In the early part of last year William Shawcross was telling people privately that he wouldn’t want to serve another three-year term as chair of the Charity Commission. So it was something of a surprise when it was announced by the charities minister, Rob Wilson, last week that he was being reappointed for a second three-year term, starting this month. Why the change? Shawcross hasn’t said. It’s evidently not for the money – he will be working three days a week instead of two without an increase in his £50,000 salary. Perhaps he relishes all the cut and thrust around the commission at the moment; perhaps he simply feels there’s an important job to be done.
The announcement was carefully timed to follow the first appearance before the Public Accounts Committee of Paula Sussex, who has been chief executive of the commission since last July. She had a few sticky moments assuring the committee that the commission has been on top all along of the odd goings-on at the Durand Academy charity, which the committee had dissected with great relish a few days before; but otherwise she was given an easy ride and put in a good performance. The committee gave her the nod, endorsed the National Audit Office follow-up report that said the commission had begun turning itself into a more effective regulator, and opened the way for Shawcross and Sussex to ride off into the sunset - metaphorically speaking.
The reappointment is, at bottom, a streetwise piece of political manouevring, designed in part to stymie the next government if it is not Conservative or a Conservative-led coalition. Shawcross's existing term does not expire until October, so reappointing him before the election is, in effect, a pre-emptive strike. It means an administration of any other stripe will be faced with a Dame Suzi Leather situation in reverse. It will be recalled that when the coalition came to power in 2010, Leather had more than two years of her second term as chair still to run. She had been demonised by Tory backwoodsmen and the right-wing press, and ministers considered trying to remove her. But the chair of the commission can only be removed on grounds of incapacity or misbehaviour, so they backed off and attacked her instead by imposing unreasonable and disproportionate cuts in the commission’s budget (which have caused some of its continuing problems). With Shawcross now in post until early 2018, a non-Conservative government in May would face a similar dilemma, and would doubtless end up concluding it would have to live with him, however messily. If, on the other hand, the next government is Conservative-led, no problem - the commission will be able to carry on seamlessly with what it has recently taken to calling its "transformation agenda."
Top marks, then, for smart political footwork. The minister probably feels he has rounded a significant buoy. It might be unwise, however, to conclude that all will now be plain sailing. The commission's agenda does not have solid buy-in from sector leaders, some of whom are concerned about the way the commission has all but abandoned its enabling role. Others are more concerned by the growing role of the board members in the everyday running of the commission, which was also flagged up by the National Audit Office report and raised by the chair of the PAC. In the dying minutes of the session, the question received a pat reply by Sussex, who declared herself "comfortable" with the situation. It remains to be seen if that is still the case when her honeymoon period is over. There is an inherent tension between her role as accounting officer and the board's executive powers.
A final thought on the politics: one possible future scenario is that a non-Conservative government could become so concerned about threats to the commission’s independence from perceived or actual political bias that it implemented the proposal of the late charity lawyer Stephen Lloyd that it should be restructured to remove executive power from board members and create a board that was advisory only.