Charity Commission board members reappointed despite criticism

Prins (left) and Fraser
Prins (left) and Fraser

The Cabinet Office has reappointed the academic Gwythian Prins and the barrister Orlando Fraser as Charity Commission board members for at least another year, despite their roles in controversial incidents over the past 12 months.

The solicitors Tony Leifer and Eryl Besse have also had their appointments extended and will serve until December 2018, with Besse taking up the position of deputy chair, the Cabinet Office announced yesterday.

The original terms of all four members were originally due to end between May and July this year.

The Cabinet Office said it had begun advertising to replace the departing board members Claire Dove, chair of Social Enterprise UK and whose term at the regulator will end on 30 June, and the former senior police officer Peter Clarke, who left the board earlier this year to become the chief inspector of prisons.

An additional board member with experience of operations and IT is also being sought to help oversee the regulator’s transformation programme, the Cabinet Office said.

Asheem Singh, chief executive designate of the charity leaders body Acevo, said Prins’s reappointment was "a huge blow to the integrity of the commission".

Prins, whose term on the board has been extended until 1 June 2017, attracted controversy when he wrote an essay calling for the UK to leave the EU, just weeks after the Charity Commission issued guidance on campaigning ahead of the EU referendum – this was later revised after legal experts claimed it was too restrictive.

The Cabinet Office and the Charity Commission then announced they would be carrying out a joint investigation into whether Prins had broken impartiality rules.

Fraser, who will remain on the board until the end of December 2017, was also criticised after Third Sector revealed his comments in an internal commission email. In the email he urged the regulator to conduct a "look-see" investigation of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust along the lines of an investigation the regulator had carried out as part of its investigation into the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain.

Singh expressed concern, that despite the investigation, Prins’s appointment had apparently been "waved through".

He said: "The governance arrangements of the commission must now be considered as gravely compromised. 

"Charities deserve better than to have the board of their regulator being run as little more than a chat room for its chair."

He also expressed regret at the loss of Dove, who did not seek reappointment because of work commitments, according to the Cabinet Office.

"The commission’s board has never been less representative or aware of the sector it is supposed to regulate," said Singh.

"Claire Dove was the only board member with active working knowledge of the sector. Her loss means that we have left behind a pick and mix of bureaucrats, lawyers and theoreticians.

"Sadly, the regulator has become a byword for an inadequate and largely patrician professionalism and governance that belongs to a bygone era. Its staff – serious, dedicated regulatory professionals – will be mortified."

But the former Charity Commission board member Andrew Purkis, whose vocal criticism of Prins’s anti-EU essay sparked the investigation, said it would have been remarkable if the commission had chosen to have more than three board vacancies at once.

"I think it may well be significant that the first to go will be Prins," he said. "His departure will be only a year away, and it’s not that usual to reappoint for such a short amount of time. But I will let others draw conclusions as to why that might be."

The recruitment process for new board members is expected to be complete by the end of the summer, according to a commission statement.

William Shawcross, the commission chair, said in a statement: "I encourage those who care deeply about the future of charity in this country, and who have the necessary skills, to come forward and apply."

The call for applications said candidates should have detailed knowledge of charities, digital expertise and/or extensive understanding of law enforcement or national security.

Successful applicants will be paid £350 a day for about 18 days a year.

Jay Kennedy, director of policy at the Directory of Social Change, said it was great that prominence had been given to detailed knowledge of the sector, but prioritising national security expertise was "quite simply ridiculous".

He said the lack of a requirement to understand charity law and regulation was "not just ridiculous, it’s irresponsible" and that experience in PR or public affairs should also have been prioritised.

"Sadly, for me the advert doesn’t form a great basis for addressing the ongoing issues with the commission’s governance, but we live in hope," Kennedy said.

A spokesman for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said: "Charity expertise should run throughout the board, and we hope the forthcoming appointments will reflect this. Some greater diversity among the board would also be beneficial to the commission."

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