Martin Thomas attended a pre-appointment hearing at the Commons DCMS Select Committee on 9 December. There have already been good reports of some of what he said about particular topics, for example that the Commission should not get drawn into participation in culture wars and that charities in general were not too political. But what about the principles and attitudes that he displayed, and what do they portend for our sector?
This was a recurring theme. The Commission needs to be stable and consistent in its advice, he said, basing it on the law and the remit given to it by Parliament. It shouldn’t be blown off course by current political squalls or get tempted into intervening beyond its true area of competence and authority. There will be no disposition to fiddle around with or undermine CC9 (the Commission’s guidance on political activity), which he defended as robust and effective.
He was rock solid on the independence of both charities and the Commission. As part of this, he went out of his way to repeat that the most important relationship of all for the Commission was its accountability to Parliament, as representatives of the public, not to a minister or the Treasury (and, by clear implication, not to the sector either). He clearly looked to Parliament as the guarantor of the independence of charity regulation in the public interest.
He went out of his way to emphasise that he would be chair of a board, not a solo player. He would not commit to any action without first consulting his board. And he wanted the board to make sure the whole staff of the Commission felt valued by and, so far as possible, known to the board.
He wants to build on the Commission’s user-friendly five-minute briefings and get away from reliance on bulky and wordy guidance that puts off some kinds of people from being trustees. He wants to communicate in ways that encourage trusteeship to be for all kinds of people, not just a feather in the cap of the well- educated middle classes. He would be mindful of the same aim in selecting future members of the Commission board.
Distinctive nature of regulated charities
The Commission should be aware of, and recognise, the different kinds of organisations and individuals who are doing good and acting charitably in that sense, but should be clear that its own main role related to registered charities and their particular contribution and character. Being a registered charity should be a badge of reliability because it was regulated and conformed to charity law: that was the Commission’s business.
Limits of the Commission’s authority
Thomas repeatedly emphasised that it is not the Commission’s role to interpret and dictate what decisions trustees should make and how they should best pursue their charitable purposes. It was not its role to decide what kind of strategies were better than others. Nor what pay levels were and were not appropriate. Both small pay and big pay could be problematical, and it was up to trustees in the end to make the decisions. But the Commission could influence trustees to have in mind such questions as an adequate level of reserves, or whether they were keeping impact as a key criterion in their decisions.
Moving with the times
He stressed a few times that the Commission, while valuing consistency and stability, was not stuck in a time warp. Charity law had evolved as circumstances change, and the board should be in touch with and responsive to social and attitudinal change.
Personal manner and characteristics
Thomas has been chair of ten charities and trustee of four others. What a contrast from his predecessors, and it shows in all the respects noted above. This is not someone who is going to make simplistic generalisations about charities in a way that belies their diversity. He took time to think carefully before his answers, and when they came they were direct but properly nuanced and considered. He was politely firm in not getting drawn into commenting on individual cases. He was modest in his manner, not someone who wants to make a public splash, and quite open to admitting mistakes.
All of this comes as a huge relief to a sector that has been ill-served by the last two chairs of the Commission, and I guess to the staff of the Commission also. It feels as if, frankly, a grown-up has entered the arena, who understands far more about the charitable sector and the core competencies and authority of the Charity Commission than did either of his predecessors. This prompts two immediate reflections.
Firstly, what on earth were those involved in the process of selecting the preferred candidate in the recruitment processes for the last two chairs doing in deciding on people with such obvious shortcomings related to the job description, compared with the type of preferred candidate we now have? As W.B.Yeats said of himself in an apology to Sir Maurice Bowra, “The Almighty and the Devil know/What made a sane man blunder so”.
Secondly, and more optimistically, through all the times when those of us criticising the two previous chairs, and especially the last one Baroness Tina Stowell, were trying to plead for the principles championed by Martin Thomas in his hearing before the select committee, we may have thought we were voices crying in a wilderness with nobody listening. But then Baroness Stowell’s tenure ended abruptly; and, beneath the hoo-hah caused by Oliver Dowden’s foolish intervention in the process and the Good Law Project’s forensic response, it seems someone was listening after all. As so often in charity campaigning, in the heat of battle you don’t always notice the tide turning. But it looks as if the tide has turned this time.
We shall never know whose intervention, when, most helped that to happen. But we do now know that speaking out, explaining our objections carefully, lobbying publicly or discreetly as the case may be, we have made change happen for the good of the Commission and the sector. Alleluia!
Andrew Purkis is a charity trustee and has been chair or vice chair of six UK charities, and chief executive of others and was a board member of the Charity Commission, 2006-2010