser is the Government’s preferred candidate as Chair of the Charity Commission for England and Wales. In my last blog I set out why, owing to his party political associations and poor track record as a legal Board member of the Commission in the past, he is not in my view a suitable person for the job.

Emails from Commission members to each other, published by Third Sector magazine on 19 November 2015, add further doubts. Orlando Fraser, though supposed to be a legal Board member with a special remit to ensure high standards of legal propriety in the work of the Commission, took the lead in traducing the Trustees of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (“Do they even realise they are a charity?”) and pushing to open a full-blown statutory inquiry into that long established Quaker charity.This was remarkable, because the Commission itself had just told the Trust that they were about to close the (non-statutory) compliance case with which the Trustees had fully and openly co-operated.

Fraser and other Board members had become extremely excited and troubled by the news that CAGE, a non-charitable advocacy body who had previously received grants from Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust for charitable parts of its promotion of human rights, had at one stage mentored the man who subsequently became known as “Jihadi John”. Spurred on by public and media indignation, Fraser outlined a new theory of “robust regulation”: “This is the form of robust regulation we have been talking about”, he wrote: “legally open to challenge (perhaps), but fundamentally necessary, in the sector’s interest, heart in the right place, and would be 100 per cent supported by the public”. Here is a legal Board member pressing a quasi-judicial body to act potentially unlawfully in order to send messages to the public and respond to public opinion.

Thankfully Fraser’s militant advocacy for a statutory inquiry, on a compliance case that was nearly completed, was in the end rejected. But the underlying fondness for what the NCVO was to call “regulation by red top” remained. Even handed, cool-headed administration of justice was out. Excitable responses to “public opinion” were in.

The previous preferred candidate, Martin Thomas, told the Committee that the best way of promoting public trust and confidence in charities in the long run is for the Commission to do its core job professionally and effectively, from a rigorously independent standpoint, with a constant eye on charity law. The Orlando Fraser version is different: never mind too much what might be subject to legal challenge, show the public (or particular parts of the public or Parliament) we shall respond to their concerns. That is what led to the debacles with the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the effort to fetter the discretion of its Trustees, and with the EU Referendum that had to be re-written.

The Commission, the charity sector and the public do not need excitable populism at the helm. They need a cool head, wise judgement, and a commitment to justice and fairness in the regulation of charities.


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