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Kirsty Weakley: The debacle in finding a new Charity Commission chair is a sign of wider dysfunction 

13 Jan 2022 Voices

The government's first choice to be chair of the Charity Commission dramatically withdrew from the role in December. Kirsty Weakley looks at the implications for the sector

Martin Thomas, the next chair of the Charity Commission

Just as most of us were setting our out of offices and turning our attention to mince pies and sherry, the Times dropped the kind of the story that stops you in your tracks: The new Charity Commission chair had withdrawn from the role amid allegations of inappropriate behaviour while chair of a charity. 

To be frank, it made a lot of people look very silly indeed. And raised important questions about due diligence and the wider process of public appointments. 

In parliament this week, MPs were clearly furious and used word such as “shambles”, “debacle”, and “chaos” to describe what they view as a failed process. 

So, what happened? And why does it matter? 

What happened?

When Martin Thomas was unveiled as the government’s choice his lack of political activity and involvement in charities seemed to bode well. 

Furthermore, his appearance before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee gave the appearance of a serious individual who would focus on the job in hand, instead of fighting culture wars. 

However, it emerged that while chair of Women for Women International three formal complaints had been made against him, and one was partially upheld. In one instance, the charity filed a serious incident report with the very regulator Thomas sought to lead. 

For his part, Thomas has admitted to an error of judgement in not disclosing this information. 

That is not the end of the matter though. Many have serious questions about the process and the public appointments commissioner, William Shawcross, is conducting an inquiry into what happened. 

Meanwhile the Good Law Project continues with its legal challenge against DCMS. 

Relying on a scout's honour system 

As soon as the story broke there were questions about just how much due diligence there had been. 

This week, when being questioned by the DCMS Committee, officials admitted that they had not sought references and furthermore that they could have sought input from the Charity Commission, but didn't. 

Their argument for not taking references is that data protection rules mean references do not usually give much detail beyond dates of employment, so do not prove particularly useful. This did not land well with MPs. 

Julian Knight accused DCMS of operating a “scout's honour” system, which risked unqualified people ending up in powerful positions. 

This is an incredibly serious charge, especially for a department responsible for 400 public appointments across different bodies. 

DCMS says it will now ask the Charity Commission for details of charities that shortlisted candidates are associated with, which in Thomas’s case should have uncovered the serious incident report. 

Rushed process 

One explanation for the debacle is that everything was carried out too quickly, and there was simply too little time and space for proper scrutiny. 

The charity sector and its regulator are just a small cog in the DCMS machine. More broadly, Brexit, Covid-19 and ministerial reshuffles, have meant bandwidth across government is increasingly stretched. 

So, although the process began in February, activity was concentrated at the end of last year. There was a very short gap between the secretary of state, Nadine Dorries, naming her preferred candidate, and the scrutiny session by the DCMS Committee. 

The last time, when Baroness Stowell was appointed, there was just over three weeks between the preferred candidate being named and the pre-appointment select committee session. This was enough time for individuals concerned to submit evidence outlining their concerns about the chosen candidate to inform the questions MPs put to her. 

In this latest instance, there was just six working days. 

Flawed model

This episode with the Charity Commission should not be considered in isolation. Indeed, the DCMS Committee was asking questions specifically about the BBC and Ofcom appointments during the same session. 

In the face of the allegations that the Commission process had “failed”, officials insisted that when it came to the assessment panel the process had followed all the correct procedures. 

Polly Payne, director general for culture, sport and civil society, went so far as to say: “That question ['Is there anything else you want to tell us?'] was asked to Martin Thomas and he did not declare anything that could lead to embarrassment, hence his apology for this error of judgement.”

When MPs questioned how much involvement ministers had in suggesting people for roles, officials pointed out that the rules actually stipulate that ministers should be encouraged to suggest potential candidates.

This appears to be somewhat at odds with stated ambitions to broaden the diversity of those who hold public appointments. 

Kevin Brennan, a Labour MP on the committee, took the opportunity to complain about the Grimstone review, which reformed the public appointments process a few years ago. 

He suggested it had rendered the commissioner for public appointments an “impotent commentator”. As to the principals that underpin how people in public office are expected to behave, he called for “full fat Nolan and not diet Nolan”. 

Sidelining of charities 

Turning to the impact on charities up and down the county, this feels like another example of government ignoring the sector and its needs. 

Firstly, the lack of a permanent chair leaves both a symbolic and practical void in one of the most important and high-profile positions for the sector. 

Interim chair Ian Karet has dedicated one and a half days a week to this role for the next six months, whereas someone in post permanently would dedicate two and a half days a week to the role. 

At the moment, ministers are weighing up whether they want to appoint one of the other six “appointable candidates”, or rerun the process. 

A quick win may be desirable, and this would obviously have the benefit of getting someone in place quickly, with minimal effort. 

But there are drawbacks to this approach, and sector leaders have called for the process to be re-run. 

It would, naturally, be embarrassing for the government to be forced to rerun the process, particularly as the Good Law Project would no doubt declare this as another victory. 

But given that individuals submitted their applications nearly a year ago, it is questionable whether the other candidates are still available, or would be comfortable being the second choice is debatable. 

What next? 

This episode is far from over. The Office for the Commissioners for Public Appointments has begun an investigation to establish the facts. 

Furthermore, this investigation is already on shaky ground, after Shrawcross, who is in charge of the process, seemed to pre-judge aspects under inquiry by stating that DCMS was “not to blame”. 

MPs were visibly frustrated with Shawcross’s answers, and he in turn was clearly annoyed by their probing.

Once this investigation is completed, attention will once again be focused on events of last year, and may well prove a distraction from the important job of appointing a sensible and competent person to run the Commission. 

For now, charities, which may have been expecting to enter 2022 with a sense of regulatory stability, can now expect yet more uncertainty. Even worse, there is now an increased risk that the sector will be used as a political football in what is an explosive environment. 

Civil Society Voices is the place for informed opinion, and debate about the big issues affecting charities today. We’re always keen to hear from anyone, working or volunteering at a charity, who has something to say. Find out more about contributing and how to get in touch.

 

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