- This story was corrected on 17 January 2018; please see final paragraph
Baroness Pitkeathley, the chair of the Lords Select Committee on Charities, has criticised the government for its disappointing response to the committee’s final report and for the "unsettling" delay in appointing a new chair of the Charity Commission.
Speaking in a debate in the House of Lords yesterday about the committee’s report, which was released 10 months ago, Pitkeathley said the government’s response "lacks a sense of coordination regarding how the government, and particularly the Office for Civil Society, plan to respond to some of the challenges and opportunities the sector faces".
She said: "There are repeated commitments to consult or work with charities, sector bodies and other stakeholders to consider how to strengthen charities, but no reference to how those commitments might be monitored or followed up, or the likely timeframes."
She also said: "I freely admit to disappointment in the government response, but I take some consolation from the recent announcement that the government is preparing a civil society strategy." The development of the strategy was announced by the charities minister Tracey Crouch last year.
Pitkeathley also criticised the delay in the government’s response, with normal processes dictating that the government respond to a select committee report within three months of its publication.
The government’s response to the report was published last month.
Pitkeathley also questioned the government’s past relationship with the charity sector, highlighting the government’s introduction of the lobbying act and its failure to implement a series of reforms to the act recommended by a government-backed review of the legislation.
"The government has promised to work with charities to help them understand the legislation and give them the confidence to campaign," she said.
"As yet, I regret to say, we have seen no sign of this, so my confidence in their commitment to partnership is a bit weak."
With the chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, due to step down at the end of this month, Pitkeathley said she was concerned that a replacement had not yet been announced despite the preferred candidate’s appointment having been approved by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and passed to the Prime Minister’s office "four weeks ago at least".
"This is extremely undermining for the commission’s staff and, of course, unsettling for the whole sector, as this is a most significant appointment for charities," Pitkeathley said.
"Is the delay simply because the appointment is seen as insufficiently important to come to the top of someone’s in-tray at a time when, admittedly, No. 10 has a lot else on its mind? Or is some kind of political influence perhaps being exerted?"
Other lords speaking in the debate highlighted the funding of the Charity Commission and a proposed consultation on charging charities to fund the regulator.
The Conservative peer Lord Grade of Yarmouth, chair of the Fundraising Regulator, said expectations of the commission "go way beyond its resources" and that it was a "matter of grave urgency" for the government to address the Charity Commission’s funding.
But he added: "I am not particularly in favour of charities paying for the regulator or of taking money out of the charitable sector in order to pay for regulation. The government has huge expectations of this statutory body and should make urgent arrangements to have a settlement with it that reflects the responsibility that it has."
The Labour peer Lord Rooker said it would be "incredibly difficult to ask charities to pay for the regulator" because "people will not want to donate to a charity in order to pay for the Charity Commission".
In response to the comments raised in the debate, Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen, who represented the government in the debate, apologised for the delay in publishing the response and said this was due to ministerial changes after the general election and because the government wanted to "ensure that our response could dovetail with our plans for the development of the civil society strategy".
She said that a new chair of the Charity Commission "will be announced in due course", and the new chair would "be the best person for the role and will be expected to be independent and impartial".
The civil society strategy, Chisholm said, would be released later this year and focus on three areas: it would articulate the government’s vision for civil society "in a way that reaffirms the value they place on its role"; it would address the challenges the sector faces through "non-financial governmental intervention"; and it would set a "new framework for effective collaboration between government and civil society to solve the most pressing and complex societal issues".
The story originally said Baroness Pitkeathley said the government's response was "bland" when in fact this was said by the Labour peer Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe