Newsmaker: Robust regulator - Dame Suzi Leather, chair, Charity Commission

Nathalie Thomas

The public interest comes first, popularity is optional.

Leather by name, tough by nature is the first thought that springs to mind as Dame Suzi Leather explains her approach to her new position as chair of the Charity Commission. Anyone in the sector who was hoping she would be a soft touch should think again.

This is a woman who believes 'robust' regulation is in both the public interest and the interests of the sector. She is prepared to risk being unpopular with charities if it means that the Charity Commission does its job well. "You can't be popular all of the time if you are a regulator," she says. "It's important to have good regulation."

When Leather's appointment was first announced, Kevin Curley, chief executive of Navca, appealed to her to end the 'naming and shaming' regime for charities that don't submit their annual accounts on time (Third Sector, 21 June).

Curley is out of luck: Leather's attitude is one of zero tolerance. "Getting accounts in on time is pretty basic isn't it?" she says. "We can't choose not to get a tax return in on time."

Although Leather's style and experience are very different from those of her predecessor, Geraldine Peacock, she says the Leather era at the Charity Commission won't be one of radical change. For the moment she is bent on consolidating the commission's strategy - one she believes in religiously.

"I think the strategy the organisation has adopted and put into effect is the right one," she enthuses. "I'm not coming in saying 'I know that is what the past has been; now it's all different'. I think leaders who do that make great mistakes."

Her career to date reveals few mistakes. She successfully ran the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority for four years and she believes the consumer streak that runs throughout her career can bring an extra something to the way the commission operates.

She will look at how the commission can use the information it receives to inform the public better about the charity sector, she says. Her plans also include helping donors and volunteers make more informed choices about what they do with their time and money.

This emphasis on the public is a continuing theme throughout Leather's policies. Unlike Peacock, who wanted the commission to champion the sector in the broadest sense, Leather's emphasis, which aligns with the commission's official line, is subtly different: championing the "public interest in charity".

She will even apply that philosophy to the question of public benefit.

Leather envisages that the commission will start a consultation on public benefit as soon as the Charities Bill completes its third reading, which is expected to happen before Christmas. She is planning to take consultation further than discussions with the usual suspects and open it out to "wider public policy thinking".

"On public benefit, I think this is an area in which it would be helpful to ensure we go a little wider than only the people and the organisations that might be expected to have an important contribution to make," she says.

During her first month and a half in office, one of Leather's greatest tests has been to deal with allegations concerning the misuse of charitable funds to finance terrorist activities. She admits it's a new challenge that the commission will have to face, but she doesn't go quite so far as to call this a new terrorist threat.

"We must retain a sense of balance," she says. "We are talking about a tiny handful of organisations. I think there is a danger that we begin to forget that the vast majority of charities are benefiting many people."

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