New year, new chair? Not for the Charity Commission, apparently. The refreshingly apolitical, sector-experienced grown-up whose appointment had been welcomed with a collective sigh of relief across Charityville has been forced to withdraw before he had even begun, routed by an impressive bit of investigation from the Good Law Project.
Not only had Martin Thomas been the subject of three formal complaints during his five-year tenure as chair of the charity Women for Women International, one of which saw him named in a serious incident report to the very regulator he was hoping to lead, but there is also a distinct whiff of Tory chumocracy in the air, as it was alleged that he is a friend of the prime minister. Cynics might speculate that this is why the secretary of state appointed him without taking any references from the charity and why the due diligence process was so deficient. MPs from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee will undoubtedly be trying to get to the bottom of this at their hearing into high-profile public appointments on 11 January (see editor's note), after G&L goes to press.
Thankfully, the day-to-day running of the Commission still appears to be one step removed from the proclamations of whoever is in post as chair. With a few angry exceptions, charities generally seem to consider that the Commission does a fair job of regulating the loose and baggy monster that is our sector – its staff are deemed, by and large, to be decent, experienced professionals doing a difficult job as best they can.
The chair role, on the other hand, appears to have morphed into little more than a mouthpiece for Conservative anti-woke, stick-to-your-knitting rhetoric, increasingly delivered – in the immortal words of the Directory of Social Change’s policy chief Jay Kennedy – in an “insufferably patronising, moralising, hectoring, lecturing tone”.
The problem for ministers now is how they will ever find someone for the job that will both satisfy their political motives and be accepted by the sector. Regulators need to inspire the confidence of the industries they regulate, and sector confidence in the chair of the Commission was hanging by a thread even before the Thomas debacle. Now, we can be certain that anyone appointed to the post by the current administration will be subjected to forensic scrutiny by the sector and its allies, and will likely struggle to command respect. The very position has become so tainted in the eyes of charities – so steeped in cronyism, politicking and controversy – that it is now surely a poisoned chalice.
But maybe this latest fiasco is what was needed to show the government that doggedly pursuing a partisan agenda for a role that ought to be independent simply doesn’t work, and that it needs to follow a different pattern. We can only hope. The Good Law Project and NCVO have both called for the recruitment process to be restarted from scratch in order to attract a more diverse range of candidates, but so far DCMS has only said it will “take steps to appoint a new chair”. The post has already been vacant for nearly a year and interim chair Ian Karet has now had his term extended until June, so at least charities are getting some respite from the galling distractions that have emanated from the top of the Commission in recent years.
Governand & Leadership went to press before the DCMS select committee meeting. Read our coverage of that session here:
- Shawcross accused of prejudicing his own inquiry into Charity Commission process
- Officials admit to ‘astounded’ MPs that they could have done more to vet Martin Thomas