Stephen Cook: The Charity Commission reinforces its image as policeman, not friend

Third Sector's contributing editor on the appointment of three new members to the regulator's board

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

The announcement last week of three new board members for the Charity Commission had been impatiently awaited by the sector, partly because the process had taken three months longer than envisaged and partly because it had been seen as an opportunity to redress a perceived imbalance on the board by appointing at least one person with experience of working full time in a charity.

When the names were finally promulgated last week, they were greeted with one cheer – one and a half at most – from sector leaders and commentators. They acknowledged the distinction of the new members in their respective fields and the fact that they have some trustee experience, but pointed out a dearth of operational charity work in their CVs. An opportunity missed, was a common reaction.

It seems likely, given the available evidence, that ministers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, had they wanted to do so, could in fact have appointed someone who works in the sector or has done so recently. The Charity Commission’s chief executive said in the early stages of the appointments process that there had been good applicants from the sector; one highly regarded current chief executive of a national charity has said he applied, but didn’t make the shortlist; and others with a strong sector record are known to have pitched.

It also looks as if the department has not entirely fulfilled its own specifications, set out earlier this year in the information pack for candidates. This said they should be able to demonstrate knowledge either of digital expertise and IT-related change, or extensive knowledge of law enforcement or national security, or "detailed knowledge of the charity sector, including an understanding of its role in building a bigger, stronger society".

The first specification was met by Laurie Benson, chief executive of a media consultancy firm and the second by Paul Martin, who has worked in "the UK national security arena", which probably means MI5. Whether the third is met by Catherine Quinn, chief operating officer of the Saïd Business School at Oxford and one-time head of grants management at the Wellcome Trust, is open to debate: the Wellcome Trust is a very wealthy charity, specialising in funding medical research.

The fact that no person was appointed with unambiguously detailed knowledge of the mainstream sector therefore seems to indicate a fundamental difference of view between the sector and those involved in the recruitment process. In this process an interview panel including the chair of the commission, William Shawcross, his deputy, Eryl Besse, and the director-general of the Cabinet Office, would have submitted a number of candidates they considered appointable to the charities minister, Rob Wilson, to make the final choice. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the powers that be simply do not consider it imperative to have direct operational charity experience on the board – or, at least, consider it to be significantly less important than the sector itself does.

The appointments seem to be of a piece with other developments in recent years at the commission, which has steadily detached itself from any notion that its purpose is to encourage, facilitate or champion the work of charities. It has characterised itself as a policeman, expanded its regulatory and enforcement work, focused on potential terrorist abuse of charities, devoted fewer resources to giving help and advice, and emphasised its purpose of promoting public trust and confidence; it has beefed up its rhetoric and told charities they will no longer get the benefit of the doubt; and even its change of logo – doing away with cheerful pictures of people in favour of a simple, austere crown – signals a more remote and less user-friendly identity.

Among the reasons that could lie behind the decisions might be the need to avoid regulatory capture, where those being regulated exercise such an influence on the regulatory body that it loses objectivity and independence. But one sector member on a board of eight is hardly likely to introduce an institutional bias. And would you have a financial regulator on which there were no members with detailed experience of finance? A media regulator with no experience of the media? Unlikely. As it stands, the commission board now has less sector experience on it than it did after the last round of appointments in 2013, when Claire Dove, the founder and chief executive of a successful social enterprise, was taken on. When she left in the summer, she added her voice to the calls for the board to include members with more direct experience of working in the sector.

The commission and the minister must have heard that call and have apparently decided not to respond to it. It is possible they wanted to, but judged there was no suitable applicant; if that were the case, however, they could have appointed two and re-advertised for the third. Either way, the sector now at least knows where it stands: the commission’s role is again confirmed as the policeman rather than the friend, and the best the sector can hope for is that the policeman continues, on balance, to be reasonably friendly.

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