Finally, a chink of light in this otherwise dismal year. No, I don't mean the vaccine. No, I don't mean Joe Biden's election. (OK, maybe 2020 is not quite as dismal as it was pretending to be.) But this is a charity sector publication and so I'm talking about Baroness Stowell announcing that she will not seek a second term as chair of the Charity Commission. She will be gone at the end of February.
Stowell’s standing with the sector Twitterati hit a new low last month after she told the YouTube audience at the Commission’s annual meeting that the biggest challenge facing charities in the pandemic was to command public trust, and reminded them to show “humility”. It sank even lower after her interview with the Telegraph where she implied that the National Trust was straying from its core purpose by examining its properties’ historical links with slavery. The chorus of collective disapproval from the sector was deafening; words like “abysmal”, “insulting” and “out of touch” were used to describe the regulator’s leadership.
So it was a relief to learn that the Baroness will leave her post after one term. Less consoling was her assurance to the Telegraph that her approach has “taken root” in the Commission and that whoever follows in her footsteps “is going to need to continue”.
The worst thing about the regulator’s intervention at the National Trust – apart from the obvious racist overtones and parroting of Conservative MPs’ views – is the timing. The Trust is currently mired in the biggest redundancy programme in its 125-year history, a torrid experience for any organisation. Having to answer questions from the regulator at this time over something that will surely never amount to a formal investigation – no matter how the Telegraph tries to characterise it – is nothing more than an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction for its leaders and staff.
By coincidence, just before the Commission’s annual meeting there was an important Charity Tribunal ruling which found that the regulator had overstepped its remit in appointing interim managers to a Sikh charity. The Sikh Channel Community Broadcasting Company successfully challenged the move, forcing the regulator to remove the interim managers and advertise instead for new trustees.
Those with long memories will recall that the courts made similar judgments in the cases of the Independent Schools Council, when the Commission’s guidance to charitable schools on public benefit was found to be wrong in law and obscure, and in the case of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, when the regulator tried to fetter indefinitely the Trust’s discretion to fund Cage, a campaign group that opposes the government’s Prevent anti-terrorism policy. In both cases, judges reinforced the duty of trustees to direct their charity’s activities within the boundaries of the law, and effectively batted away the regulator’s attempts to wrest that control from them.
Legal action against the regulator should always be a last resort, but so long as the chair of the Charity Commission remains effectively a government stooge, charities can take some comfort from the fact that the courts still uphold the independence of charities – even if the regulator can’t always resist overstepping the mark.
Good riddance, 2020
As we go to press, England is just beginning its second national lockdown and Covid-19 is continuing to wreak its havoc upon charities across the UK. The prime minister has said he will “do much more over the winter” to support charities; we shall see. News of an effective vaccine and the unseating of President Trump were undoubtedly welcome shards of light in an otherwise dark period. This is the last edition of G&L for 2020 – we look forward to seeing you back in 2021, for what we can only hope will be a better year.
Tania Mason, editor, Governance & Leadership