Commission chair nominee pledges not to be swayed by 'trite' arguments about 'woke agendas'

Martin Thomas tells MPs that former culture secretary Oliver Dowden's comments about some charities appearing to have been 'hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials' were unnecessary

Martin Thomas
Martin Thomas

The government’s preferred candidate for Charity Commission chair said he would not be swayed by the influence of ministers and any “trite” attempts to politicise the role.

Martin Thomas was speaking at a pre-appointment hearing in front of MPs on the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee earlier today.

The hearing offers backbench MPs a chance to consider Thomas’s experience and his priorities for the role, including his strategic vision for the regulator after its current strategy expires in 2023.

Thomas faced nearly two hours of questioning about the chair's political independence, the main challenges facing the sector and the commission's record on complaints and whistleblowers.

The government announced Thomas as the preferred candidate last week. He began by outlining plans for the financial recovery of charities after the pandemic, expanding digital technology and working with organisations which are not registered charities but can achieve social impact.

MPs quickly moved on to questions regarding the comments made in a newspaper article by the former culture secretary Oliver Dowden about “a worrying trend in some charities that appear to have been hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials”.

Dowden also said he had instructed those leading the search for a new commission chair to ensure that the individual will "restore charities’ focus to their central purpose and empower trustees to be robust".

He said candidates would be "tested on how they will harness the oversight powers of the commission to commence this rebalancing".

Dowden was replaced by Nadine Dorries just a few days later as part of a government reshuffle.

Thomas said of Dowden's article: “I did not think that it was necessary.”

He said: “The core point made, if you take all the rhetoric away, is that the Charity Commission should be chaired by someone who thinks that charities should stay aligned to their charitable purposes. That's true, but it's also trite.”

Thomas said that whether a motive was considered “woke” or not had nothing to do with action being taken against a charity that had stepped out of line and strayed from its charitable purpose.

He was also asked to give an example of a time when he had stood up to authority and remained independent-minded, because both the previous and the current culture secretaries had been criticised for politicising the role.

The campaign group the Good Law Project launched legal proceedings against the government's recruitment process in October, arguing there had been ministerial interference in hiring the new commission chair. Dorries previously described the process as “fair”.

Thomas said: “As you've seen from my response to the previous secretary of state's article, I wasn't swayed by it.

“I don't think the Charity Commission's role is to be a participant in contemporary debate.

“I think its role is to take part in the issues of the day, but not get involved in issues where you may say the pendulum is swinging.”

Thomas went on to describe a number of different roles where he had maintained his independence, including as chair of the arm's-length body NHS Resolution, during his time at the Bank of England and as chair of nine charities.

He also said he did not think charities had become too political, in response to a question from the Conservative MP Damian Green.

“The basic divide is charities can't support or be part of any political party, but they can engage in the political debate of the day, to the extent that it furthers their purposes,” said Thomas.

“The Charity Commission is as rigorous in policing that area of its remit as any other.”

Thomas pointed out that the voluntary sector and wider society was in a “state of flux”, meaning that, as organisations try to find their voices, it should be expected that some cross the line.

Green posed a hypothetical where the trustees of an educational charity could be in charge of an object such as a statue related to the British Empire that could be taught as a “deeply evil endeavour” or be placed in the opposite position and a different context.

Thomas said: “The Charity Commission's role is not on the whole to second guess or police how charities do their job.

“The philosophy underlying that, I think, is that the trustees are best placed to decide how to fulfil the mission.”

He was also pushed by MPs on the select committee over whether he would refuse to accept the position if they did not back his appointment.

The former chair of the commission, Baroness Stowell, was unanimously rejected by the DCMS Select Committee before her appointment in 2018, but the government gave her the job anyway.

Julian Knight, chair of the committee, said today that Stowell’s appearance before the committee was “the worst interview I have seen in 30 years of professional life”.

Thomas refused to rule out taking the job if MPs were against his appointment, promising only to reflect on the reasons for their decision.

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