Charity Commission under fire for not making chair available for questions at annual public meeting

The regulator says its entire executive leadership team will be taking part in a live question and answer session during the event

Baroness Stowell
Baroness Stowell

The Charity Commission has come under fire after it emerged its chair would not be available for questions at its annual public meeting.

The question and answer session at regulator's the online event tomorrow (Thursday 1 October) is only for its chief executive, Helen Stephenson, and other directors to “answer questions on operational issues”.

But Rosamund McCarthy, a partner at the law firm Bates Wells, questioned in a post on LinkedIn why there would be no opportunities to put questions to the regulator’s chair, Baroness Stowell.

The regulator said it had worked hard to replicate the format of previous public meetings and its entire executive leadership team would be available to answer questions. 

McCarthy said in a LinkedIn post she understood the difficulties in holding remote AGMs, but said it was odd there would not be an opportunity to put questions to Stowell due to time constraints.

She said the meeting was “surely the one time in the year when the chair of the charity should answer a few live questions on the strategy, governance, performance or culture of the Charity Commission”.

McCarthy asked whether more time could be made available for the chair to answer some questions, and wondered how the live audience and questions for the chief executive and director were selected.

“Was it on a first come, first served basis, and has the question or general topic been cleared in advance?” she asked.

Commenting on the post, Linda Barlow, a legal executive and co-operative governance adviser at Co-operatives UK, said she feared it was a missed opportunity.

“However, it is a big step for a very public organisation to open up to scrutiny in a very public way. Perhaps a panel approach between chair and CEO would’ve been better so they could defer to one another?”

Garry Jones, chief executive of Support Staffordshire, said: “Regrettably Baroness Stowell sits firmly in the camp of believing nobody would possibly have anything to question her upon in terms of governance, as she is quite literally the authority upon it.”

The Charity Commision said that due to the remote nature of the event it had to notify and line up those who would ask live questions of the leadership team during the Q&A. 

Questions were selected to allow for a range of issues, ensuring that they were relevant to a broad range of charities, while avoiding repetition.

The commission said questions usually focused on practical matters, notably its services for charities and how they could be improved to help charities respond to public expectations, which were matters for the executive to respond to.

The regulator also said its previous two annual public meetings were held outside of London to hear from charities and audiences that would not otherwise attend its events. 

A spokesperson for the Charity Commission said: “In preparing for this year’s annual public meeting, we have worked hard to replicate the style and format of our previous APMs as closely as possible. 

“So, as in previous years, the entire executive leadership team, including our chief executive officer, will be answering live questions put to them by delegates.” 

The regulator said it shared a sense of regret that there would not be an opportunity for delegates to approach its chair or members of the leadership team in person at the margins of the event, and it looked forward to future public meetings at which that personal interaction will be possible again. 

“However, at the same time we are pleased that this year’s online format has widened access to the meeting – we are expecting many more people to join the meeting than has ever been the case in the past,” the spokesperson said.

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