The outgoing chair of the Charity Commission talks to Stephen Cook about the controversies, achievements and frustrations of six years in the role
Tucked into a corner of the Charity Commission's entrance lobby is a white marble bust of Peter Erle, the benevolent-looking first chief charity commissioner, who served in Victorian times and is believed to have enjoyed a happy retirement.
Walking past him, Dame Suzi Leather, who steps down as chair of the commission in two weeks' time, speculates that some people might have wanted her to suffer the fate of the second and third chief commissioners. "They both died in office," she smiles.
The joke is a reference to the criticism, sometimes virulent and personal, that she has suffered from some right-wing politicians, newspapers and lawyers during her six years at the commission - criticism that has sometimes overshadowed its work and achievements.
The attacks stemmed from the fact that she is a Labour Party member, and was appointed under the last Labour government shortly after ministers had guided through parliament the Charities Act 2006, which removed the presumption of public benefit from charities concerned with poverty, religion and - crucially - education.
The act required the commission to draw up guidance on how all charities should demonstrate their public benefit, and it wasn't long before her opponents marked her down as the leader of a politically motivated campaign to attack private schools by forcing them to give more bursaries and share facilities with state schools.
Nearly six years later, the issue still rumbles on: the commission's guidance is being revised after a challenge by the Independent Schools Council last year in the Upper Tribunal, which said parts of it were "obscure or wrong in a number of respects".
Leather's view on the guidance is that parliament gave the commission "what some have called a 'hospital pass'" - a hugely difficult job, which politicians declined to tackle, of distilling 400 years of case law into the new guidance. There was no bias and the work was done "carefully, collaboratively, consultatively and independently", she says. "But charitable independent schools are a toxic issue in public debate and, as the Upper Tribunal said last year, the overall issue of whether you should have this category of charity is a really political decision."
So would it have been easier to get through all this if she had resigned from the Labour Party? "I think it has to be possible for people to hold membership of mainstream political parties at the same time as holding public office without the assumption that anything they do is going to be partial, unfair and ideologically driven," she says.
"I think that assumption is a nonsense. I have been a member of a mainstream political party for many years - the idea that anything about me would have changed if I had simply stopped being a member does not hold water. The board never asked me to resign and, if other colleagues had suggested it, I would have told them what I've just told you. I have not been active politically and I couldn't see the point of resigning for the sake of it.
"It's neither here nor there what people have said about me personally. But it's extremely unfair to the commission, because it implies that the way decisions are made is that the chair simply decides and then issues an edict telling everyone else 'this is how we will do it'. That is so far from the truth and I cannot impress on you enough how grossly misguided that is."
Leather says she is "satisfied, sad and relieved - in that order" to be leaving the commission. She regards it as a watershed that Lord Hodgson is due to report soon on his review of the Charities Act 2006, and says she is confident he will want to see a strong Charity Commission in the future.
But it is clear she is worried about what the government has in mind, given the differences between her job description and that of her successor, which no longer requires the chair to lead implementation of the commission's strategies and plans, including its contribution to legislative reform, or to advise on the appointment of board members. Leather says the exclusion of legislative advice, in the light of the Hodgson review, is significant, and that "the Cabinet Office is establishing very clearly much more control over the direction of the commission, as expressed in the choice of board members".
She is also concerned about two aspects of the person specification. The first is a new requirement to regulate independently and impartially. "In my experience, the commission has always regulated independently and impartially," she says. The second is the requirement for experience in the charity and/or private sector, with no mention of the public sector. "I would question whether someone who had experience only of the private sector and did not have a lot of personal experience of charities would be suitable to chair the commission," she says.
"Overall, there are some pretty big challenges for my successor - protecting the integrity of commission decision-making and defending its independence, including that of its website, which we want to keep out of government control. The skills needed are an understanding of the sector and the values-based nature of the activities of charities. Whoever it is might also need to be prepared for what came my way in terms of media attack.
"There is a real challenge about ensuring that government understands and values the Charity Commission. I will be fascinated to see what Lord Hodgson comes up with, but I hope he is unequivocal in his support for a strong, well-resourced regulator. Strengthening what the sector does - which the government is committed to - must go hand in hand with maintaining the strength of the regulator."
- Read about Dame Suzi Leather's achievements and disappointments
Four experts in charity law and governance give their views of Dame Suzi Leather's stewardship of the Charity Commission
Stephen Lloyd, senior partner, Bates Wells & Braithwaite, Solicitors:
Dame Suzi Leather took over at the Charity Commission on 1 August 2006, just before the Charities Act 2006 started to be implemented. This was not a simple role - even in the first few years of her leadership, the commission was subject to a freeze on expenditure. Towards the end, it has been facing up to major cuts. But the biggest challenge was dealing with the 'hospital pass' from parliament - the vexed political question of public benefit, which the politicians had decided to duck. Although the Upper Tribunal has required some of the commission's guidance to be rewritten, a large proportion of it has stood. It was always going to be difficult to create guidance that negotiated the fine line between precedent - and charity law is dominated by history - and changing social and economic norms. But under her leadership the commission got it broadly, if not absolutely, right. Her warmth, commitment and energy will be missed by all those who had the pleasure of working with her.
Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive, Directory of Social Change:
Dame Suzi is one of the bravest women I have met - she has been pilloried in the national newspapers, attacked by politicians at the highest level and subjected to the kind of public and private bullying and abuse that charities were set up to stop. And yet she has never wavered - she has simply continued to do what she believes to be right.
Let's put this myth to bed once and for all: this business about her being some kind of Labour stooge with a hidden agenda to attack public schools is a total nonsense. The Charity Commission implemented the Charities Act 2006 in the way it thought was correct. It didn't get it all right, but that wasn't because of ideology. If I were Dame Suzi, I would be proud of what the commission had achieved during my time there, but really worried about the future. There is a real risk that the ridiculous cuts to the commission's budget will erode the progress made under her tenure.
Phil Hope, Minister for the Third Sector, 2007 TO 2008:
As Minister for the Third Sector I had great pleasure in working with Suzi during a critical period for the commission. She combined a sharp intellect with tough negotiating skills and an easy charm to achieve many important successes for the sector.
Suzi was a powerful advocate and I always knew that meetings with her were going to be tricky by the extent and depth of the civil service pre-meeting briefings I received. But it became clear that we shared similar values and ambitions and, although we had our differences at times, her personal style and unwavering commitment to do the best for charities led to a strong and productive relationship that I value to this day.
Leading the commission has required considerable personal courage at times and charities across the country owe Suzi a huge debt of gratitude for her work on their behalf. It was a privilege working with her and I wish her every success in her next field of endeavour.
Linda Laurance, governance consultant:
I was introduced to Dame Suzi not long after she took on the role of Charity Commission chair - I found her very approachable, seeking a dialogue that would increase her understanding, responsive to ideas, appreciative and encouraging. To that initial impression I now would add the qualities of stamina and courage. During her term the commission has become more accessible, opening itself up to scrutiny, being more consultative and making the language of its publications more intelligible and relevant. Suzi herself has come under public scrutiny - at times harsh - to which she has responded with dignity. The commission's regulatory role has gained a higher, albeit sometimes unwelcome, public profile, although awareness of its mission remains patchy. There have been necessary budgetary constraints and organisational restructuring, implementation of which has required a strong relationship between chair and chief executive, and the support of an experienced and well-informed board.