Former shadow charities minister raises concerns of 'cover-up' in Stowell appointment

Lisa Nandy, now the shadow energy secretary, has written to culture secretary Matt Hancock to file a formal complaint about the way Baroness Stowell was selected as chair of the Charity Commission

Lisa Nandy
Lisa Nandy

Lisa Nandy, the shadow energy secretary, has raised concerns about a "cover-up" in the appointment of Baroness Stowell as chair of the Charity Commission and has filed a formal complaint about the process.

In a letter sent to Matt Hancock, the culture secretary, Nandy, a former shadow charities minister, says Stowell’s appointment breached the governance code for public appointments and cannot be justified.

Stowell took up the role last week despite a cross-party committee of MPs unanimously concluding that she was unsuitable for the position.

In her letter, Nandy says information requested by the DCMS select committee about why the appointment process had been delayed was not provided by the department.

A pre-appointment hearing scheduled to take place with the government’s preferred candidate was put back by two months because the government had not made a decision on whom to appoint.

"When I subsequently asked questions in parliament which sought to understand the role of ministers, the advisory assessment panel and Number 10 in making this appointment, that information was withheld," says Nandy’s letter.

"This has heightened concerns of a cover-up surrounding this appointment."

Nandy sets out five areas where she believes the code on public appointments has been breached, including ministers not being sufficiently accountable to parliament about the appointment and concerns that the process was not adequately fair or impartial.

"The code makes clear that the applicant’s skills, experiences and qualities must be judged to meet the needs of the public body or statutory office in question," says Nandy.

"Given the stark lack of relevant experience in either charities or regulation, the inability to demonstrate transferable skills relevant to the role in question and the lack of strategic vision for the role, a perceived inability to withstand public scrutiny and the outstanding concerns about political neutrality and independence, this criterion has not been met."

Nandy says the DCMS has "repeatedly failed to answer reasonable questions about the appointment process", including failing to explain lengthy delays in the process or answer questions about the involvement of ministers and 10 Downing Street in the appointment.

She says the code says ministers must consult the Commissioner for Public Appointments if they plan to appoint a candidate who has not been approved at a parliamentary pre-appointment hearing and queries whether the government did this.

"The code states that appointments must be fair and impartial, and each candidate must be assessed against the relevant criteria," she says. "Requests by the DCMS committee for information about the other shortlisted candidates have been ignored. No explanation has been given by your department as to how a candidate who lacks the appropriate experience and skills has been fairly appointed or assessed against the relevant criteria."

Nandy concludes by saying that in recent years many charities have lost faith in the independence and effectiveness of the regulator.

"At a time when trust is so low, your failure to embrace the principles governing public appointments is therefore extremely serious," she says. "For all of these reasons the appointment cannot be justified."

Steve Reed, the shadow minister for civil society, last month called on the Commissioner for Public Appointments to scrutinise Stowell’s appointment.

He is understood to still be awaiting a response.

Hancock, who formally appointed Stowell last week, said in a statement last month that Stowell was "not only the best candidate for the job, but also the right candidate", and she had his full backing.

Stowell is a former Conservative peer who resigned the party whip after her appointment to the role.

"Tina has been absolutely clear about her impartiality in this role," said Hancock. "I know that she will work tirelessly to protect and promote the great work that charities do and ensure they uphold the highest standards of integrity."

Julia Unwin, a member of the government-appointed selection panel for the position, said last month that Stowell was the "outstanding candidate on the day".

Unwin, who is chair of the Independent Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society said she believed the process that led to Stowell’s selection was both "rigorous and fair".

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