Baroness Stowell, the chair elect of the Charity Commission, has said that the biggest challenge facing the sector is “falling public trust”, and that her experience at the BBC and in politics makes her a strong candidate to tackle the problem.
Stowell, who is expected to be confirmed as the next chair of the Commission despite unanimous opposition from MPs in the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, appeared before MPs yesterday for a pre-appointment hearing.
She said: “I applied for this role because I wanted an opportunity to represent the public interest.”
Stowell described the sector as “incredibly important” and said she saw the job as a “fantastic opportunity”.
She said “expectations on charities are so much higher”, but that the challenge faced by the sector was similar to that of other institutions that had seen declining trust.
Stowell also pledged to work with sector bodies, if appointed, in a way that avoids being “purely adversarial”.
“I would say in terms of responding to the problem of declining public trust, this is not something that the CC can do on its own,” she said.
Lack of experience
Stowell admitted that she doesn’t “sit here with lots of experience in the charity sector”, but said that being an “outsider” can offer useful “external perspective”.
“When I was looking at this role and considering whether to apply, where i felt my experience was relevant was in responding to the decline in public trust,” she said.
She committed to “hit the ground running” and meet with others in the sector to understand the challenges.
She described herself as a “veteran outsider”, and highlighted her record of joining the BBC and House of Lords with little experience, but going on to succeed in those roles by building relationships.
She also stressed that her role at the BBC gave her regulatory experience of “managing relationships where necessary with the governing body” and that from being leader of the House of Lords she had experience “managing very complex stakeholder relationships”.
Stowell said that being leader of the House of Lords requires you to have the “confidence of all sides of the house”.
But MPs were unconvinced.
Damian Collins, Conservative MP and chair of the committee, said she was “open to the charge that your experience doesn’t give you that level of insight” needed.
Committed to the sector?
The committee also questioned her commitment to the sector.
Ian Lucas, Labour, asked her why she had “only got involved in the last nine months”.
In response she said there were restrictions on government ministers.
But Lucas was not impressed and said that before becoming an MP he was a trustee. He said the “skills that I have and the skills that you have are very valuable to the sector,” but “until the last nine months you have never done that”.
Stowell said she would be “100 per cent committed to the role” as she had in previous roles.
“I really believe in the charity sector and its importance,” she said. “I want to work in the charity sector,” she added, saying that she knows “how important it is to us as a country”.
Jo Stevens, Labour, said: “How do you think that your attendance at three board meetings of two small charities makes you suitable?”
Stowell was repeatedly asked how she had found out about the job, and if she had only joined two trustee boards recently to pad her CV.
Rebecca Powell, Conservative, said it “has been suggested this is more than coincidence”.
But Stowell said this was “completely not the case” - that she had agreed to join Crimestoppers before the job was advertised and that she had been in discussions with Transformation Trust for some time.
“I saw this job when it was advertised and I applied for it,” she said.
Initially she told MPs that she had not discussed the role with anyone in government, but later admitted that the subject had come in up December when she was talking to Karen Bradley, then secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport when she was discussing another matter.
In response to questions she also admitted that she joined Crimestoppers after being approached by Lord Ashcroft, the prominent Conservative Party donor who founded the charity.
She said she had been introduced to the other charity by a mutual friend.
Confidence of the sector
MPs expressed reservations about whether she would be able to obtain the confidence of the sector, given her recent involvement in politics.
Stevens said that Stowell's voting record, which includes supporting measures like welfare reform and the bedroom tax that some charities campaigned against, meant she was “not convinced that you will be really independent”.
Stowell highlighted her success with the Equal Marriage Act in the House of Lords, despite opposition from some on her own side, and convincing David Cameron and Nick Clegg to give government backing to a private member bill.
“What I would say to the charity sector is that I'm coming into this role not as a member of the Conservative Party or as a member of the government,” she said, adding that representing the public interest in charities' work would be her focus.
Stowell also emphasised that the decision to resign the party whip had come from her at the time she applied, to make it clear that she was committed to being independent.
“I am committed to becoming an independent non-affiliated peer in House of Lords,” she said. “During my time as chair i would be very careful to be absolutely independent.”
Stowell described herself as a “veteran outsider”. But MPs were concerned that her previous roles at the BBC and in government mean she is very much part of the establishment.
She argued that: “When I got into those roles, whether at the BBC or the House of Lords, I was somebody who succeeded in those roles but started out as an outsider.”
She said she hoped that this would give the committee confidence that she could do the same at the Commission.
Paul Farrelly asked Stowell about the diversity of the Commission’s board and she responded by saying that there will be an opportunity at the the end of the year to appoint new members, when some people reach the end of their terms.
She said she was aware of “criticism that has been made of the board and its diversity”, and that she would try to “bring a much wider range of experience”, suggesting that having someone from outside of the south east and someone younger would be an advantage.
“We need to make sure that as far as the composition of the board goes, the right professional skills needed for an effective board are there,” she said, adding that the Commission also “needs to have a board that feels diverse to people who look at it from outside.”
Commission needs to ‘clarify what its purpose is’
Stowell praised the progress the Commission has made under William Shawcross, but said there was more to do.
She said the Commission should be “clearer about its purpose”.
Stowell said she feels the Commission should have done more in 2011, when Oxfam made a serious incident report regarding sexual misconduct.
“My view as an observer is that it's disappointing that the Charity Commission at that time was not more curious and didn’t push back at Oxfam to get some more information from them,” she said.
But she said she thought it was handling the case well now.