Charity Commission chair Dame Suzi Leather's measured personality and quango background have attracted almost as much attention as the hot debate about public benefit. John Plummer meets her.
It is difficult to think of many subjects less likely to stir the excitement of newspaper editors than charity regulation. Yet the broadsheets can't seem to get enough of the woman at the helm of the Charity Commission: Dame Suzi Leather or, as the papers tend to call her, the queen of the quangocracy.
Leather, 51, has probably been profiled more times than anyone else in the voluntary sector over the past few years, and her looks and CV rarely go unmentioned. Having held nearly 30 public appointments, she can hardly deny the 'quangocracy' label, although she maintains that quangos are important organisations and she has been fortunate to work for them.
Her recent popularity is due as much to circumstance as charisma. Since she became commission chair 18 months ago, her tenure has been not so much marked as entirely dominated by the incessant debate about public benefit. In some ways it's a debate she can't win. The same newspapers that admire her personal qualities sneer at her as a New Labour stooge who is trying to destroy public schools by stripping them of their charitable status. Other people think the commission is caving in to fee-paying schools by making the public benefit test so weak it's meaningless.
The argument will rage for a while yet. The commission published its final public benefit guidance a fortnight ago and, although its supplementary guidance later this year should provide more detail, it seems inevitable that this one will end up in the new Charity Tribunal.
The public benefit issue has personal resonance for Leather: she withdrew from the debate in July last year on legal advice because her third daughter attends an independent school, of which more later. This is clearly a sensitive subject, but it is not the only one that, in the presence of a commission press officer, causes her to take long pauses before answering questions. By contrast, she is spontaneous in front of the camera, and needs little direction from the photographer.
Unlike her predecessor, Geraldine Peacock, who was steeped in the sector, this is Leather's first paid job in the voluntary sector, although she has volunteered for organisations such as Age Concern. She points out that not being a scientist or medic did not hinder her progress at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and was in some ways an advantage. "There is no temptation to talk in jargon," she says.
The HFEA regulates fertility treatment and embryo research, so Leather is no stranger to emotive debates. "I came from an organisation that in a sense had too big a profile, and I was quite surprised by the comparatively low profile of this sector," she says. She was also struck by "the gap between what people think charities are and what they actually do. That's a particular battle when talking about public benefit."
Officially she works three days a week, travelling from Exeter on Tuesday mornings and returning home from London on Thursday evenings. But the job frequently spills into the rest of the week. "I was working on commission stuff most of Monday and I will be out doing charity visits on Friday," she says. Yet she doesn't think the position should be full-time. "There is value in having a part-time executive role," she says. She talks about the importance of maintaining distance from day-to-day operations and of "stillness". She says: "Stillness is important in thinking."
Some commission staff think the job's part-time status distances her from management and staff at a time when job cuts and a raft of new responsibilities are looming. "There is concern about whether she can display strong enough leadership at this difficult time," says a colleague, who suggests she visits the commission's offices in Liverpool, Taunton and Newport more often. But he adds: "The feeling is that she's fairly astute, intellectually capable of doing the job and comes across well at meetings. There has been a lot of difficult legal stuff for her to get to grips with and she's done it well." Leather admits not being a lawyer adds an "additional dimension" to her job. But she adds: "In a way it's helpful because you have to explain law to people who aren't lawyers."
She cites her biggest disappointment as "not being able to persuade the Government to give the commission more resources", which has created "clear difficulties". She adds: "It does mean we are having to cut some valuable activity and change the way we do things. The good thing about this is that it's making us think carefully about our priorities. That's good discipline for any organisation. But an organisation such as the Charity Commission is its staff, and I'm acutely aware that the financial difficulties are affecting them."
Asked what she's proudest of, she names the public benefit guidance, which she says has been well received. But she says the fierce debate about independent schools is potentially damaging to the sector. She explains: "We want all trustees to read the guidance and think 'what is this going to mean to us and how are we going to implement it?' Because of this over-dominance of the public school issue, you could be forgiven for thinking the guidance was only for public schools."
But hasn't her membership of the Labour Party fuelled the debate by politicising it? "I think this would have happened whoever had been chair of the Charity Commission," she says. "I am a member of the Labour Party. I've been open about that. But I'm not actively political. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that we all have multiple identities and allegiances. Yes, I'm a member of the Labour Party - but I'm also a wife, mother and daughter, and someone who works in the public sector as a regulator and lives in the west country. If people see only one thing, they make blinkered and narrow assumptions about what a person is like."
She is less forthcoming when asked why she did not withdraw sooner from the public benefit discussions because of her conflict of interests. Activist lawyer Rosamund McCarthy is among those who say it should have been sorted out at the beginning of the consultation.
Leather says: "We have clear and, I think, good policies about declaring personal interests. It became clearer that where you have a direct financial interest, that is different." But when did it become clearer? She says she can't remember and "the important thing is that it was sorted out before the decision-making stage". Asked whether she would deal with the situation in the same way, she says she would ensure the same outcome.
There may be some dissatisfaction about Leather's late withdrawal, but many people think she has done a good job at a difficult time. McCarthy calls her a "class act" and says: "The idea that she is a stooge of New Labour is risible." With the public benefit row set to rumble on, interest in the commission - and in Leather - is likely to continue.
2006: Chair of Charity Commission
2006: Dame Commander for services to the regulation of IVF and embryo research
2005-06: Chair of School Food Trust
2002-06: Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority
2000-02: Deputy chair of the UK Food Standards Agency
1997-01: Chair of Exeter and District Community NHS Trust
1994: MBE for services to agriculture and food safety
1987-97: Consumer representative and food policy campaigner
1986: BPhil in social work, Exeter University
1984-86: Trainee probation officer
1979-84: Research officer, Consumers in Europe Group
1978: MA in European politics, Leicester University
1977: BA in politics, Exeter University
Five things you never knew about Dame Suzi Leather
1. She earned the nickname 'Sexy Suzi' in the tabloids after allegedly wearing leather trousers at a press conference. But she insists: "I have never, ever possessed a pair of leather trousers." And she dismisses the nickname as "a joke".
2. She was born in Uganda, where her parents were working at the time. Both her parents were doctors and her mother worked as a psychosexual counsellor. She is a member of the Labour Party and describes herself as a Christian socialist.
3. She likes to keep fit and in the 80s ran a marathon in about five hours to raise money for Christian Aid. She no longer runs, but works out at a gym and goes hill walking. In the summer she swims.
4. She attended Exeter University at the same time as third sector minister Phil Hope: she studied history, while he did an education degree. She met her husband at university and they have three children. She later trained in probation and social work. Most of her career has been in the consumer movement.
5. She is fond of feet and adept at foot massage. "I think feet are beautiful," she says. Her predecessor, Geraldine Peacock, is among those whose feet have been soothed by her hands.