Editorial: New blood is urgently needed on the Charity Commission's board

Two of its more controversial board members have been appointed, but three vacancies are an opportunity to achieve greater diversity and balance, writes Third Sector's contributing editor Stephen Cook

It was announced by the Cabinet Office last week that Claire Dove is leaving the board of the Charity Commission when her three-year term expires at the end of this month. She is one of two women on the seven-strong board, the only non-white member and the only one with experience of the voluntary sector through her work in social enterprise in Liverpool.

Of the four other members reaching the end of their first term, two of them – the lawyers Eryl Besse and Tony Leifer - have been reappointed for two and a half years. Orlando Fraser, another lawyer, has been reappointed for 18 months and the academic Gwythian Prins for a year.  Audit specialist Mike Ashley’s first term ends in October next year, and the chair, William Shawcross, has already been re-appointed until October 2018.

Neither Besse nor Leifer have made any discernible waves in public, and Besse, a woman whose work, according to the commission "greatly exceeds that expected of a board member", is to be "deputy chairman". Prins and Fraser, by contrast, have attracted considerable attention, and reaction to the announcement has focused principally on the former, who was first noticed for his remark that charities should "stick to their knitting".

The reappointment of Prins coincides with a response by Shawcross to a complaint that he breached the Code of Conduct for Board Members of Public Bodies by writing an article opposing Britain’s membership of the EU that was published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, a right-leaning think-tank. The complainant, Andrew Purkis, a former commission board member, says that Shawcross has told him Prins should have consulted and informed the board about the article, and Purkis interprets this as a tacit acknowledgement that Prins broke the code, albeit inadvertently.

Prins’s reappointment therefore may mean either that breaking the code is not seen by the Cabinet Office as an impediment to reappointment – a rather worrying proposition – or that the Cabinet Office does not agree with Purkis’s interpretation that there was a breach.

The fact that Prins is being reappointed for only one year is also open to various interpretations. It may be his preference or an attempt to make sure appointments are more staggered in future years. Alternatively, it could be a sign that his star is waning, or a combination of such factors. It’s also worth noting that if he went now as well as Dove, the board would be down to only five members during the coming recruitment process, likely to last several months.

Fraser, a former Conservative parliamentary candidate, came to public attention mainly for his scathing emails to colleagues – disclosed in High Court proceedings last year – about the funding of the advocacy group Cage by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (a subject not mentioned, for some reason, in a recent interview Fraser gave elsewhere.) In the emails, he advocated a "robust" application of the commission’s legal powers that might be challenged in the courts rather than a "technical" approach. His reappointment, albeit for less than a full three-year term, could be seen as a marker for the kind of approach Shawcross and the charities minister, Rob Wilson, want the commission to continue to take.

The other side of these developments, of course, is that three new members are now being recruited - one to replace Dove, one to replace Peter Clarke, who left earlier this year, and an extra one with IT skills, as recommended in 2014 by the National Audit Office. This is an opportunity to redress the perceived imbalance and lack of diversity on the board and alleviate some of the concerns about the commission’s governance that have been raised by sector representatives, including those laid out in a letter to Wilson in April by Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. It is an opportunity to dilute the perception, which has registered as a concern among existing board members, that they are ardent right-wingers intervening constantly in operational matters or – as Asheem Singh interim head of the chief executives body Acevo rather cruelly put it last week – that the board is "little more than a chat room for its chair."

The commission could do with people from varied backgrounds who combine actual experience of the complexities of the modern sector with a balanced, unsentimental view of how it contributes to and fits into wider society; who have a realistic approach to government funding and the delivery of public services by charities; who appreciate the need for professionalisation and are not fixated on voluntary effort; and who accept and support campaigning and lobbying by charities in furtherance of their charitable objects and, if necessary, in defiance of government. 

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