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Shawcross accused of prejudicing his own inquiry into Charity Commission process

11 Jan 2022 News

William Shawcross is investigating the process that saw Martin Thomas appointed as chair of the Charity Commission, but was criticised by MPs for “speaking ahead of your own inquiry”.

Shawcross recently became the commissioner for public appointments, and appeared before the the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee this morning to discuss the recent process that saw Thomas withdraw from the role shortly before he was due to start. 

At one point Shawcross said the government is “not to blame” for the failed attempt to appoint a new chair. He later apologised to MPs for the statement, after being accused of prejudicing his own ongoing inquiry into how the appointment was conducted.

In sometimes angry exchanges, Shawcross also told MPs that he had not yet seen the papers requested from DCMS as part of the inquiry, and accused the committee of “trying to push me into judgments”.

The government’s choice to chair the Charity Commission, Martin Thomas, resigned late last year before taking up the role, after it emerged that he had previously been reported to the regulator while on the board of Women for Women International.

Shawcross was himself chair of the Charity Commission between 2012 and 2018.

Julian Knight MP, who leads the DCMS Committee, described the process leading to Martin Thomas’s resignation as “appalling”, while another MP, John Nicholson, called it a “debacle”.

'I don’t actually think that DCMS itself was to blame'

Responding to a question about who was to blame for the process, Shawcross said that this was “something we are now involved in, because OCPA [the office for the commissioners for public appointments] has called in the papers from DCMS to look at what did happen. So I don’t really think it would be appropriate for me to comment in any detail on that.”

He volunteered to come back to the committee once he had completed the report. 

However, later in the session Shawcross told the MPs: “I don’t actually think that DCMS itself was to blame, certainly not for the Charity Commission failures, so far as I can see.”

Knight immediately accused Shawcross of “speaking ahead of your own inquiry” by making the judgment.

Shawcross replied: “You’re right, I shouldn’t prejudge. Thank you for tripping me up, sir.”

Questioned further on the issue, Shawcross apologised to the committee, saying: “I don’t wish to be difficult. You’re trying to push me into making judgments when I am not in a position to do so.”

He insisted that he has not made up his mind about the inquiry, and that “if I discover in the course of that inquiry that DCMS did make serious mistakes, that will be in my report”.

Asked whether references were always taken up ahead of public appointments, Shawcross said that this normally happened but was not compulsory.

Process 'a great misfortune' for Charity Commission

At the beginning of the session, Shawcross described the failure of the Commission appointments process as “a great misfortune”, and that he was “sorry to see the Charity Commission stumble in its appointment of a new chairman”. Knight said that his committee viewed the process as “appalling”.

Shawcross also told MPs that the length of time it had taken to announce Thomas as the new Commission chair was “totally unacceptable”.

Referring to public appointments in general, he said: “The process is much too slow. Three months is the ideal, between the end of the advertisement and the appointment. That is what I want to emphasise to ministers throughout Whitehall. It should not be more than three months.”

Baroness Stowell announced plans to stand down from the Commission in October 2020, but Thomas was not named as her permanent replacement until more than a year later in December 2021.

After Thomas resigned, Ian Karet agreed to continue as interim chair for another six months.

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