Legal Diary: Change is in the offing at the regulator

Behind the scenes of the governance world

  • This article has been amended - see final paragraph

Members of the board of the Charity Commission appear to be getting fed up with fears for their political neutrality, expressed mildly by commentators when most were appointed in 2013, and more urgently by Sir Stuart Etherington of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in a recent letter to the charities minister. One commission insider says they are annoyed with being portrayed as "right-wing fascists" - which, if taken literally, none are.

The opportunity for change, however, is imminent. The departure of Peter Clarke earlier this year left six members, five of whom reach the end of three-year terms between May and July. The rules permit the minister to reappoint members for three years, without advertisement, if their performance has been judged "at least satisfactory" by the commission chair, William Shawcross.

Shawcross was reappointed a year ago, even though his first term did not expire until October. There was some comment about this, given the fact that many senior public appointees are now required to re-apply and compete if they want to continue; but the Cabinet Office declared this was within the rules. So what's on the cards? Will charities minister Rob Wilson take the opportunity to rebalance the board's membership and address a perceived shortage of close experience of the charity sector?

Some are likely to stay on, but it is not clear whether this includes former academic Gwythian Prins, who said early on that charities should "stick to their knitting" and is now the subject of a complaint to the commission that he broke the UK Corporate Governance Code by writing an anti-EU article.

The other four are: barrister and former Conservative parliamentary candidate Orlando Fraser QC, who suggested in forceful emails revealed for a court case that the commission should take a "robust" rather than a "technical" approach to applying the law; Welsh lawyer Eryl Besse; social entrepreneur Claire Dove; and retired solicitor Tony Leifer. Audit specialist Mike Ashley's term ends in October 2017.

The Cabinet Office has not advertised for a replacement for Clarke or any other vacancies; the commission's own governance review said there was space for an extra member who should have corporate board and IT experience.

Board members are likely to be nodded through, as was their chair. Meanwhile, the government's proposed changes to the public appointments system have been questioned by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Sir David Normington, for giving "undue weight to people's political allegiance".

One commission luminary staying put is Kenneth Dibble, head of legal services. Retirement age is a distant memory for him, and insiders say he's still at his desk by 7am and shows no desire to stop.

  • At the request of the Chairty Commission, the final sentence of the article has been removed

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