Damian Collins, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, has written to the culture secretary to say the committee “cannot support the government’s nomination” for chair of the Charity Commission, but Hancock has said she has his "full backing".
The committee held its pre-appointment session yesterday, and Collins wrote to Matt Hancock that afternoon to say the committee's “unanimous” decision was that it could not support Baroness Stowell’s appointment.
Hancock has indicated he will press ahead with the appointment, and other ministers have ignored the advice of select committees in the past.
In a statement he said: “I’m sure Tina Stowell will be a brilliant chair of the Charity Commission. This is a crucial time for the Commission and the sector. She was appointed after a fair, open and transparent competition. She was not only the best candidate for the job, but is the right candidate and has my full backing.
“Tina has been absolutely clear about her impartiality in this role. I know that she will work tirelessly to protect and promote the great work that charities do and ensure they uphold the highest standards of integrity.”
The committee grilled Stowell on her suitability for the role, raising a number of concerns about her lack of involvement with the charity sector and whether she would be perceived as independent.
“This is the first time that this Committee has not supported the government’s candidate, and it is not a decision that we have taken lightly,” Collins wrote in his letter.
Stowell is a Conservative peer and was the Leader of the House until 2016. She has said that if appointed to the role she will resign from the party and sit in the Lords as an independent peer.
Four areas of concern
Collins said his committee had four main areas of concern.
- Experience - the committee said her experience of the charity sector is “negligible” and that she has a “complete lack of” experience when it comes to working for a regulatory body
- Neutrality - “her political past is a source of concern for the committee and those within the charity sector”
- Recruitment process - MPs said this “lacked transparency and has been protracted”. The pre-appointment session was supposed to take place last year, but was delayed because the government had not chosen a candidate. The committee has requested the names of the other appointable candidates. It also revealed that it had written last year “explaining that we thought it regrettable that candidates for public roles of the kind we scrutinise apparently continue to be drawn from a narrow group of establishment figures”.
- Performance - the committee said it was concerned about Stowell’s performance yesterday. “It is our judgment that Baroness Stowell was unable to withstand scrutiny”.
It said that having asked “fair questions”, MPs “were disappointed to receive answers that were often lacking in detail or relevance”.
The committee will publish a full report soon.
The committee has also published written evidence submitted ahead of the session. This includes the open letter from Andrew Hind, former chief executive of the Charity Commission, published on Civil Society News earlier this week.
It also includes the recent letter from Acevo, Navca, Bond, the Charity Finance Group and the Directory of Social Change. Here sector representatives urged the committee to “seek clarity regarding concerns that we have about the appointment process”.
They also called for a meeting to discuss reform of the process.
“Concerns about political affiliation have been raised by the voluntary sector in respect to the last three Charity Commission chair appointments. Given this we would also like to use this opportunity to request a meeting with you to discuss reforming the appointment process and to seek assurances about what steps the committee will take to ensure that the appointment process is in line with the code and that the public, who fund, donate to and run charities, can have trust and confidence in it.”
NCVO submitted a separate seven-page briefing to the committee. This included background information on safeguarding in relation to the Oxfam crisis, plans for a consultation on the Commission charging and governance of charities.
It also had a section on the Commission’s own governance - reminding the committee of NCVO’s 2015 report calling for reforms. It said: “We would encourage the committee to give Baroness Stowell the opportunity to make clear how she will ensure her political impartiality and independence from government.”