Good Law Project launches legal challenge over ‘ministerial interference’ in Charity Commission appointment

The campaign group is seeking a High Court order to re-run the recruitment process for the new chair of the commission

Nadine Dorries (Photograph: UK Parliament)
Nadine Dorries (Photograph: UK Parliament)

The Good Law Project has launched legal proceedings against the culture secretary Nadine Dorries, arguing there has been ministerial interference in hiring the new chair of the Charity Commission.

The campaign group is seeking a court order to re-run the recruitment process “without political direction from government”, adding: “It’s not the Charity Commission’s job to ‘cancel’ charities that don't line up behind the government's agenda.”

It has requested an expedited hearing from the High Court in order for the case to be heard before the interim Chair’s term expires on 26 December.

In a statement, the Good Law Project said that the publication of a column in the Telegraph newspaper by Dorries’ predecessor Oliver Dowden, which was subsequently republished on the government website, had “compromised the independence of the interview process”.

In the article Dowden cited “a worrying trend in some charities that appear to have been hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials”, and that charities were “hunting for divisions in a way that serves neither their benefactors nor the country”.

He added: “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.”

In September, lawyers from the Good Law Project sent a pre-action letter to Ms Dorries asking her to hand over the list of questions that were put to interviewees for the position.

It also requested that Dorries respond to concerns that ministerial involvement in the hiring process had breached the Charities Act 2011, which says that the commission should not be subject to control or direction by the government, and the Governance Code for Public Appointments, which says that all public appointments must be made transparently and on merit.

According to the campaign group: “Ms Dorries claimed, in short, that her predecessor Oliver Dowden MP’s demands for an ‘anti-woke’ Chair didn’t matter because they weren’t repeated in the formal job specification.”

Commenting on the announcement, Rachel Smethers, head of communications at the Good Law Project, said the column had “fatally compromised the independence” of the new chair’s recruitment.

“Both the applicants and interviewers were given an emphatic steer as to the expected outcome of the hiring process – it fatally compromised the independence of the process. If Ministers thought their words would be ignored, why did they bother publishing them?” she said.

“It’s not the Charity Commission’s job to ‘cancel’ charities that don't line up behind the government's agenda. We think this is unlawful – the appointment process must be re-run if it’s to have any integrity.”

The DCMS confirmed that, as detailed in the person specification for the role, agreed by the Secretary of State, and in line with fair and open competition policy, all candidates were required to demonstrate a strong commitment to ensuring charities remain focused on delivering their core charitable purposes; and ensuring that trustees understand their legal duties, including on campaigning and political activity.

A DCMS spokesperson told Third Sector: "We will not comment in any detail on cases that are currently before the Courts. DCMS are of the view that the processes to date have been entirely sound and will put that position to the Court."

The department also confirmed that interviews had concluded in September, adding that the preferred candidate for the post would announced in due course.

Earlier this week the government confirmed that its preferred candidate for the chair of the commission had been chosen.

Update: This story was amended at 08:45 on 29/10/21 to include a comment from the DCMS

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in
RSS Feed

Third Sector Insight

Sponsored webcasts, surveys and expert reports from Third Sector partners

Third Sector Logo

Get our bulletins. Read more articles. Join a growing community of Third Sector professionals

Register now