MPs to question officials after incoming Charity Commission chair quits

10 Jan 2022 News

Martin Thomas, the next chair of the Charity Commission

Martin Thomas withdrew from his appointment as chair of the Charity Commission, after allegations in the Times that he had behaved inappropriately while running Women for Women International. 

William Shawcross, commissioner for public appointments, and three senior officials will now appear before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee tomorrow to face questions about the recruitment process

Charities have serious concerns about the due diligence of the recruitment process and the Good Law Project has written to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) demanding transparency about the process, and what had been disclosed. 

Three complaints 

On Friday 17 December - a week after Thomas had been confirmed in the role - the Times published details of three formal complaints made between 2019 and 2021 while Thomas was chair of Women for Women.

One complaint was partially upheld and a serious incident report was submitted to the Charity Commission.

According to reports, Thomas accidently sent a photo to a female employee that showed him in Victoria's Secret holding a mannequin wearing a black thong, which he captioned: "Two sides of the story." 

The incident occurred in late 2018 when the charity was considering taking a donation from Victoria's Secret. Thomas told the Times that he had meant to send it to the chief executive and had apologised to the employee immediately. 

After the employee submitted a complaint, trustees investigated but found Thomas had not breached the code of conduct. 

Thomas was later cleared of wrongdoing after a second complaint about his conduct. 

A third complaint, made in March this year, concerned an aggressive phone call to an employee, the Times said.

Women for Women called in an external investigator and informed the Charity Commission. It told the Times: "The investigation concluded that the chair's actions were not deliberate bullying but that the complaint was partly upheld insofar as aspects of the chair's conduct were judged to have been inappropriate. In view of this, the board concluded that it would be appropriate to ask that he step down as chair with immediate effect." 

However, Thomas resigned before he was asked. He told the Times: "In my role overseeing 14 charities during a 30-year career, I have had to make tough decisions which can make me unpopular." 

He added: "I have never deliberately set out to offend anyone and my passion to improve the sector is borne out of a desire to do public good."

Links to Boris Johnson

The Times also highlighted a number of links between the prime minister, Boris Johnson, and Thomas.

Firstly, they both studied at Oxford at the same time during the 1980s.

Then in 2013 City Hall records show that Thomas, in his capacity as a trustee of Downside Up, gifted Johnson a Takema watch. 

Downside Up also lists Johnson as a patron. 

One of the panel members who interviewed Thomas is a Conservative Party donor. 

Good Law Project: 'Grave questions about the process' 

The Good Law Project began legal action against DCMS earlier this year over an opinion article written by Oliver Dowden, which it believes interfered with the process. 

In light of the allegations, it said there are "grave questions about the integrity of the process". 

The Good Law Project's legal team has written to DCMS seeking information about the process

'Massively disappointing and deeply worrying'

Charities had broadly welcomed Thomas' appointment. But following his withdrawal many charity leaders expressed shock and raised concerns about the level of due diligence that had been done. 

NCVO called for the whole process to be re-run to enable a more diverse pool of candidates to come forward.  

In a statement on Twitter, NCVO, said it was "shocked".

It added: "That this did not come to light through the recruitment process raises serious questions about the due diligence undertaken, particularly in light of a serious incident report having been submitted to the Commission." 

Others echoed this sentiment. 

Responding to NCVO's statement, Paul Reddish, chief executive of Volunteering Matters, said: "This raises so many questions, some beyond the incident itself. The entire process needs a review for this to have been missed." 

Vicky Browing, CEO of ACEVO, said: "This is both massively disappointing and deeply worrying." 

Jon Cornejo, an organiser at #CharitySoWhite, said there were questions for the sector to answer. 

DCMS: 'All due process was followed' 

In a statement DCMS said: "We accept the resignation of Martin Thomas as chair of the Charity Commission. 

"Martin has acknowledged his error of judgement during the application process and we acknowledge that he entered the process in good faith, without looking to mislead.

"All due process was followed in the search for a chair. We will now take steps to appoint a new Charity Commission chair and will provide an update in due course."

Review of processes

When the issue was raised in Parliament last week, Nadine Dorries, culture secretary, said: "We asked Martin Thomas at interview whether he had anything to declare, which he said he did not. He has rightly apologised for his error of judgment during the application process. I have accepted his resignation.

"The select committee will examine this matter and the error of judgment, but of course he also passed through the cross-party Joint Committee process. We are reviewing our processes; we review them constantly. I am afraid there is not much more I can say about this."

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has organised a session to question William Shawcross, a former Charity Commission chair who recently became commissioner for public appointments, and three senior officials. 

"DCMS officials are likely to be questioned on the process leading up to the appointment of Martin Thomas as Chair of the Charity Commission following his resignation from the role within days. Committee Chair Julian Knight has criticised the Department for failing to follow proper processes," the announcement said. 

Shawcross will appear at 10am. A second panel will start at 11am to hear from Sarah Healey, permanent secretary at DCMS, and two other senior officials. 

Ian Karet to continue as interim chair 

It is unclear whether the government intends to re-run the whole process or appoint another candidate who was deemed appointable during the first process. 

After Thomas resigned the government extended Ian Karet's appointment as interim chair of the Charity Commission until 26 June 2022. 

Karet joined the Commission's board in January 2019 and became interim chair last February, when Baroness Stowell's term ended. 

Editor's note 

This article was first published on 20 December 2021 and was updated on 10 January 2022 to include developments

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