MPs at yesterday's public adminstration committee hearing with outgoing chair Dame Suzi Leather hinted that the next chair of the Charity Commission will have to be politically neutral. Vibeka Mair reports.
Dame Suzi Leather, outgoing chair of the Charity Commission, made her valedictory appearance before the public administration select committee (PASC) yesterday. Old wounds such as her perceived attack on private schools and political bias were reopened, but despite the differences between MPs and Dame Suzi, it was rather a warm goodbye to the sector’s reputed “quango queen”.
Dame Suzi Leather’s role as the second chair of the Charity Commission has been never short of controversy, eliciting severe press and political critique, ranging from accusations of left-wing conspiracies to destroy the private school sector, to fashion-related attacks for her daring to wear a short skirt at some point in her life.
Her open membership of the Labour Party (but not her sartorial choices) was a main point of discussion at the PASC meeting yesterday – with committee chair Bernard Jenkins even suggesting that Dame Suzi’s successor at the Charity Commission may have to be politically neutral in the role.
Jenkins asked Dame Suzi: “Should we advise your potential successor against membership of a political party?”
“You should choose who is best for the job,” she insisted. “And anyone in public office should be open about party membership. It is an odd notion that one cannot be impartial and a member of a mainstream political party.”
Dame Suzi’s open (but not active) membership of the Labour Party was revisited often by different select committee MPs, clearly keen to tease out some admission that her political persuasion negatively affected, and even harmed, her position at the Charity Commission.
'Personalised attacks did not affect me'
But Dame Suzi remained resolute: “It’s true that the issue of charitable status and independent schools is an issue heavily ideologically laden in the public debate,” she said at one point. “And there is the instinct of the British media to personalise issues.
“Put that together it didn’t matter who was chair. They would have had a pretty tough job with the Charities Act 2006. It was a shame about the personalised attacks.
“But if you don’t expect to get some press comment in public office you are being naïve. They did not affect me but they were a slur on the independence of the Charity Commission.”
Throughout the hearing the independence of the Commission was questioned, with Tory MPs Bernard Jenkins and Robert Halfon hinting that the Commission had been instructed by the previous Labour government to produce contentious guidance on public benefit - which has been successfully legally challenged by the independent schools sector which felt it threatened schools' charitable status.
Public benefit: successes and regrets
MPs focused on the recent tribunal hearing between the Charity Commission and the Independent Schools Council (ISC), which Dame Suzi admitted had cost the Commission £185,000 in legal costs.
“It did awfully look like a go at the independent schools sector,” said Jenkins. “Why a confrontation? Why just not withdraw the guidance?”
Dame Suzi noted that other fee-charging sectors such as care homes did not take issue with its public benefit guidance, which gave a view on how fee-charging charities could ensure they were indeed wholly charitable.
“The tribunal upheld most of our guidance,” Dame Suzi noted. “The only thing wrong was our reasonableness test.”
She did however admit that in retrospect the Commission should have looked at public benefit through partnerships with regards to the independent school sector:
“Our focus on bursaries made it seem like we were only interested in bursaries. This is a regret.”
Her conclusion appeared to be that Parliament had created the law, but shied away from clarifying it concretely. “It’s up to Parliament to give some definition of public benefit,” she said. “The ball was in their court.”
Courage and public service
Elsewhere, throughout the hearing Dame Suzi was clear to stress her concerns about the future of the Charity Commission with regards to funding. “If there are further cuts to our budget my successor won’t be able to carry out our statutory functions and could have to make some invidious choices. It’s not a good time to take over at the Commission.”
The hearing had started with support from Labour MP Paul Flynn who noted that the “unfair and untrue” reporting on the motives and work of the Charity Commission could have been a reason for its “savage cuts” of 33 per cent to its budget over the next couple of years.
And it ended on a similar conciliatory note, with Bernard Jenkins paying tribute to Dame Suzi: “There has been controversy,” he said. “But there has never been a lack of courage and tremendous public service.”