Etherington expresses 'serious concerns' about the political independence of commission board members

The NCVO chief executive says he is also worried about their intervention in operational matters

Sir Stuart Etherington
Sir Stuart Etherington

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has expressed serious concerns about the political independence of the Charity Commission board and board members’ intervention in operational matters.

In a letter to Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, Etherington calls for an overhaul of the appointments process for commission board members to ensure both independence and neutrality.

His letter says questions about the appropriateness of the commission’s governance arrangements "and the appointment of certain individuals have caused serious concerns within the sector over the last couple of weeks, reigniting a debate that has frequently surfaced over the years and that now must be addressed as a matter of urgency".

It comes after the commission board member Gwythian Prins faced accusations that he broke Cabinet Office impartiality rules in an anti-EU essay he wrote for the campaign group Historians for Britain. 

Etherington’s letter says the NCVO broadly welcomes the extended powers recently granted to the commission, but warns that the regulator must be fit for purpose.

"In particular, its governance arrangements must reflect its role as the regulator of a sector that is by law required to be non-party political, and its quasi-judicial powers," it says.

"We therefore continue to have serious concerns about the intervention of the Charity Commission board members in operational matters and its independence from party politics."

He says independence from both government and party politics is vital for the Charity Commission, "particularly as the regulator of a sector that it characterised by its party political neutrality".

MPs expressed concern before his appointment about whether William Shawcross, the commission’s chair, could be considered politically impartial. His predecessor, Dame Suzi Leather, who was appointed under the Labour government, faced regular criticism from some right-wing politicians and newspapers after she decided not to relinquish her membership of the Labour Party during her time in the role.

Etherington’s letter says the willingness of some commission board members to express "forceful opinions on the work of the executive" was highlighted during the proceedings for the judicial review of the regulator’s actions in the case of the advocacy group Cage. 

"Considering that the government’s UK Corporate Governance Code says boards should not stray into executive management, we continue to have concerns in this area," it says.

The letter points to a paper produced by the NCVO in April last year, which said the government should consider giving control of the appointment of the chair of the commission to parliament, and calls on the government to use the document to start a conversation about the subject.

Andrew O’Brien, head of policy and engagement at the Charity Finance Group, said the NCVO was right to raise the issue and now was the time to start discussions about the regulator’s governance.

He said the commission "must be beyond reproach" and the NCVO has "put forward a number of sensible suggestions on how we can depoliticise the appointments process".

A spokesman for the Charity Commission said: "The independence of the Charity Commission is crucial, from the government and from the sector. It regulates on behalf of the public.

"The matters raised in the letter are for the minister to consider and respond to if necessary."

A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office said it had received the letter and would respond in due course.

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