Interview: Dame Suzi Leather

The chair of the Charity Commission's talks about how priorities have changed as a result of budget cuts and a strategic review

Dame Suzi Leather
Dame Suzi Leather

Since she was appointed chair of the Charity Commission by the last government in 2006, Dame Suzi Leather has not had the life of quiet obscurity enjoyed by many of her predecessors. She's been called a quango queen, accused of waging a war on independent schools and derided by the Daily Mail as one of "50 people who wrecked Britain".

Now she's being required by the coalition government to carry out the most painful cuts in the commission's recent history, reducing its budget by a quarter and its staff by a third. Given that she's been a member of the Labour Party for much of her life, many would forgive her if she experienced this as injury piled on top of insult.

Questions such as this tend to be off limits, however. It's rare for her to reveal anything about herself in public, as she did last year when she described in an interview with the charity Common Purpose how the media onslaught had affected her.

"It begins to challenge your inner narrative about who you are," she said. Otherwise, she has preserved a steely quality that led one headmaster who encountered her in debates about the public benefit test to declare that she had "more balls than a lot of politicians".

Strategic review

That steeliness dominates in Leather's interview with Third Sector, when she is brisk, formal and unbending, although she does smile when the subject comes up of charities holding parties to celebrate registration with the commission. She is willing to talk only about the report that marks the end of the first phase of the commission's strategic review, which lays out its preliminary plans for putting the spending cuts into effect.

There is perhaps a hint of personal feeling when the subject is raised of the commission's public benefit test for fee-charging schools, which has hung like an albatross around her neck since her appointment. Enemies have challenged the test repeatedly, and there was some awkwardness when she had to withdraw from decisions about it in 2007 because her daughter was still at a private school.

After a request for judicial review by the Independent Schools Council and a reference by the Attorney General, the test is going to be reviewed by three judges in the Upper Tribunal in May. What are Leather's views about that? "Frankly, I'm rather looking forward to it," she says. "It'll be useful for the commission and the sector to have a ruling." And is she nervous about the flurry of press attention the case will inevitably attract? "I'm not in the least nervous," she says.

Shift in approach

Leather is clearly more comfortable when talking about the strategic review, which she says has prompted the commission to make a fundamental shift in its approach. "One of the most important clarifications that the public consultation has brought is the recognition that the commission is there for the public rather than for charities," she says. "This sounds like a rather simple, anodyne fact, but actually quite a lot flows from this clarification of focus. It will change our internal mindset. We need to focus more on what the public's concerns are, and meeting legitimate public concerns will be in the long-term interests of the charity sector."

But she concedes that limited resources will prevent the commission responding to the desire of a strong majority of stakeholders and the public to investigate all cases where there is prima facie evidence of a charity breaking charity law.

In general, the regulator needs a change of attitude, she says: "I think the commission needs to be a more confident organisation. We need to be more comfortable about saying no when we're not going to look at something because we don't think there's sufficient risk to public trust and confidence.

"We also need to be more relaxed about challenge from the charity tribunal. We don't have the resources, and frankly I don't think we should endlessly work in such a way that it's impossible for the decisions we've made to be challenged."

As the interview comes to a close, Leather says that some good has come from the spending cuts. "It is highly regrettable that we are losing so many of our staff," she says. "But we are refocusing so the organisation can be responsive to public concerns and operates in a more streamlined way. This is the right way forward."

See Analysis on the Commission's strategic review

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