A group of major charity umbrella bodies have called on MPs to put pressure on the government to ensure the appointment of the next chair of the Charity Commission is politically neutral.
In a letter sent to Julian Knight, the Conservative chair of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the 10 organisations urge the committee to publicly call on the government to ensure that the recruitment process for Baroness Stowell’s successor is “grounded in transparency, accountability and impartiality”.
Signatories to the letter, who include the chief executives of the charity leaders’ body Acevo, the Charity Finance Group, the Small Charities Coalition and the Association of Charitable Foundations, ask the committee to include a review of the appointment process as part of its ongoing inquiry into the work of the Charity Commission.
A former Conservative minister, Stowell recently revealed that she would not seek a second term as chair of the regulator and will step down in February.
The DCMS committee, which conducts pre-appointment hearings with preferred candidates for the position of Charity Commission chair, took the highly unusual step of advising against Stowell’s appointment in 2018, but the Conservative government pressed ahead with it anyway.
The letter raises concerns “about the lack of transparency and accountability in previous appointment processes, and the increasing party politicisation of the Charity Commission chair role”.
It says: “Transparency, accountability and party political neutrality must be prioritised in this recruitment process, to restore trust across the sector that the non-executive of its regulator will act politically impartially.”
It notes the two previous chairs of the regulator, William Shawcross and Dame Suzi Leather, had both faced criticism over perceived links to the respective Conservative and Labour governments of the day.
“This recruitment process is an opportunity to reset the relationship between charities and the non-executive of the Charity Commission, and to end 14 years of criticism about party political appointments.”
The letter says it is of “vital importance” that the commission’s non-executive members understand the charity sector and that the chair has expert knowledge of regulation.
“Charities understand that their regulator will hold them to account, challenge them and disagree with them,” it says.
“However, they expect that the commission will do this work with expertise and political independence at the highest levels of the organisation, and a clear commitment to the legal remits of regulation.
“Where these expectations have not been met trust between charities and their regulator has been damaged, and we would like to see that trust rebuilt.”
It is expected that the 10 organisations will write a similar letter to the government about the appointment, which will be made by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.