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Officials admit to ‘astounded’ MPs that they could have done more to vet Martin Thomas 

12 Jan 2022 News

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

Fergus Burnett

Officials have admitted that they could have asked the Charity Commission for details about charities associated with candidates shortlisted to chair the regulator. 

Three senior officials from the Department for Digital Media and Sport (DCMS) were questioned by the DCMS Committee yesterday about last year's recruitment process.

They said that in future the department will now seek information from the Commission about charities associated with people who have been shortlisted for a board role at the charity regulator.

Martin Thomas withdrew shortly after being appointed. The Times had reported that while he was chair of Women for Women International the charity had filed a serious incident report with the Commission about an investigation into allegations of bullying. 

Sarah Healey, permanent secretary at DCMS, said: “In this particular instance we have reflected on the experience of this appointment, and it is the case that we could have checked with the Charity Commission on their records on any charity that any of shortlisted candidates were involved in to see if anything was flagged.” 

Healey added that the department had not sought references for Thomas, and claimed that this would not have helped. 

She said: “I do think references are a bit of a red herring on this one. Everybody takes references from people who are suggested by candidates.”

‘Relying on a scouts honour system’  

MPs said that they were surprised and concerned that DCMS does not routinely take references. 

Julian Knight, Conservative chair of the committee, said: “I am absolutely astounded, first of all, that your department has not spoken to previous employers. 

“You seem to do less checks for a £70bn sector of the UK economy - 180,000 charities there have been without a chair for a year - frankly than you would do if you were employing someone to do a paper round.” 

He added that he was concerned that this means people could be “cooking up their CVs, and without frankly, being in any way bona fide, and then we have to rely on a scouts honour system when they come before your panel”.  

Gemma Brough, deputy director, public bodies, appointments, honours and awards at DCMS, told MPs that even though references aren’t taken: “We do a lot of due diligence in terms of searching for public information.” 

This involves checking social media, director disqualification records, and the public charities register. Then at then interview candidates get the opportunity to explain anything. 

Brough added: “That doesn’t rule anybody out, it’s just to make sure that minsters are fully aware of any of the reputational risks.”

Healey told MPs that if DCMS were to begin taking references it would need to “weigh up whether it would be a good use of resources”, but said she would talk to other departments that already do it. 

What next for the Charity Commission?

DCMS has not said how it now intends to appoint a new permanent chair to the Commission. 

There are two options. It could re-run the whole process or select another candidate who was involved in the first process. 

Yesterday, officials told MPs that there were six other candidates who had been deemed appointable, but they have not asked them if they are still interested in the role. 

Healey said that “advice is with ministers” and we should know “very soon” what they intend to do. 

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