Culture secretary's comments about the next Charity Commission chair spark backlash

Oliver Dowden is accused of failing to understand how the sector works after he says some charities 'appear to have been hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials'

Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary
Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary

Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, has been accused of politicising the Charity Commission’s appointment process after he warned that some charities need to stop “hunting for divisions”.

In an article published in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper yesterday, Dowden railed against what he described as “a worrying trend in some charities that appear to have been hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials”.

His examples of this “trend” included the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust rebranding to the Churchill Fellowship.

The charity was forced to deny it was disowning the former Prime Minister's legacy last week after coming under fire in some sections of the media about the name change.

Dowden said: “We don’t need them [charities] hunting for divisions in a way that serves neither their benefactors nor the country.

“The public’s trust depends on charities remaining true to their founding missions. The recruitment of a new chair of the Charity Commission provides an opportunity for this refocus and resetting of the balance.

“I have instructed those leading the search to ensure that the new leader of the commission will restore charities’ focus to their central purpose and empower trustees to be robust.

“With interviews beginning next week, candidates will be tested on how they will harness the oversight powers of the commission to commence this rebalancing.

“And ministers will only select a candidate that can convince on these criteria.”

Dowden also said that the regulator’s new chair would need to ensure charities were on a sustainable financial footing.

He wrote: “The government is rightly supporting charities, but rather than a developing reliance on government grants in the years to come, they should refocus their efforts on public giving.”

Charlotte Augst, chief executive of National Voices, a coalition of health and social care charities, described Dowden’s intervention as “hollow, culture war nonsense”.

She said: “It is quite something to, on the one hand, aim to place charities beyond politics and, on the other hand, blatantly politicise the appointment process for the Charity Commission.”

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations said the commission must be above party politics where “its strength is as a neutral arbiter”.

The membership body said: “The role of the commission is to regulate in line with the laws made in parliament. Within that framework, it is not for the government or commission to tell trustees what is best for their charity or those they serve.”

Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the training and publishing charity the Directory of Social Change, said: “Our minister neither understands how charities work and what they are for nor has even a basic understanding of charity law. The ⁦Charity Commission chair doesn’t have the powers to do what he describes.”

Julia Unwin, who spent 10 years as chief executive of the research and policy charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and who chaired the Civil Society Futures project, also accused Dowden of misunderstanding charity law.

She said his comments demonstrated “an extraordinary and deeply irresponsible understanding of the nature of charity law and hence the powers of regulation”.

Unwin said: “We need a chair who understands regulatory mandates, powers and tools.”

Ian Karet was appointed interim chair of the regulator until 26 August, but it has emerged that this has been extended until 26 December.

Interviews for the permanent position are expected to take place this month.

The delay was criticised by the commissioner for public appointments, who wrote to the government to complain about the length of time it was taking to fill top roles.

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