Editorial: Crucial choice of an heir to Leather

A timely and politically neutral appointment is needed at the Charity Commission, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

Few would disagree that the Charity Commission has had a tough time. It is absorbing a cut of a quarter of its budget over four years and has shed about 30 per cent of its staff. It has also changed its operational and managerial structure and drawn up a strategic plan that will deprive charities of some services they are used to having. Change and retrenchment on this scale is almost bound to be demoralising.

Another change is now in view that could determine how well the commission gets through and beyond this difficult period. Its chair, Dame Suzi Leather, is due to leave at the end of July after six years that have had more than their fair share of turbulence and controversy, and the choice of her successor will be crucial to the regulator's future.

A complicating factor is that the role of the commission appears to have been thrown into the melting pot of the review of the Charities Act 2006 that is being conducted by Lord Hodgson. He has made it clear he is going to look at the whole concept of charity, and this inevitably raises questions about arrangements for regulation.

This might make it harder to find the right successor to Dame Suzi, and perhaps delay the process. As in any public body, that is one of the worst things that could happen - an interregnum when nobody knows who the leader is going to be. It's not good for morale, and drift and uncertainty are liable to set in.

The best choice for the commission would be a new chair who is familiar with the sector yet hard-headed about it, and is above all perceived as politically neutral. Most people agree that Dame Suzi has been a good and steady chair, but her continuing attachment to the Labour Party gave opponents a stick to beat the commission with.

The Office for Civil Society has five months to choose a successor and the search should be under way by now. There is always a temptation in public appointments for ministers to opt for a placeman or woman. But it's a temptation to be resisted for the sake of the sector's future well-being.

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