NEWSMAKER: The outgoing watchdog - John Stoker, Chief charity commissioner, The Charity Commission

Mathew Little

John Stoker doesn't have the demeanour of a watchdog facing up to his extinction. In six months, as part of Home Office reforms, the leadership of the Charity Commission is to be split between a chairman and a chief executive, belatedly bringing the regulator in line with the governance arrangements it has required in charities for some time. Stoker's post of chief charity commissioner will be no more.

The change has been timed to coincide with the end of Stoker's five-year term and after a 30-year Civil Service career, he seems keen on a change of direction. Stoker, 53, says he wouldn't rule out "by any means" becoming chief executive of a charity when he leaves the commission. "I like the ethos of the voluntary sector," he says. "I also like organisations that have a mission they understand, know where they're going, and are committed to taking a good swing at it and not just turning up for the pay and rations."

Possible clues as to Stoker's next move may be found in his career history, which included a stint working for the Department of the Environment in Liverpool on inner-city regeneration.

Back in the early 1980s, in another Civil Service post Stoker gave Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher some advice she unwisely chose to disregard.

Working on a government review of alternatives to the domestic rates, Stoker's team considered and rejected the idea of a flat-rate tax to pay for local council services. "This was the review that came out against the poll tax. I'm always quite careful to point that out," he says.

Stoker's departure comes at a time of radical change to the commission.

The soon-to-be-published Charities Bill will broaden the scope of the sector it regulates with the introduction of 12 charitable purposes under a new public benefit requirement, as well as reforming the commission's structure with new functions such as an independent tribunal to hear appeals against its decisions.

Despite the reform being the biggest change to charity regulation in 400 years, Stoker describes it as "evolutionary, not revolutionary". "It is pretty much in tune with what we're trying to do, which is a targeted approach to regulation - you take a view on where the risk is, where the opportunity is, and you concentrate your attention there," he says. "Sometimes the best thing a regulator can do is to get out of the way."

But one area where the commission is very much in the way is in charity accountability. Charities are soon to be required to submit an 'information return', including figures on fundraising efficiency and other outcome measures, which the public will be able to access on the commission's website. Research by the NCVO and the commission for a joint seminar on the subject found this was causing deep disquiet in the sector. There were fears it would result in misleading comparisons between different kinds of charities and could create league tables by the back door.

"The researchers said there were some sharp reactions from charities," says Stoker. "They were worried that there were different agendas beneath the obvious one of providing information - which there aren't."

Heeding the concerns, the commission is to rethink the information return form. "We need to find a way of squaring charities' aim of communicating with their stakeholders with what we are interested in, which is better and more open accountability about what charities achieve with their money - how they target it, how they measure it," he says. But he maintains that "straightforward factual information and figures" should be part of the mix.

Stoker also betrays some impatience with what he sees as the sector's slowness in appreciating the need for more accountability. "We don't want to plonk something on charities that they are uncomfortable with," he says. "But we might not have had a proposal on this in the Strategy Unit report if charities had actually been a bit more up-front and made better use of the opportunities they've already got through their annual reports and accounts."

Some in the sector have questioned the commission's own openness and accountability when it comes to investigating charities. The Cancer Care Foundation is to complain to the National Audit Office about a £100,000 bill from PriceWaterhouseCoopers and law firm Charles Russell, appointed by the commission as receiver-managers (Third Sector, 4 February). Is Stoker comfortable with charity donations swelling the profits of accountancy firms?

"I think the proportion of donors' money that is spent on paying receiver-managers is tiny," he counters. "We only run 300 investigations a year and only a few of those involve receiver-manager appointments. They can be a very effective way of getting through and solving the problem. It would be wonderful if you could have solutions that didn't cost anyone anything. It does come from charitable funds, but it's basically expenditure on sorting out issues for the charity."

He rejects suggestions that there should be a code of practice for receiver-managers. "The brief will be quite clear as to what they are there to do. They are not free to write their agenda and spend as much time and resources as they like on it," he says.

Stoker's tenure as the nation's charity overseer ends in July. You get the sense that this reserved, understated man, after years of carefully weighing his words as a public official, would like to enjoy the same freedom to speak his mind as those in the sector he regulates. He says: "When you spend 30-odd years working in the public service, it would be quite nice to be the person who is expressing their views on the issues, rather than reacting to them."


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