Interview: Richard Corden, Chief executive, Commission for the Compact

Compact compere - Richard Corden wants to establish what people mean by 'statutory force'.

credit: David Devins
credit: David Devins

I'm not Genghis Khan," says Richard Corden. There can't be many third sector figures who need to dispel comparisons to a 13th- century warlord. But few sector leaders are under as much pressure as Corden to show that their organisation can throw its weight around.

He is referring to a comment from Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, that the Commission for the Compact needed a "Genghis Khan, not a mandarin" to lead it. It may have been tongue-in-cheek, but it portrayed the cynicism that has developed in the sector around the agreement and the commission that was set up to champion it.

Last year, the commission lost its chair and chief executive within three months. Tory third sector spokesman Greg Clark has even gone so far as to argue that the Compact itself appears to be in a "state of collapse".

Corden is a career civil servant who began a long association with the voluntary sector at the Charity Commission in the 80s. He joined the Commission for the Compact as interim chief executive last year and has now accepted the job permanently.

Life for charities is better because of the Compact, he says. But he is candid about its effectiveness. "After 10 years of the Government having a policy and constantly saying that they think it's important, you'd expect more progress in implementing it," he says. "By that I mean government departments, quangos, local authorities and other public bodies meeting their commitments more thoroughly, and in a more meaningful way, more of the time."

The Compact is at a crossroads, he says: "What it's not going to do is to carry on in its current mode. People favour some sort of beefing up of it."

"Beefing up" does not mean tearing strips off public sector miscreants that breach Compact rules. Rather, Corden is referring to suggestions that the Compact, a voluntary code of practice since its creation in 1998, should acquire statutory force.

Chief executives body Acevo strongly backs the idea, the NCVO's Stuart Etherington says it is inevitable and the Office of the Third Sector says it will consider the issue when it reviews the Commission for the Compact in 2009. Only Compact Voice, which represents the sector on Compact issues, thinks it is a bad idea.

Corden says he has his own views, but for now wants to tease out exactly what people mean when they say the Compact needs statutory force.

"Do they mean doing away with the Compact as an informal agreement and putting into an act of Parliament some legal obligations on the Government?" he says. "In my view, that's wholly fanciful."

In other words, the Government is not likely to lumber itself with legal obligations to enforce an agreement that it has been unable to successfully implement voluntarily for 10 years.

But there are other models, Corden says. The Children's Commissioner is one; the Parliamentary Ombudsman - who makes recommendations that the Government almost always takes seriously, but who has no formal power to enforce decisions - is another. "You don't need full regulation like the Charity Commission," he says.

While the debate hots up, Corden will occupy himself with trying to educate public bodies about the Compact. "When I joined the commission, I took the naive view that something that had been Government policy for 10 years was likely to be quite widely known by people working in government," he says. "I was amazed at the relatively low level of awareness and understanding."


2008: Chief executive, Commission for the Compact

2007: Interim chief executive, Commission for the Compact

2007: Secondment to HM Treasury, working on the Government's review of the role of the third sector

2005: Home Office, then Office of the Third Sector, managing the passage of the Charities Act 2006 through Parliament

2002: Home Office, preparing the Charities Bill

2001: Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, working on a review of the law and regulation of charities.

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