Conservative peer named as preferred new Charity Commission chair

However, Labour questions whether Baroness Stowell of Beeston will be a "politically neutral appointment"

Baroness Stowell
Baroness Stowell

Baroness Stowell of Beeston has been named as the government’s preferred candidate to become the next chair of the Charity Commission.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced this afternoon that it wanted Beeston, the former Leader of the House of Lords, to succeed William Shawcross as the head of the commission board.

The Conservative peer would resign her party membership and the party whip if she were to be chosen after a DCMS select committee pre-appointment hearing on 20 February.

Shawcross, who was due to step down at the end of the month, has agreed to extend his tenure until 23 February, when Stowell will take up the post if her appointment is approved by the DCMS committee.

Stowell has been a peer since January 2011 and, as the Lords spokesperson for women and equalities, she led the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act through the Lords in 2013, before being appointed minister for communities.

She was promoted to Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal in 2014.

She grew up in Beeston in Nottinghamshire and joined the civil service as a secretary aged 18. She served as a civil servant in the Ministry of Defence, the British Embassy in Washington and the Number 10 press office under John Major, before moving to the BBC, where she eventually became head of corporate affairs.

Her parliamentary web page lists her as a trustee for Crimestoppers and the education charity the Transformation Trust.

However, her potential appointment has drawn cricticism from Steve Reed, the shadow charities minister, who questioned whether Stowell would be sufficiently independent.

He said: "It’s hugely disappointing that a paid-up member of the Conservative Party has been appointed chair of the Charity Commission. This is supposed to be a politically neutral appointment and it raises fears that she will rubber-stamp the government’s ongoing attempts to underfund, undermine and sideline charities.

"The independence of the charity sector is critical to its success, and its regulator should be independent as well.

"Instead of appointing Theresa May’s cronies, the government could and should have found someone independent-minded who will stand up for the sector."

Vicky Browning, chief executive of charity leaders body Acevo, also expressed concerns about the proposed appointment. 

"Baroness Stowell has proved herself to be a champion of social mobility who encourages ambition and opportunities," she said. "She has gained a wealth of experience across a number of different areas, including regulatory experience at the BBC Trust.

"However, the chair and board of the Charity Commission must be independent of government and party politics, and seen to be so. While we appreciate that Baroness Stowell is resigning the Conservative Party whip and her party membership, we are disappointed that the sector’s calls for a politically neutral commission chair have not been met.

"To be effective, the commission must equally have the trust and confidence of the public, the state and the sector it regulates."

Jay Kennedy, director of public policy and research at the Directory for Social Change, said: "The commission really needs to stay out of party political squabbles, which it has got sucked into far too often in recent years. It needs to engage in public debates about charity based on the evidence, data and the law, not ideology. The chair’s role in navigating this tricky terrain is critical. So it’s hard to tell right now what this appointment means in that respect. We’ll have to wait and see."

Peter Kellner, chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said he was confident Stowell would prove an excellent choice for the role.

"Her many years of experience in high-profile public bodies, including the BBC Trust, itself a regulator, should stand her in very good stead in both this regard and in the role more widely," he said.

"We have often expressed concern that both of the commission's previous chairs have left themselves too open to potentially damaging accusations of party political bias. Baroness Stowell’s intention to resign her party whip and membership if appointed is therefore especially welcome. It will, I hope, enhance her reputation as determined, independent and pragmatic."

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