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An independent, accountable and transparent regulator

DCMS released details of the job description and person specification for the role of the chair of the Charity Commission on 9 March 2021. Policy officer Maisie Hulbert reflects on how the requirements for this recruitment round compare to the previous process, and what ACEVO would like to see.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

This week, the Charity Commission announced that the National Trust did not breach charity law by publishing a report examining links between the histories of its properties and colonialism and slavery. The Trust’s report prompted very public criticism of the charity from high-profile political figures, who accused the organisation of losing its way. At the time, controversial comments by the then chair of the Charity Commission Baroness Tina Stowell pulled the National Trust unnecessarily deeper into this ‘culture war’.

It was therefore welcome  to see the CEO of the Charity Commission Helen Stephenson publish a blog stating that “Charities are allowed to campaign and to take controversial positions in support of their purpose […] engaging in public debate from a variety of perspectives, giving a voice to their beneficiaries and highlighting their cause and, in doing so, ultimately changing society.” Charities may not always hold a view that everyone agrees with, but it is not the role of the regulator to police these perspectives.

Issues of party politics, culture wars and campaigning are particularly timely as we look ahead to the recruitment of the next chair of the Charity Commission. There is real potential for the next incumbent to rebuild trust and engage with the sector with the transparency and accountability necessary for charities to thrive.  

In January I wrote a draft person specification for the next chair of the Charity Commission, highlighting the key areas of expertise we felt the ideal candidate should have, and drawing out some of the nuances of the role. Now the recruitment process has launched, I’ve taken a look at whether the person specification and job description addresses some of our concerns.

The previous person specification

In August 2017, the recruitment process for the chair of the Charity Commission used the job description and person specification set out here. The job description for the application process which has just launched is identical; however, the person specification has some interesting differences.

There are several additions to the specification, including:

  • “The ability to build and recruit a high-performing Board and support the organisation through a period of significant change”. The point about recruitment is new here, and indicates that the Commission might be seeking new voices or expertise at board level
  • “A strong commitment to diversity, inclusion and providing opportunities for all”. This was previously not a personal attribute but included as part of a statement welcoming candidates from all backgrounds. We hope that the next chair engages fully with issues of equity, diversity and inclusion across the sector.

Another significant addition to the person specification states that the next chair of the Charity Commission should have “a strong commitment to ensuring charities remain focused on delivering their core charitable purposes and ensuring that trustees understand their legal duties, including on campaigning and political activity”. In some senses, this explicit signposting of an issue which has a huge impact on the sector and the regulator is promising. It would be welcome for the next Charity Commission chair to see part of their role as upholding the legal right of charities to engage in difficult public issues, even in the face of party-political pressure from parliamentarians.

It is therefore more important than ever that the chair must demonstrate independence from party politics, and the advertisement references this in the conflict-of-interest section. The webpage includes the following information:

“Given the need for the Charity Commission to be, and to be seen to be, impartial and independent in its regulation of charities, engagement in significant political activity (holding office, public speaking, making a recordable donation or candidature for election) is likely to prove a significant conflict of interest for candidates applying for this role.”

The advert states that any significant political activity within the last five years must be disclosed within the conflict-of-interest form, in line with the Governance Code for Public Appointments. It is certainly positive that the advert clearly indicates that party-political activity will likely constitute a conflict of interest. Nonetheless, previous recruitment processes have all been conducted in this way, as mandated by the Governance Code for Public Appointments. There is therefore no guarantee that this approach to conflicts of interest would rule out individuals with significant party-political ties or sympathies.

It is therefore a particular concern that independence on the whole (party-political and more generally) is not mentioned – and in fact has been removed – from the person specification. The last person specification included the need for the candidate to demonstrate: “personal integrity and resilience, demonstrable independence and other attitudes consistent with the expectations of senior public office in a high-profile role.” I would have liked the person specification to reiterate that independent thought and leadership are essential attributes for the next chair beyond the requirements for reporting conflicts of interest. This is especially important at the moment, as it is particularly vital that the regulator challenges misinformation and pushes back against incorrect perspectives on what charities can and should do, to ensure the sector can have the greatest impact in supporting communities.

The big holes

Most importantly, this person specification simply does not place enough emphasis on the importance of a broad, extensive knowledge of charities. This person specification refers to “an understanding of and interest in” charities, which may not attract candidates with the necessary understanding of the breadth and depth of the sector. Perhaps more concerningly, there is no mention in the person specification of the candidate needing any knowledge or understanding of regulation; just “a commitment to the charity sector’s effective, independent, proportionate and impartial regulation”. I would have liked to have seen a clear reference to expertise and knowledge of the sector and role of a regulator, to ensure the opportunity to reset the relationship between charities and the Commission is fully embraced.

The next Charity Commission chair

There are some elements of this person specification with real potential to improve things. If the successful candidate is independent from party politics and respects the legal right of charities to campaign, then trust between the sector and regulator could be transformed.

However, a candidate could meet the requirements of this person specification and still believe that charities should avoid campaigning or debate altogether. The incoming chair needs to be explicit about the rights of charities to engage in campaigns and debate, and reiterate to the public that the regulator’s role is not to ensure that charities are agreeable, but that they work within the law. Ultimately this is the enabling and proportionate regulation which will allow charities to have the greatest possible impact.

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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