Legal challenge aims to prevent government 'hijacking' appointment of next commission chair

The government is facing a legal challenge aimed at preventing the “hijacking” of the recruitment process for the new chair of the Charity Commission.

Last week, Oliver Dowden, the then-culture secretary, wrote an article for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper in which he said the government wanted to “rebalance” charities away from what he called “a worrying trend in some charities that appear to have been hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials”.

The Good Law Project, a not-for-profit organisation that uses the law to protect the interests of the public, has written to Nadine Dorries, who was appointed culture secretary last week, calling for her to distance herself from Dowden’s comments, issue fresh instructions to the interview panel and promise to make an appointment on “proper criteria”.

It said it was "launching legal action to prevent the government hijacking the appointment process for the new Charity Commission chair".

The Good Law Project also wants Dorries to pause the selection and appointment process and “take appropriate steps to ensure that the selection and appointment is conducted on the basis of merit… and without the attempt to exert illegitimate control on the exercise of the new chair’s functions”.

It said it would sue if Dorries did not comply.

It said the approach outlined by Dowden not only breached the Governance Code on Public Appointments but was unlawful under the Charities Act 2011, which says the regulator should not be “subject to the direction or control of any minister of the crown or of another government department”.

The letter says: “We also note that the secretary of state’s intervention is calculated to ensure that the commission acts in a manner which promotes the current political agenda of the Conservative Party, which would be unacceptable in the case of a charity.

“It would be profoundly unfair to charities against whom action is taken by the commission, and most probably unlawful, if such action were motivated by the desire to further such an agenda (or to give effect to a commitment of the chair given to the secretary of state as a condition of their appointment).”

Jo Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said: “We don’t think it’s the Charity Commission’s job to muzzle or ‘cancel’ charities that don't push the government's agenda. And we certainly don't think it's lawful.

"Our public institutions exist to serve the public good – not the political whims of passing governments. Anyone accepting an appointment following this flawed process should be very clear – we believe it is unlawful and will ask for it to be quashed."

A DCMS spokesperson confirmed the letter had been received and the department would respond in due course.

The spokesperson said the appointment would be made following a fair and open competition and would be regulated by the Office for the Commissioner for Public Appointments, who would ensure the governance code was followed.

The preferred candidate would also be required to appear before a parliamentary select committee prior to appointment.

Baroness Stowell, the previous chair of the Charity Commission, was unanimously rejected as the government’s preferred candidate by MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in 2018 because of concerns including a perceived lack of charity sector experience and fears about her political neutrality.

But Matt Hancock, the culture secretary at the time, appointed her anyway, saying she was "not only the best candidate for the job, but also the right candidate”.

The Charity Commission declined to comment.

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