Dowden’s message to candidates was ‘true, but trite’, government's pick says 

09 Dec 2021 News

Front door of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Fergus Burnett

A suggestion that the chair of the Charity Commission should make sure organisations follow their purposes is “true, but trite”, the government’s preferred candidate has said. 

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee held the pre-appointment hearing for Martin Thomas, the government’s preferred candidate, this morning. 

Ahead of interviews taking place, Oliver Dowden, then the culture secretary, wrote an opinion article for the Telegraph urging candidates to focus on a  “rebalancing” away from woke agendas. 

When asked about this article, Thomas said: “I didn’t think that it was necessary.” 

He added: “The core point, if you take all the rhetoric away, is that the Charity Commission should be led by a board, chaired by someone who thinks that charities should stay aligned to their charitable purposes.  

“That’s true, but it’s also trite.” 

Thomas said it was not helpful to focus on the issue of whether something is “woke”.

He explained: “To overlay that truth with dialogue about woke and anti-woke is extremely complicated because these are clearly loose terms used in the debate about society and they have no place in a regulatory dialogue or conversation.” 

He also said he had seen no charities actually having “stepped out of line” when it came to this issue, and that the word “woke” was not used during the interview process. 

Are charities too political?

Labour MP Tony Green asked if “parts of the charity sector have become too political?”

Thomas replied: “No I don’t.” 

When questioned further he added: “I’m not saying no charity has ever strayed over the line.” 

He highlighted existing Commission guidance on campaigning, but said that because society is “in a state of flux” and “everybody’s trying to work out whether and how to find their voice”, there will be times when “outliers” get it wrong.  

Diversity challenges 

Of the people who applied for the role three quarters of them were men, one sixth from a BAME background and just one declared a disability. 

When asked if he knew why the numbers were low, he said he did not have an explanation. But said as chair he would seek to work with the secretary of state to ensure diversity in future. 

Thomas agreed that lack of diversity is “an issue that we need to address in the charity space at large”. 

He said he had a “modest track record in having a keen eye to diversity” and that it was important not just for moral, but for operational benefits. 

“There needs to be a certain empathy between the board and the community its addressing,” he said. “If a charity has a board completely at odds with its donor base or beneficiary base or both they will fall foul of that.”

Thomas argued that being a trustee should not be an “extra feather in your cap” if you are middle class or part of the establishment. 

“It should be something that is for everyone. The enthusiasm and passion and commitment that drives charities necessarily means you have to draw the whole of society,” he said. 

One way he thinks the Commission can help is by changing the way it communicates with trustees to make trusteeship feel more accessible. 

“The result will be a better charity sector,” he said. 

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