William Shawcross declares himself pleased and surprised at being the new chair of the Charity Commission. "As a writer, I’ve spent all my life on the outside looking in," he says. "And I thought it would be nice to do something from the inside and be involved in an important organisation.
"So when I saw that Dame Suzi Leather was leaving after six years and the job was advertised, I thought I would apply for it. I went through the process and rather to my surprise – my happy surprise – here I am."
The happiness was not shared by Labour and LibDem members of the Commons committee that had to confirm his appointment: they turned up an article he wrote in 2010 saying the Conservatives were the only hope for Britain, and tried – in vain – to block the appointment.
"The exchange of views at the committee was interesting," says Shawcross. "That was just one out of thousands of articles I’ve written. I was asked and I told them that I’m not a member of a political party and haven’t been for a very long time."
‘A declaration of intent’
Nonetheless, politics follow him: 10 day ago, he was cited in an article in The Daily Telegraph by Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, arguing that charities led by former Labour officials and spin doctors were running an anti-Conservative "fifth column".
The Prime Minister was beginning to take notice of this, Nelson wrote: "He has appointed a No 10 official to handle public appointments, and the selection of the writer William Shawcross to run the Charity Commission is a declaration of intent."
Shawcross elects not to get drawn in. "Fraser Nelson’s a very good journalist. It was a very interesting article. What else can I say?" Does he agree with its analysis about charities’ anti-government stance? "I don’t know yet. But I think there is a very interesting discussion to be had about the way charities relate to government, and are increasingly dependent on governments of left, right and centre.
"Among members of the public who give generously to charity, it’s perhaps not widely understood how many charities have become, probably without any alternative, more dependent on government, and this should be aired and discussed. This country’s charitable history is wonderfully idiosyncratic, going back to the statute of Elizabeth – the whole common law history of charitable giving, the charitable accretion, has been remarkable.
"In that context, charities have always been independent and that independence is a very precious thing." Is it under threat? "I don’t know - I’m on a steep learning curve."
Later in the interview, Shawcross addresses the subject of campaigning by charities, says that it won’t go away, but doubts that there is a real groundswell of opinion that there should be new restrictions. "The extent to which charities should campaign politically is extremely difficult, and I’m sure it’s something I will want to look at and perhaps have a public discussion on," he says.
From his writing about international affairs and geopolitics, Shawcross says he knows more about development charities and international NGOs than the domestic sector. His book The Quality of Mercy looks at how agencies responded to the war in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s, and Deliver Us From Evil deals with peacekeeping and humanitarianism in Bosnia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone in the 1990s.
He has served on the Disasters Emergency Committee and was a chair for 10 years of Article 19, a charity that defends freedom of expression around the world. Hence his reluctance, one month into the job, to give definite answers on some subjects mainly affecting UK charities, such as the declining number of statutory investigations carried out and published by the commission, and whether it should urge charities to become members of the Fundraising Standards Board.
Regulator of the sector
But he is clear that the commission’s main task is being a regulator rather than a champion of the sector, adding that a policeman can always be a friendly one. "Most charities don’t need regulation," he says. "They’re small, local organisations properly run by honourable trustees.
"Others do need regulation in order for public confidence to be maintained, and it’s important for the regulator to be seen to do its job when necessary."
He’s also against stronger measures on proliferation of charities – at present, the commission just urges charity founders on its website to consider putting their resources into an existing organisation. "You hear from the public that there is too much duplication and too much spent on administration, and that’s a source of some tension and debate," Shawcross says.
"My instinct is that it’s wrong to stifle or limit people’s ability to create charities when they feel they need to. The state shouldn’t interfere more than necessary – I like to see little charities doing small, local things. I think that’s wonderful."
His first two-day-a-week month has included tea with his predecessor, but has mostly been spent visiting commission offices in Liverpool, Taunton and Newport, where he says morale seems high despite recent change and job losses. Of poor staff survey results and a recent board recommend-ation for more action to prevent bullying, he says: "I think the work has been done."
How hands-on will he be? "If I was in the engine room, as you put it, I would bump up against Sam Younger, who is a very good chief executive. I’m here to complement and help, and to give a strategic direction to the work of the board, not to interfere with the daily running of things."
Life and times
After a successful career as an author and journalist, Shawcross is taking his first public sector job at the age of 66. He was educated at Eton and University College Oxford, and after a brief time studying sculpture at St Martin’s College of Art, he went to Czechoslovakia during the uprising against the USSR and wrote a biography of its leader, Alexander Dubcek, in 1970. He reported on the war in Vietnam and Cambodia and has written 12 more books, mostly about geopolitical subjects, but including a study of Rupert Murdoch and the official biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2009. He also wrote two BBC television series about the monarchy. His favourite authors, he says, are Joseph Conrad, P G Wodehouse and Tom Wolfe.
Shawcross on the hot buttons:
Paying trustees without commission permission
"On the whole, I’m against it. I can see the logic – some charities ask trustees for a lot of time and need skilled people. It’s difficult to know what size a charity should be before it’s allowed to pay. But it’s being considered very seriously because it’s recommended in the Hodgson review."
Charging for charity registration
"Attractive in theory, but incredibly hard to work out in practice. I can’t see many charities welcoming it. I think I would argue against it."
The definition of public benefit
"I don’t know how Parliament could have defined it for all circumstances – it has to be left to case law. Issuing guidance is a huge responsibility for the commission and the tribunal, and will continue to be difficult in many more cases."