Charities have broadly welcomed the appointment of Conservative Peer Baroness Stowell as the chair of the Charity Commission following the announcement last week, but have expressed some concern over the lack of a politically-neutral appointment.
The Commission announced Baroness Stowell of Beeston as its preferred candidate last week, subject to a pre-appointment hearing at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, which will then produce a report saying whether or not it backs the appointment. The government can chose to overrule the committee.
Stowell is currently a trustee of both Crimestoppers UK and the Transformation Trust, but will resign from these roles if her appointment is confirmed. She has been praised for her work with charities, although some bodies have announced disappointment over the lack of a politically-neutral appointment. Stowell has announced her intention to resign her party whip and membership if appointed.
‘Have to wait and see’
Jay Kennedy, director of policy and research at the Directory of Social Change, said: “The Commission really needs to stay out of party political squabbles, which it has got sucked into far too often in recent years. It needs to engage in public debates about charity based on the evidence, data and the law, not ideology. The chair’s role in navigating this tricky terrain is critical. So it’s hard to tell right now what this appointment means in that respect. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Peter Kellner, chair of NCVO, said: "I am confident she will prove to be an excellent choice. Her many years of experience in high-profile public bodies, including the BBC Trust, itself a regulator, should stand her in very good stead in both this regard and in the role more widely.
"We have often expressed concern that both of the Commission's previous chairs have left themselves too open to potentially damaging accusations of party political bias. Baroness Stowell’s intention to resign her party whip and membership if appointed is therefore especially welcome. It will, I hope, enhance her reputation as determined, independent and pragmatic. I and everyone at NCVO much look forward to working with her."
‘Disappointed that calls for politically neutral chair not met’
Vicky Browning, chief executive of Acevo said: “Baroness Stowell has proved herself to be a champion of social mobility, who encourages ambition and opportunities. She has gleaned a wealth of experience across a number of different areas, including regulatory experience at the BBC Trust.
“However, the chair and board of the Charity Commission must be, and be seen to be, independent from government and party politics. While we appreciate that Baroness Stowell is resigning the Conservative party whip and her party membership, we are disappointed that the sector’s calls for a politically neutral commission chair have not been met.
“To be effective, the Commission must equally have the trust and confidence of the public, the state and the sector it regulates. A critical part of this trust comes from confidence that the Commission is independent of political influence. This independence is core to its ability to properly regulate charities under the law.”
Sir John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, said: “We congratulate Baroness Stowell on being named the preferred candidate for the position of Charity Commission Chair. We have long been supportive of the vital role the Commission plays in guaranteeing public confidence in charities. Baroness Stowell will bring to the role a wealth of experience in the sector and we at the Charities Aid Foundation look forward to working with her and continuing our strong working relationship with her colleagues at the Commission.”
Matt Hancock, secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, welcomed the announcement in a tweet.
Stowell has also clarified on Twitter that “resigning party membership and whip is not "a rule of engagement" and is my own decision and personal commitment if I'm confirmed in post”.
That sounds a little extreme. But rest assured resigning party membership & whip is not "a rule of engagement" and is my own decision and personal commitment if I'm confirmed in post.— Tina Stowell (@tinastowell) January 27, 2018
The news was also welcomed by Baroness Warsi, a Conservative peer who has been critical of William Shawcross and the Commission.
But it there was criticism from Labour peer Lord Adonis and from the shadow minister for civil society who raised concerns about political neutrality.
Appointing a just departed Tory Cabinet minister to chair the Charity Commission sums up this Government - hubris, patronage, control, ignoring the fact that it doesn't have a parliamentary majority and pretending it has a landslide. Same with Brexit! https://t.co/g5xH4IA1MT— Andrew Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) January 27, 2018
Steve Reed, shadow minister, said: "The independence of the charity sector is critical to its success and it’s regulator should be independent as well.
“Instead of appointing Theresa May’s cronies, the government could and should have found someone independent-minded who will stand up for the sector.”