Candidate for chair of Charity Commission was told it was a 'poisoned chalice'

William Shawcross tells MPs some people had said he'd be mad to take it, but others had encouraged him

William Shawcross
William Shawcross

William Shawcross, the preferred candidate to be the next chair of the Charity Commission, has told MPs that he was warned the role was a "poisoned chalice" when considering whether he should apply.

Appearing today before MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee, Shawcross said that some people had told him he would be mad to take the job, but others had told him it would present an interesting challenge.

The Cabinet Office last week named Shawcross, a writer and broadcaster, as the preferred candidate for the position. Today's hearing was to allow MPs to assess his suitability.

The Liberal Democrat MP Greg Mulholland suggested Shawcross could not be considered as politically impartial because of views he had expressed in recent years, such as support for the Iraq war and criticism of the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the run-up to the 2010 general election.

Shawcross responded: "I would hope that in everything I did in the commission, if you see fit to appoint me, I would show my neutrality and whatever political views I expressed two or three years ago are irrelevant. I would be an independent regulator."

He said he had been a member of the Labour Party in the 1960s, but was not currently a member of any political party. Dame Suzi Leather, the commission’s previous chair, attracted controversy because she remained a member of the Labour Party.

He also told the committee that he would "wish to resign" his membership of the Henry Jackson Society, a cross-partisan think tank named after the late American politician, and other charities with which he was involved.

Shawcross’s website says that he has been chair of Response, a charity that helps refugees and others who have suffered for their political opinions, since 1978.

He was asked by the Labour MP Paul Flynn how, as an old Etonian, he would deal with the question of public benefit provided by charitable fee-charging schools. He said hundreds of schools were charities and that difficulties in demonstrating public benefit would be experienced not by Eton but by smaller, less wealthy schools.

Shawcross admitted he would have a lot to learn and  would expect to spend more than the allotted two days a week to get up to speed with the key issues.

He was also questioned about his views on some of the recommendations made in Lord Hodgson’s review of the Charities Act 2006.

Shawcross said he supported the payment of trustees in some circumstances but said it should be "the exception, not the rule". Hodgson’s review suggests that large charities should be able to offer payment to trustees without the consent of the Charity Commission, as currently required.

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