Today’s announcement that Toby Young, the Conservative-supporting political journalist and free school founder, has resigned from the board of the university regulator the Office for Students after just eight days should bring hope to those who believe that the next chair of the Charity Commission should be politically neutral. Young has effectively been hounded out of office because of his closeness to government as well as his previous controversial remarks.
The backlash and criticism the government has endured since the decision to appoint Young will be ringing in its ears as it deliberates who should replace William Shawcross, who steps down as chair of the commission at the end of this month after five years in office.
The revelation late last year that the former charities minister Rob Wilson had been interviewed for the post understandably set alarm bells ringing and led to suggestions of cronyism.
Wilson had not, by popular consensus, ingratiated himself with the charity sector during his three-year tenure as minister, and the prospect of him becoming chair of the supposedly independent regulator was viewed as a clear sign of a government trying to assert de facto control over key organisations.
Well-placed charity sector insiders appear to be of the opinion that Wilson is unlikely to land the role but a number of Conservative supporters are believed to be firmly in the running.
The decision about who will become the next chair of the commission is obviously a very sensitive subject given the direction the regulator has taken under Shawcross. His pronouncements about Muslim charities and their links to terrorism, and his desire for the commission to gain more powers to clamp down on the errant behaviour of charities have led to accusations that he has been something of a government stooge, an accusation that Shawcross has always firmly denied.
But with the eyes of the media firmly on major public appointments after Young’s appointment, it will be interesting to see if Number 10, which has the final say on the decision, toughs it out and appoints a known ally or opts for an independent candidate.
A number of respected figures are believed to have thrown their hats into the ring, although no one is naming names for fear of undermining their chances.
Let’s hope Number 10 opts for a wise head who is sufficiently independent of government. Starting the year with another scandal is unlikely to do it, the commission and, more broadly, the charity sector any good.
Andy Hillier, editor, Third Sector