The Charity Commission has declined to publish the full text of a governance review that examined the involvement of its board in operational matters, which Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said last week "must be addressed as a matter of urgency".
A two-page summary of the review was published in December. It said there was "a risk of a disconnect between the board and the rest of the organisation" and the board and directors should focus on "a strong sense of connection and common purpose".
Third Sector requested the full report under the Freedom of Information Act on the grounds that the board’s governance was a matter of public interest and the summary was too brief for a reader to gain a proper understanding of the arguments.
In its refusal, the commission cited a section of the act that says information is exempt if it considers release would "be likely to inhibit the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation". It said this outweighed any public interest in disclosure.
The publication of a summary, it added, "allows for transparency and public accountability and preserves a free and frank exchange of views in this particular matter".
The review was conducted by Alan Downey, a former partner of the financial services firm KPMG and a member of the commission’s audit and risk committee, after a recommendation was made in a report on the commission by the National Audit Office in January last year.
The summary said the board decided which functions to keep for itself and which to delegate, and the distinction between reserved and delegated functions was "broadly similar" to that between non-executive and executive functions in other public bodies.
But the board had the authority to "intervene directly in operational matters, particularly those which affect the commission’s reputation and performance. For reasons of accountability and transparency, however, it is important to maintain a distinction between the exercise of delegated functions and the oversight and scrutiny of how they are carried out."
In a letter to the charities minister Rob Wilson last week, Etherington referred to the NAO report’s conclusion that the board’s continuing involvement in executive matters could limit its independence and its ability to hold the executive to account.
He mentioned the involvement of board members, revealed in a High Court judicial review, in the case of whether the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust could be required by the commission to undertake never to make further grants to the advocacy group Cage.
"Considering that the government’s UK Corporate Governance Code says boards should not stray into executive management, we continue to have concerns in this area," said Etherington.
He said there were also continuing concerns about the commission’s independence from party politics, and this and the question of governance needed to be addressed "as a matter of urgency".
Third Sector has asked the commission to reconsider its decision to withhold the full governance report.