Charity Commission board member Gwythian Prins 'broke impartiality rules'

Gwythian Prins
Gwythian Prins

The Charity Commission and the Cabinet Office will look into a complaint that the commission board member Gwythian Prins broke Cabinet Office impartiality rules in an anti-EU essay.

Andrew Purkis, a former commission board member, has written to William Shawcross, the regulator’s chair, claiming that Prins’s essay Beyond the Ghosts – does EU membership erode Britain’s global influence?, published by the campaign group Historians for Britain and due to be republished by the think tank the Institute for Economic Affairs, was a "conspicuous, multiple breach" of the Code of Conduct for Board Members of Public Bodies.

Purkis sent copies of the letter to Paula Sussex, chief executive of the commission, and Matthew Hancock, the Minister for the Cabinet Office.

Purkis told Third Sector the essay was "an extraordinary example of what you should not do if you’re a member of a public body" and "completely out of order".

His letter outlined five sections of the code he believed the essay had breached, including clauses that require board members to abstain from controversial political activity, to make no political statements on matters directly related to the body’s work, to exercise proper discretion, to avoid conflict between public duties and private interests, and to avoid the suggestion of bias.

He called for Shawcross to consider Prins’s position as a commission board member.

Purkis told Third Sector: "When I was on the Charity Commission board, none of us would have dreamed of publishing something like that.

"I thought this behaviour should be challenged and that the chair of the commission should be asked to act on it."

At a minimum, he said, the commission’s board members should be reminded of the code’s contents.

He added: "I think it is a serious issue for consideration by the chair as to whether Gwythian Prins, with his very strong, militant views about current political issues, is the right sort of person to be bound by the requirements of a public body."

He said Prins’s comments were particularly problematic in light of the commission’s recent guidance on charity campaigning in the run-up to the EU referendum, which was widely criticised by sector bodies and lawyers as being too prescriptive and was later reissued with softer language.

The episode, said Purkis, pointed to "some very serious problems of dysfunctionality" within the commission.

"Clearly, if we know somebody like Prins has expressed rumbustious pro-Brexit views it clearly gives rise to the perception that his attitudes will partly explain why this extraordinarily negative guidance was issued – this is one of the reasons why the code of conduct was so important," he said.

Purkis, a trustee for the humanitarian charity ActionAid, also criticised Prins’s essay for its comments on human rights, which it said were "slippery", "dangerous" and "need to be rescued from the human rights movement".

In his letter, Purkis said these comments broke the section of the code that says board members should not make political statements on matters directly related to the work of the public body they serve.

Purkis told Third Sector: "Human rights are a charitable objective that is recognised by parliament.

"What he’s saying is extraordinary – how can that possibly be consistent with somebody who is supposed impartially to handle issues to do with human rights charities, when his stated public view is that human rights need to be rescued from the charities he is supposed to be regulating?"

The Charity Commission and the Cabinet office said they would be considering Purkis’s complaints in consultation with each other.

In a statement, Shawcross said: "As the chair it is my duty and responsibility to protect and uphold the independence and integrity of the Charity Commission and I take this duty extremely seriously.

"The Charity Commission will, in consultation with the Cabinet Office, take all the necessary steps to consider the issues raised against the requirements of the Cabinet Office Code of Conduct for Board Members of Public Bodies."

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