Kirsty Weakley: Whipping up fears of a ‘woke’ takeover in charities is nothing more than a dirty political move

16 Sep 2021 Voices

At the weekend, the then culture secretary suggested charities were in need of rebalancing. Kirsty Weakley unpicks his article and looks at what he wrote, what he left out, and the charity response

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Are you worried about the "woke" takeover of the charity sector? Probably not. I don’t expect that it will appear on many charities’ risk registers. 

Instead, charities are worried about escalating demand, challenges around raising enough money, keeping on top of changing Covid-19 safety protocols and responding to the climate emergency. 

Nonetheless, the fear that charities are being overrun by woke warriors seeking to cause divisions in society appears to have taken hold in the Conservative Party. 

This is encapsulated in last weekend’s extraordinary Telegraph article about the Charity Commission by the cabinet minister who was responsible for charities until this week's reshuffle, Oliver Dowden.

One of the duties of the DCMS minister is pick the chair of the Charity Commission, and Dowden said he had written to candidates to tell them that to be successful they will be expected to “rebalance” the sector, which sounds more than a little threatening. 

Although Dowden has now left the role, his replacement Nadine Dorries has not been shy of engaging in the culture war herself, and nor has the Conservative government as a whole, so it would not be a surprise if she follows in the same vein.

Flawed understanding of charities

There were some fundamental flaws in Dowden's article, not least when it came to the powers that candidates would have to achieve what he asked of them.

He wrote: “I have instructed those leading the search to ensure that the new leader of the Commission will restore charities’ focus to their central purpose and empower trustees to be robust.” 

He added that candidates will be “tested on how they will harness the oversight powers of the Commission to commence this rebalancing. And ministers will only select a candidate that can convince on these criteria.” 

The picture he painted, where trustees are somehow so intimidated or distracted that they need the regulator to come round and sort them out, simply does not chime with the charity sector that Civil Society News reports on day in, day out. 

But more importantly, as influential as the chair of the Commission might be, they do not have the power to make the kind of targeted interventions that the article implied. 

Indeed, as the Commission frequently points out, the regulator is not there to tell charities what to do. Its role is to make sure that decisions the trustees make are in line with charity law and that proper governance procedures are being followed. 

This might sound dull and procedural. But good governance really does matter. This is what the Commission is an expert on, and where it holds the relevant powers to ensure trustees are complying with their duties. 

Imagine the chaos if Commission case workers were suddenly expected to offer direction on everything from animal welfare standards, suitable youth centre activities, appropriate medical treatment and how to arrange a display at a heritage centre. 

There would be chaos. And without a substantial cash injection, there is no way that the existing regulator could play this inspectorate role effectively. 

Missing context 

Dowden gave two examples to back up his concerns. 

One of these was the supposed controversy around the Churchill Fellowship’s name change and website redesign. In this case, the charity issued a pointed statement to “set the record straight”, which came from none other than the charity's chair and Winston Churchill’s grandson, Jeremy Soames.

Nonetheless, the charity was included in Dowden's article because he “found it quite extraordinary that it got to the position where this clarification was required”.

You might argue that it only got to this point because people, including the prime minister’s own aides, were desperate for there to be some kind of scandal. 

Dowden also conveniently left out examples involving the National Trust, Barnardo’s and the Runnymede Trust. Conservative MPs had complained about these charities being political, but the regulator ultimately ruled that the charities had done exactly what the culture secretary said he wants them to do and behaved in accordance with their purposes.

Were they left out simply because they didn't back up the argument he wished to make? Or was the weekend’s article an attempt to publicly signal his frustration with the way the Commission handled them?

Chilling message for charities 

The op-ed included a clear message to charities: there will be no more financial support for the sector, and charities should be less reliant on government grants. 

Again, however, his argument is flimsy. The suggestion that charities risk becoming too reliant on government funding simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

The grant funding during the pandemic was a drop in the ocean, and in normal times most charities get very little funding directly from government. According to the most recent NCVO Almanac data, just under a third of charity income comes from local and national government sources.

Furthermore, it looks as though Dowden was seeking to use that £750m package, which directly benefited a very small proportion of the sector, as leverage to expect obedience from the entire sector. 

“We understand the importance of the vital work done by charities. But in return for that support, charities must recognise there is a wider group to which they owe their existence,” Dowden said. 

“The taxpayer has made no demands of those in receipt of these lifelines but those who have accessed this funding must pay due consideration to the wider constituency that now has a stake in their work.

“We do our bit when we donate to charities; they must do theirs by ensuring that every penny is spent on real impact.” 

‘Our agreement with the culture secretary is limited’ 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to regular readers that charities were furious, aghast and frustrated by Dowden’s intervention.

Responses on Twitter variously described the article as “chilling”, “horrifying” and “grim”, with a few illustrative emojis thrown in. 

NCVO’s interim chief executive, Sarah Vibert, said “our agreement with the culture secretary is limited”.

In a blog on NCVO’s website, she argued it was unfair to describe charities as being reliant on government funding or to suggest that charities do not spend enough on the end cause. 

Vibert went on to say that the government should have more respect for its charity partners. “We are – and can be – valuable partners in achieving the government’s priorities,” she wrote.

“But partnership relies on mutual understanding and respect.”

‘Weaponising the appointment process’ 

Sector representative bodies have consistently emphasised the importance of the regulator being, and being seen to be, independent of the government of the day. 

However, this seems to have little impact of the politicians making the appointments, who continue to appoint people they seem to hope will support their vision of the charity sector. Predictably this leads to a tense relationship between the Commission’s board and charity leaders.

Earlier this week, ACEVO’s Maisie Hulbert suggested that the recruitment of the chair has been “weaponised to enforce the government’s view on what charities should – and should not – do”

Installing a Commission chair who will do the government’s bidding is an “undemocratic abuse of power” she added. 

Atmosphere of distrust

With interviews only just commencing, it is unlikely that anyone will be given the chair role for a good while yet. 

But whoever the lucky candidate is, it seems unavoidable that their background and connections will be highly scrutinised by a suspicious sector looking for reasons not to trust them. 

This hardly seems like the ideal start for anyone in such an important role, especially given the challenges that we know lie ahead. Without radical reform to remove politics, and politicians, from the appointment process, it is difficult to see how things could possibly improve.

Nadine Dorries is now in charge at DCMS, but it is in her interests to continue the culture war with charities and to ensure the next Commission chair is a political appointment. As Dowden said, the British public care a lot about charities, which is exactly why the sector, and its regulator, are such a useful political football. 

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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