Charity Commission should do more to defend charities under unfair media attack, prospective chair says

Orlando Fraser was being examined by MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee

Orlando Fraser
Orlando Fraser

The government’s preferred candidate for the next chair of the Charity Commission has said the regulator should be more prepared to defend charities that find themselves under unfair attack in the media.

Appearing before MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee for a pre-appointment hearing this morning, Orlando Fraser was also quizzed about his political views and his role in the commission’s legal battle with the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Foundation, which occurred when he was on the regulator’s board and he played a role in.

Asked about areas for development for the regulator, should he be confirmed in post, Fraser talked about the “the boldness of the commission in terms of standing up occasionally for the sector, for charities that are coming under what we think is unfair media attack”.

He said: “I think we should be prepared to go out there and say: ‘Hang on, they are doing a great job.’

“That’s something that should be thought about. It’s not something they do very often, but I think we should be more prepared to do that.”

Fraser, who stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Conservative Party at the 2005 general election, was also questioned about his political views.

He said he was no longer a member of the Conservative Party and spoke of his ability to work independently, not only in his career as a barrister and QC but also when he served on the Charity Commission board between 2013 and 2017 and during his time on the advisory council for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

“The regard I have for the commission’s independence is sacrosanct; I showed that while I was on the board and I will show it again,” he said.

“My own political involvement was nearly 20 years ago when I was a political candidate, and I did that such a long time ago that most reasonable people would think, given the overall abilities that I’ve got and the qualifications, that shouldn’t be a bar or cast serious doubt over my ability to do it.

“The second point is that after that political episode, 2005 to 2009, I was appointed to the board of the Charity Commission and to the board of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations because I was considered to be sufficiently politically neutral and interested to do good work in that respect.

“I acted entirely independently in that period so there is no suggestion of partiality.”

Fraser also said there was a suggestion that because his father, Sir Hugh Fraser, was a longstanding Conservative MP, he too was “bound to be subject to that allegiance”.

He said: “Although I loved and admired my father, I also loved and admired my grandfather, Frank Longford – a great Labour Party member, social reformer, member of Attlee’s cabinet and architect of the welfare state with Nye Bevan.

“He is enormously important to me, but that doesn’t get reported,” said Fraser.

Fraser admitted that he had met Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a social setting, but was not and had never been friends with him.

In terms of strategic priorities, Fraser also talked about greater digitalisation and making it easier for charities to file their accounts online.

John Nicolson, the SNP MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, said the hearing was pointless and the committee was toothless because everybody knew the government would give Fraser the job regardless of what conclusion the committee reached.

In 2018, the committee took the unusual step of unanimously rejecting Baroness Stowell, the government’s preferred candidate for the same Charity Commission role at the time, because of concerns including a perceived lack of charity sector experience and fears about her political neutrality.

But Matt Hancock, the culture secretary at the time, appointed her anyway, saying Stowell was “not only the best candidate for the job, but also the right candidate”.

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