Monday, 16 February 2015
Politicising the Charity Commission
It's part of the Sunday morning ritual in Charlbury. I go to the 8am Holy Communion at the Parish Church, then pop up to our friendly newsagents for the morning papers. On this Sunday my pack contained the Sunday Telegraph, as I had heard it might mention the row over the Charity Commission Chair reappointment. I do like the weekend Telegraphs – their news coverage is always rather good even if its tone is true to type – and the travel /reviews etc. are very good. And their assistant editor Philip Johnston is like me an Old Anchorian!
But I digress. Back to the Charity Commission. The recent report of the Independence Panel had some stringent criticisms of the regulator. As they reported , "our concerns about the leadership of the Charity Commission on the independence of the sector have deepened over the last year."
They charge that "the Commission is giving the impression of being politically driven. Its focus seems to be an agenda determined by Government, despite its statutory independence."
This is strong criticism but a view that is now widely shared across our sector. Of course a regulator cannot become too cosy with the sector it regulates. But a regulator following agendas that have little to do with the priorities of that sector or the public, and a lot to do with government politics, is a very dangerous place to be.
That is why I felt it important to raise the issue of the reappointment of the Chair. In his reply to my letter the Cabinet Secretary makes it very clear this was a Ministerial decision by Francis Maude. It is unclear what exactly the civil service advice on this was. The Cabinet Office have a Director of Ethics who I assume was consulted, given this reappointment did not need to happen till after the election. I wonder what she said?
I also noted that there was an appraisal of Mr Shawcross by the Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary Richard Heaton, as required by the OCPA Code. Strange that this appraisal ignored the views of the sector, indeed as far as I know no one (and certainly not me as the charity leaders network head) was asked to input into that appraisal. And given that the NAO had specifically highlighted the blurring of the executive and non executive roles at the Commission I wonder what account was taken of that? It would be useful in the interests of transparency if this appraisal was published.
However the key point here is much broader. It is how we secure an appointment process that is free from political patronage. This role, and indeed the appointment of commissioners, needs to be established free from government.
This will be one of the issues reviewed by the Lord Low Commission on better regulation. We need a new government to urgently review the appointments process and establish it above politics.
If the key task of a Charity Commission is to maintain trust in charities then we need to see an independent regulator. Independent in people's perceptions as well as in reality.
A real test for the Commission is on the horizon. Will they reinforce and support our role as advocates and champions or will they follow yet another government bug bear and try and water down our right to campaign as established by CC9? They have said they will review and somehow I don't think anyone in our sector thinks they plan on strengthening it.