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Getting Britain’s charities back on track: how to actually make that happen

By ACEVO’s policy team.

On Sunday 11 September, Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for DCMS, wrote a piece for the Sunday Telegraph entitled “It’s time to get Britain’s charities back on track“. After one of the most challenging years for the sector in most people’s memory, it is true that the sector needs support to return to pre-pandemic levels of work and income.

Unfortunately, Dowden seems to have different ideas about getting back on track. Ideas which have the potential to undermine the independence of charities and the Charity Commission. His piece carries the subheading “We cannot allow our fantastic philanthropic institutions to become subsumed by wokery”. Dowden feels that charities are being “hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials”, and that their engagement with complex social and cultural issues (citing cases at the Churchill Fellowship and the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation) is distracting charities from their core missions. He states that “the most successful charities of the next century will be those focused on their core purpose of delivering positive change.”

Charities deliver positive change in numerous ways. Dowden has his own view on what positive change looks like, and the best ways in which charities should work towards that change – as we all do. However, this piece demonstrates a concerning shift in narrative in which Dowden does not point out that this is the role of charity trustees, but instead indicates that he will ensure the next chair of the Charity Commission shares his opinion. This could heavily undermine the independence of the regulator, at a time when trust in the Charity Commission’s political impartiality is vital.

Why independence matters

Charities have many strengths, but a key one is their independence from the government of the day. Government policy does not dictate what charities do: these decisions are made by trustees who have a wide remit to decide how they will act in line with their charitable objectives. They can spend their resources on service delivery; they can fund other projects, charities and community groups; they can campaign and seek wider policy change. This independence allows charities to work across party-political boundaries to create the greatest possible impact. Ultimately, if a board can demonstrate careful consideration of their options; that the work they do is in line with their charitable objectives; and that is does not breach charity law, then the way the charity operates is up to them.

Dowden seems to think that charities are somehow distracted from pursuing this positive change; however this claim seems unnecessarily alarmist and (on the whole) unevidenced. Dowden appears to be referring to contested public debates during which charities have been charged with not delivering their core mission. Recently the regulator has investigated complaints about such issues – for example, investigations into the National Trust and the Runnymede Trust for their decisions to engage with colonial history and anti-racism respectively. In both cases the Charity Commission has found no evidence of wrongdoing. The chief executive Helen Stephenson wrote in March that charities are allowed to take controversial positions in support of their charitable purposes, provided the trustees can evidence this. Charities may stray from what you, I or the secretary of state thinks they should do, but it is not up to us. The regulator is not finding evidence for the “worrying trend” Dowden references.

The role of an independent regulator

The Charity Commission is clearly a vital player in upholding the independence of charities from government positions, and ACEVO advocates for proportionate, enabling and independent regulation for charities to thrive. We do not believe that regulatory oversight should be removed; however, we do believe that the independence of charities must be upheld at the highest levels of the Commission. This builds trust in the regulator across the sector, and strengthens the Commission’s provision of independent oversight in line with charity law. This is enacted through robust investigative processes when complaints are raised, which balance support and regulatory functions and allow charities to improve.

It is therefore extremely worrying that Dowden’s piece indicates a departure from such independence. He says he has “instructed those leading the search to ensure that the new leader of the Commission will restore charities’ focus to their central purpose”, indicating that he intends the next leader of the Commission to share his view of how charities should achieve positive change. He says that candidates will be tested on how they will “commence this rebalancing”.

This is not the rebalancing the sector needs to see. I have written before about how the long history of politically partisan appointments to the position of chair of the Charity Commission has undermined trust in the regulator, and that this appointment process offers an opportunity to rebuild trust between sector and regulator. I am concerned to see a public appointment process weaponised to enforce the government’s view on what charities should – and should not – do. If the Commission is led by a party-political figure who supports this position, fear of regulatory action on top of numerous other deterrents (including anti-advocacy clauses and the upcoming PCSC and Elections Bills) could deter many charities from engaging in the spaces where they are most needed. Seeking to place someone in a role to encourage such deterrence is an undemocratic abuse of power which could undermine the sector’s vital role in creating long-lasting social change.

The government seems determined to ensure its view of charity dictates who takes up the position of chair of the Charity Commission. The process has already been impacted by unexplained delays, causing the Commissioner for Public Appointments to complain to Michael Gove in this letter that he has been “asked to agree appointments where the exceptional circumstances […] have not been explained”. It is clear that this process is not being conducted in the transparent, accountable and politically neutral way we called for in partnership with a coalition of infrastructure bodies.

Getting our charities back on track might look different to everyone, but delaying vital appointments to their regulatory body or undermining their independence will only limit positive change. Charities will get back on track if their independence is valued, and if they can engage openly and maturely with government to share their expertise on the most challenging and contested issues of today. Threatening their independence will only further harm the communities and places who need to see change most.

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