Ignoring a committee's appointment advice 'should lead to parliamentary debate'

The final report of the select committee that declined to back the appointment of Baroness Stowell as chair of the Charity Commission says the selection process should be 'put on a surer and clearer footing'

Baroness Stowell’s appointment as chair of the Charity Commission should lead to reforms that would trigger an automatic parliamentary debate if candidates are appointed against a select committee’s advice, according to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.

The comments from the committee came as it published its final report on its pre-appointment hearing with Baroness Stowell that took place last week, and which led to the committee recommending against her proposed appointment.

Stowell was appointed by Matt Hancock, the culture secretary, despite the committee’s recommendation. The report says the committee was "disappointed to find that our points were dismissed without any meaningful engagement on matters of substance".

There have been only three examples of candidates rejected by a select committee being appointed by government. The report says that Hancock should show he is "capable of demonstrating a thoughtful, judicious and well-considered approach to the exercise of his statutory duties".

The report therefore calls for the pre-appointment process to be "put on a surer and clearer footing" and allow negative reports by select committees to automatically trigger a 90-minute debate in parliament.

In a statement, Damian Collins, chair of the DCMS select committee, said: "Select committees interview the candidate for these appointments in advance for a good reason – to help reassure the public that these important roles are subject to a fair and open process, and that we get the best person for the job.

"We will be taking this opportunity to work with other committees that support our call for the ability to trigger a debate in the Commons to hold ministers to account and allow them to defend their decisions. If the candidates have ministers’ full support, the government should easily be able to explain that to the house."

The committee is also calling for further clarification on why a pre-appointment hearing due to take place on 12 December was delayed at the last minute and about written evidence from some charities that Stowell was not the first choice of the appointment committee but was hired ahead of a "highly experienced and politically neutral" candidate.

It says that there were "unexplained oddities" in the delays, which coincided with the dates when ministers were consulted on the appointment.

The committee’s report reiterates concerns about Stowell’s experience of the charity sector and of regulatory work, with previous roles at the BBC dismissed as not including "any significant regulatory work" and not "self-evidently relevant" to the oversight of a 168,000-strong charity sector.

Concerns about Stowell’s political neutrality, given her role as Leader of the House of Lords less than two years ago, are also highlighted by the committee’s report, despite Stowell’s commitment to resigning the whip and membership of the Conservative Party if appointed.

In response to previous letters from the committee, Hancock wrote to the select committee on 23 February defending his decision to appoint Stowell and claiming that charity sector experience "was not an essential criterion within the role description".

Hancock’s letter says: "Baroness Stowell has never claimed to possess significant experience of working in charities. This was not an essential criterion within the role description. She does, though, have significant executive and government experience, including at the highest level.

"Baroness Stowell will bring a wealth of relevant expertise and experience, including regulatory experience, and will bring a fresh perspective to the role of Charity Commission chair. That is very important, especially now."

He also defended her political neutrality and the recruitment process, which both he and Julia Unwin, who was on the appointment panel, said was "rigorous and fair".

The DCMS committee has asked Hancock to respond to its report within a fortnight of its publication to address its concerns about the appointment.

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