The next chair of the Charity Commission needs to be truly politically neutral so that they can rebuild trust with the sector, charity leaders have said in a letter to MPs.
Baroness Stowell, the current chair of the Commission, announced last month via the Telegraph that she will not be standing for a second term and will stand down next February.
Before becoming the chair of the regulator, Stowell was a Conservative peer. Her predecessors, William Shawcross and Dame Suzi Leather, were also been criticised for being too closely linked to the government of the day.
The chair of the Commission is appointed by the culture secretary, and the preferred candidate attends a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee. The post-holder is expected to act independently of party politics while in the role, but previous political activity is not a barrier to applying.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has not yet set out when the recruitment process will begin, but the process is expected to start shortly.
Concerns about the lack of transparency in appointment processes
A coalition of charity representative bodies, coordinated by ACEVO, has written to Julian Knight, Conservative MP and chair of the DCMS committee, to express concerns before the process begins.
The letter says: “Transparency, accountability and party-political neutrality must be prioritised in this recruitment process, to restore trust across the sector that the non-executive of its regulator will act politically impartially.”
When Stowell was appointed, the committee took the unusual step of telling the government that it disagreed with the appointment. However, Matt Hancock, then culture secretary, overruled them.
Most charity umbrella bodies also objected to the appointment at the time, with the exception of NCVO, which said Stowell was a good choice despite “significant problems” in the recruitment process. NCVO has not signed this week's letter.
During Stowell’s tenure as chair of the regulator, she has often drawn criticism from charities over speeches emphasising the need for the sector to rebuild public trust.
Referring to the longstanding criticism about party-political appointments, the letter says: “There is an opportunity now to break this pattern and prioritise the appointment of a candidate who is not a prominent member of, and has not held political office in, any party.”
Commission needs to understand the sector and its role
One of the concerns about Stowell prior to her appointment was that she had limited experience of charities, and in the letter, charity leaders say that the sector deserves a chair of the regulator who understands the sector well.
“Charities understand that their regulator will hold them to account, challenge them and disagree with them,” they say. “However, they expect that the Commission will do this work with expertise and political independence at the highest levels of the organisation, and a clear commitment to the legal remits of regulation. Where these expectations have not been met trust between charities and their regulator has been damaged, and we would like to see that trust rebuilt.”
They also fear that the current chair has overstepped the regulator’s remit with her emphasis on “meeting public expectation”, as well as meeting legal requirements, which the letter describes as a “significant shift from the function of the regulator”.
Finally, charity leaders gave a reminder that this process offers a chance to improve the relationship between the regulator and the sector.
“This recruitment process is an opportunity to reset the relationship between charities and the non-executive of the Charity Commission, and to end 14 years of criticism about party political appointments,” the said.
List of signatories:
- Vicky Browning, chief executive, ACEVO
- Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive, Directory for Social Change
- Caron Bradshaw, chief executive, Charity Finance Group
- Rita Chadha, chief executive, Small Charities Coalition
- Kathy Evans, chief executive, Children England
- Jane Ide, chief executive, NAVCA
- Carol Mack, chief executive, Association of Charitable Foundations
- Robin Osterley, chief executive, Charity Retail Association
- Matt Plen, chief executive, Masorti Judaism
- Sue Tibballs, chief executive, Sheila McKechnie Foundation