Baroness Stowell, the government's preferred candidate to be the next chair of the Charity Commission, has been criticised by MPs for her lack of knowledge of the sector and close links to the Conservative Party.
At a pre-appointment hearing held by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in parliament today, the Conservative peer admitted she had only ever attended three charity trustee meetings.
Stowell faced questions on her political impartiality because of her Tory party membership and her previous role as Leader of the House of Lords in the coalition and Conservative governments.
She reiterated that she would resign her membership of the Conservative Party and the party whip if she was to be appointed as the Charity Commission’s chair, and said she felt she was "a veteran outsider".
But MPs repeatedly suggested she might in fact be an insider, based on her previous roles, and also questioned why she had recently taken on two trusteeships in recent months.
Stowell is a trustee of Crimestoppers and the Transformation Trust, but has only been to three board meetings – two at Crimestoppers and a strategy day for the Transformation Trust – since she joined the two charities in 2017.
Stowell denied she had any knowledge of the vacancy at the Charity Commission until it was advertised by the government, and said she did not take on the trusteeships to acquire more charity experience before applying for the role.
She also told MPs that if a better candidate than her to lead to commission had applied, "they should be sat here before you now".
Stowell had her experience of the sector queried by MPs, amid concerns that she had only mentioned the word "charity" six times in eight years in the House of Lords and until nine months ago had no direct experience of the charity sector.
Andrew Hind, a former chief executive of the Charity Commission, wrote to the select committee in advance of the hearing, arguing that Stowell’s "fit with the published person specification is poor" and she had little direct experience of either charities or regulation.
Ian Lucas, the Labour MP for Wrexham, said in the committee hearing that he felt it was "extraordinary" that Stowell had shown such little interest in the sector until nine months ago and had not made a previous "professional commitment" to the sector.
Stowell emphasised repeatedly that she felt her experience in the House of Lords and in a previous role at the BBC were relevant to her new role as chair, especially in demonstrating her effectiveness, impartiality and knowledge of corporate governance.
Stowell said she had been "100 per cent committed to every role I have been given" and wanted to work in the sector because "I know how important it is" and wanted to bring the voice of the public to the commission’s work.
She said that she wanted to tackle the decline in public trust in the charity sector and felt the decline had occurred for similar reasons to the decline of trust in the political and corporate worlds: "big organisations that seem to be operating in the interests of the people in charge, not the people they are supposed to serve".
She said the challenge for the Charity Commission was how to address that without being adversarial in its relationship with the sector.
Stowell also briefly touched on the Oxfam crisis, saying that although the Charity Commission was responding strongly to the latest claims against the charity, it was "disappointing that the commission was not more curious and did not push back on Oxfam to get more information to them" when the claims first emerged in 2011.