Matt Hancock, the culture secretary, has admitted to MPs that he knew Baroness Stowell before appointing her as chair of the Charity Commission but insisted that she was the best applicant for the job based on the appointment panel’s recommendations.
Stowell was appointed as chair of the Charity Commission last month despite the select committee deeming her to have a lack of charity sector experience and questioning her political neutrality because of her past role as a Conservative Leader of the House of Lords.
Appearing at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee yesterday, Hancock said he had known Stowell from her time as Leader of the House of Lords, although he said he did not really know her before that time.
He told the committee he had appointed her as chair of the regulator after reading the selection panel’s reports, which presented a list of suitable candidates for ministers to choose from. He said he thought she was the best person for the job based on those recommendations.
Hancock said: "There were appointable candidates. I chose the one who was clearly, in my view, based on the panel reports, the best – and because I have known and worked with her, I knew she would do a brilliant job."
He also denied that the appointment reinforced perceptions that "certain people get these sorts of jobs", citing Stowell’s diverse career, modest background and lack of university qualifications as reasons why she was not an establishment candidate.
But Damian Collins, chair of the DCMS committee, said the way Hancock presented the advice he was given by the selection panel was wrong because it "sought to give the impression that this wasn’t just your view – this was the unanimous view of the panel".
Hancock also denied knowledge of whether another candidate was recommended by Karen Bradley, his predecessor as culture secretary, and said he would write to the committee about an accusation that Stowell applied for a role at the National Citizen Service before withdrawing to pursue the Charity Commission appointment.
"Hands up – I came to this fresh," Hancock said. "There was no decision made. I took the decision based on the panel that was in front of me."
Steve Reed, the shadow minister for civil society, accused Hancock of "cronyism" in appointing Stowell.
"The DCMS select committee unanimously opposed Baroness Stowell's appointment, and the secretary of state’s floundering performance at the committee will only have strengthened their concerns," Reed said in a statement after the hearing.
"By pursuing this indefensible and partisan appointment, Matt Hancock has made clear the government continues to hold the sector in total contempt."
In a letter to the select committee, the government has refused to release the names of the two unsuccessful shortlisted candidates for the chair of the Charity Commission and reiterated its support for Baroness Stowell as the best candidate for the position in a letter to the select committee.
In a response to the DCMS committee’s report that rejected Stowell for the role, the government said it had appointed her because she "will bring a wealth of relevant expertise and experience".
When asked to identify the other candidates for the role, the government response said it was unwilling to provide details to the committee on the other shortlisted candidates due to a "duty to protect the privacy of applicants".
But the government said that the selection criteria for the chair of the Charity Commission did not ask for explicit experience of the charity sector or regulation, and it prioritised "strong leadership" and "a fresh perspective".
It said that Stowell’s decision to resign the Conservative whip and party membership "clearly demonstrates her commitment" to political neutrality.