MPs have accused William Shawcross, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, of prejudicing his own inquiry into the failed appointment of Martin Thomas as chair of the Charity Commission.
Appearing before MPs on the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee this morning, Shawcross said the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport was “not to blame” for the fiasco surrounding the appointment of Thomas, who quit less than a week after being appointed after claims emerged of misconduct when he was chair of the charity Women for Women International.
MPs on the committee seized on Shawcross’ comments and accused him of prejudicing the inquiry he will be conducting into the matter before it had even started.
He later apologised for making the comments.
Shawcross, who has been the Commissioner for Public Appointments since September and chaired the Charity Commission between October 2012 and January 2018, described the failed process around Thomas’ appointment as a “great misfortune” and said he was “sorry to see the Charity Commission stumble”.
John Nicolson, the Scottish National Party MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, asked Shawross if he could imagine a courtroom scenario where a judge said before a trial began that the defendant was innocent.
But Shawcross denied his mind had been up and insisted he had instead been trying to defend the culture department from the “broad-brush attacks” made by committee members.
MPs pushed back on this assertion and asked Shawcross whether his view should disqualify him from conducting the inquiry and if he could be taken seriously, given what he had said.
Shawcross said: “I’m sorry. I have not made up my mind. There are individuals involved in this process whom I do not wish to damage further by speaking publicly in this way, but you can attack me however you want.”
The committee said it was not attacking him, but challenging his own earlier statement.
Committee members said they were “flabbergasted” by the failings and that while the Civil Service was once considered a “Rolls-Royce” in terms of quality of service, it more recently resembled a “Robin Reliant”.
Shawcross agreed that it was his job to try to stop these institutional failures.
When asked if he should have more powers to oversee the appointments process, he said: “I don't think that unelected people like me should have huge powers.”
The “overall lesson is transparency, transparency, transparency”, Shawcross added.
He also agreed that the floating of names for a role during the appointment process was “a very bad thing” that could deter others from coming forward.
MPs were incredulous that references were not taken and checked before Thomas was appointed, describing it as akin to a “Scout’s honour approach”, which Shawcross described as a “rather wonderful” tradition.