David Ainsworth: Is Baroness Stowell the right chair for the Commission?

05 Mar 2018 Voices

David Ainsworth looks at the pros and cons of the new appointment, and considers whether this is a case of a good candidate from a bad process.

Baroness Tina Stowell, chair of the Charity Commission

Last week a select committee of MPs took a stand against the government, and unanimously rejected the appointment of Baroness Stowell as chair of the Charity Commission. 

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, which scrutinises public appointments made by DCMS, were reacting in part to lobbying from within the charity sector, and in part to a perception of a high-handed, closed-shop attitude from the government department which decided to put her forward.

Stowell, a Conservative peer and former leader of the House of Lords, has been appointed regardless of MPS objections, and effectively starts today, with a cloud hanging over her.

The charge against Stowell has been led by Andrew Hind, the former chief executive of the Commission, who set out the case against Stowell's appointment in these pages. He has the support of several infrastructure organisations.

Notably this does not include NCVO, which has been critical of the process of choosing the Commission chair, but said that Stowell herself is a good candidate.

Also in Stowell's corner is Julia Unwin, former chief executive at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who sat on the interview panel, and said she was the outstanding candidate on the day.

(A bit of disclosure here. Andrew Hind is a non-executive director of this organisation and a former editor of our magazine, Charity Finance, where he was my boss. I rarely tend to disagree with Andrew, because he is so often right, and this is his field of expertise, but on this occasion I part ways with him somewhat.)

What are the objections?

There are claims that Stowell lacks experience of the sector and of regulation, that other candidates with stronger experience were passed over, and that she got the job because of her political links. There is also concern that her strong links to the Conservatives mean the regulator will be perceived as politically partisan. And there is some confusion over why it took so long for Stowell's appointment to go through. A pre-appointment hearing before Christmas was delayed because DCMS was not ready, and there are imputations that she was not the first choice.

This objection – that Stowell was not the best candidate – is hard to address without knowing the others involved. But what we can say is that the selection panel seem to be looking at a pretty narrow field of establishment figures. It would feel a lot more comfortable if the department had gone for someone who didn’t have such obvious connections.

Without knowing the names of the other candidates, it’s impossible to know if there was another stellar candidate out there. Perhaps it's best to judge whether Stowell is a good candidate on her own merits.

It’s true that she has relatively little experience of either charity or regulation, and might usefully have built up her knowledge of both. But this is a governance role, and is arguably less about skill and more about ability and mindset.

Stowell has administered complex public bodies before. And persuasively, those who know her personally report that she has the right skills and approach.

Her lack of direct experience of charity could actually be part of the case for employing her. Stowell may not know charities in particular but as a civil servant and legislator, she's bound to have come into contact with them repeatedly. 

With charities facing such criticism over their practices, it’s much better to have a chair who isn’t compromised by potential associations with past sins, putative or real. Especially since the regulator's chief executive, Helen Stephenson, has been very closely connected to the sector over a long period.

Political neutrality

The real argument, though, is that Stowell is too politically tainted to deliver.

It’s not a good system to have the politicians of the day appointing the regulator's board, particularly if they keep picking people with close links to their own party.

The leader of an organisation which must remain politically impartial, governing a sector which must remain politically impartial, should not be politically partial. 

It’s a particular issue because this is the third appointment in a row with political overtones. Stowell follows on from Suzi Leather, a card-carrying member of the Labour Party and William Shawcross, an inexperienced grandee with links to Tory think tanks, so her appointment looks triply bad.

In practical terms, though, Stowell's insider connections could actually help charities. It really depends on where she puts her priorities.

Stowell appears to be a moderate rather than an ideologue by nature, and has indicated she will become a crossbench peer for the duration of her term, which is a token gesture, but indicative that she intends not to be directly party political in her approach.

That does not stop her from thinking like a Conservative, of course, but is that such a terrible thing? The charity sector currently has a terrible relationship with the Conservative Party, and large charities face huge political pressure to reform. Having a regulator who is capable of straddling the ideological gap between the sector and the government may actually help.

It may not, of course. It certainly isn’t what happened with William Shawcross, so the question is the extent to which Stowell herself can set aside her politics. She will have to be doubly careful in her pronouncements and wary of her prejudices.

Either way, it is good that on this occasion, charities have made a strong representation that the sector is not willing to be treated as a political football, and ministers will think twice about appointing a jobs-for-the-boys candidate in future.

Let’s hope this is a case of bad process, good candidate, and that by the time the next appointment rolls around, we have seen some reform.

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