Baroness Stowell, the current chair of the Charity Commission, has recently announced she will not be standing for a second term in the role. After 14 years of concerns around party-political appointments to this public position, policy officer Maisie Hulbert asks: what skills and experience does ACEVO want to see in the next chair?
A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page
In 2018 then Secretary of State Matt Hancock chose to overrule the unanimous recommendation by the DCMS Select Committee not to appoint Baroness Stowell to the chair of the Charity Commission. The Select Committee felt that Baroness Stowell did not demonstrate the necessary knowledge and understanding of charities and was also not assured of her political independence.
During Baroness Stowell’s time at the Commission, issues have also been raised about accountability to the charity sector, the party-political ties of its chair, and what many see as ‘mission creep’ away from a regulatory remit into whether charities meet ‘public expectation’. It is clear that trust between the regulator and some charities has been eroded, but there is an opportunity now to rebuild that relationship. We have identified the key things we want to see in the Commission’s next chair, a position that is vitally important in a time when charities are never more needed.
The charity sector is large and varied, with over 168,000 charities on the register. These organisations are incredibly diverse: some employ hundreds of people and work all over the country, many others are run by volunteers in local communities. The regulator therefore cannot dictate single ways of working. It must create and oversee systems that enable all charities – whatever their shape or size – to deliver services that help communities and people thrive.
The person who leads the regulator needs to have a strong understanding of charities to do this well. There are numerous legal structures overseen by the Charity Commission, including charitable companies, charitable incorporated organisations, unincorporated associations and trusts. The appointment process must examine whether candidates have a well-informed vision of how to regulate across these structures.
At the same time, we aren’t asking for the next chair of the commission to have spent their career to date working in charitable organisations. An effective leader of the regulator must be both impartial and perceived to be impartial. A broad range of experience that includes charities would be ideal. Equally this experience doesn’t need to be gained over decades: we would like to see a shortlist that also recognises talent from candidates younger than those names which are typically assumed to be in the running for the chair role. What is essential is that the successful candidate can demonstrate an understanding of the varied ways charities are constituted and run, and the role of the regulator in overseeing their activities.
The Commission’s responsibilities as a regulator and registrar are (as stated on its website): · registering eligible organisations in England and Wales which are established for only charitable purposes · taking enforcement action when there is malpractice or misconduct · ensuring charities meet their legal requirements, including providing information on their activities each year · making appropriate information about each registered charity widely available to the public · providing guidance to help charities run as effectively as possible · providing online services for charities
The Charity Commission is responsible to Parliament for delivering these responsibilities. The person leading the regulator therefore should have experience or knowledge in regulatory work.
In recent years the sector has been concerned that the regulator has strayed into the realm of responding to public opinion on the concept of ‘charity’. Public benefit (part of how the sector is regulated) is not the same thing as public opinion. There are clear categories of public benefit and all charities must meet one of these requirements, whereas public opinion is multi-dimensional, and no one organisation could meet all public expectations. People may want the regulator to deal with their personal or political grievances, but in most cases these would fall under the remit of the charity’s board of trustees to address. The recent parliamentary debate about launching an inquiry into the National Trust because the charity is seen by some MPs as ‘losing credibility’ is a good example of an issue that is the board’s concern, not the regulator’s.
The next chair of the Charity Commission must demonstrate a firm grasp of this distinction and reiterate that they do not respond to public or political grievance unless a charity is in breach of the law. Regulation should be enabling, inclusive and transparent to allow charities to carry out their best work. The sector needs to understand regulatory requirements and work within them, and in turn the regulator should work within clearly delineated boundaries.
It goes without saying that, given the previous 14 years of conflict on this issue, the next chair of the Charity Commission must demonstrate party-political impartiality. We would like to see an incumbent without ties to any political party, whether as a past politician themselves, or someone with clear personal ties to party-political figures. It must be beyond doubt that the next chair has been appointed in the best interests of the sector, not the best interests of furthering a particular perspective on charity.
Independence goes beyond politics, and the chair of the Charity Commission is under significant pressure from various people to support their view of charity, and what a charity should be. This is not the role of the regulator. It takes strong leadership to push back against such pressure, especially when it comes from powerful, influential voices. The next chair should have experience of roles in which this has been necessary, and compelling examples of how they have demonstrated independence in the face of challenges to their approach in the past.
The next chair must also call out narratives of charities that are false or misleading – for example, the idea that charities should not have any paid staff (which was circulated by the Charity Commission at its Annual General Meeting, as part of a vox-pop exploring public perspectives on charities). This is not realistic and the regulator must have a robust response to this kind of assertion, reaffirming that although certain practices might be unpopular to individuals, this does not mean charities are acting illegally or that the regulator should be involved.
The chair of the Charity Commission, therefore, needs to demonstrate both political independence and independent leadership. They must show that they can juggle conflicting pressures and demonstrate party-political neutrality, and never use their platform to further personal or party political perspectives. This is essential for the sector to trust its regulator.
So what next?
We still think there are some problems with the appointment process to roles such as this one – it doesn’t seem right that a minister can appoint their preferred candidate even when concerns have been raised by others tasked with scrutinising decisions. However, at the end of this process we would like to see a chair who is committed to rebuilding the regulator’s relationship with the sector and reiterates the specific remits of the regulator’s role. We would like to see someone who not only makes public statements about political impartiality, but someone without ties or affiliations to political parties or figures. Whether the appointment process itself is reformed or not, the sector would be strengthened by a better relationship with an accountable, transparent and independent regulator, and this is an opportunity to deliver that.
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