Orlando Fraser: ‘The Charity Commission has to be independent, not just of the government but of the sector’

In his first interview since becoming chair of the Charity Commission, Orlando Fraser tells Russell Hargrave about his ambitions for the regulator

Orlando Fraser
Orlando Fraser

Orlando Fraser, the new chair of the Charity Commission, is getting a guided tour of the Rugby Portobello Trust, a children’s, youth and family support charity in west London.

He seems to feel right at home here, and it is soon clear why. Fraser and his wife have volunteered and fundraised for the charity, on and off, for the past 15 years, he explains. He grew up in this corner of London. When fire swept through the nearby Grenfell Tower in June 2017, a tragedy that killed 72 people and left hundreds of families homeless, this is where he came to help out.

Fraser’s mother still lives in the area and the church where he was christened is just a few hundred yards up the road. He is a familiar figure to some of the charity’s staff, who ask after his family and swap stories about the latest local goings-on.

The trust is “full of great people doing great things”, Fraser says proudly, tour over, as he settles into his first interview since starting at the top of the regulator.

He is no stranger to the work of charities like this one – and no stranger to the commission, either. He sat on its board between 2013 and 2017, when William Shawcross was chair (“my first stint”, Fraser calls it cheerfully), and was there for some of its highest-profile cases, including the start of its seven-year inquiry into the collapse of Kids Company and an aborted attempt to restrict charitable funding of the Islamist advocacy body Cage.

All of which, along with three decades as a QC and a spell on an NCVO advisory committee, suggests Fraser was an ideal pick for returning to head the Charity Commission’s board. But his route to the job was a very protracted one.

The regulator did not have a permanent chair for more than a year after Fraser’s predecessor, Baroness Tina Stowell, announced she was stepping down. When ministers finally got around to recruiting Stowell’s replacement,
they initially selected the lawyer and financial manager Martin Thomas.

Parliament approved the pick, only for Thomas to quit before he had even started the job when it emerged that he had been accused of bullying at a charity he used to chair. (In a neat bit of symmetry, it was Shawcross, now
in charge of public appointments, who had to answer to MPs over the mess.)

The government then turned to Fraser – but parliament this time recommended that the recruitment process should be started again from scratch. Ministers refused and went ahead with Fraser’s appointment regardless – and here we are.

A top-of-the-class commission

This background to his appointment could explain Fraser’s caution when asked how he hopes to make his mark on the commission during his first three-year term. “I don’t think it is for me to say I will come in and change things,” he says. Nonetheless, he is clear about what he wants the organisation to stand for.

“I would like to leave the job and feel that people respect the commission as an authority on regulation, as an expert commission, top-of-the-class,” he says. “As a QC, I value expertise and excellence, so I want every aspect of the commission to be functioning at the highest possible level, both individually and as a team.”

This sort of day-to-day high performance, Fraser argues, “is invaluable in earning respect”.

If the commission can live by these values, then it will be trusted to use its powers effectively, he continues, arguing that the health of the sector relies on the regulator’s ability to get tough when required.

“On some occasions you need to be robust with the bad actors. You just do. Otherwise you lose the confidence of donors and you lose the confidence of volunteers,” he says.

“And during a cost-of-living crisis, you don’t want donations to dry up because people have lost confidence in the sector. You really have to have that [public confidence]. I think that is important.”

Fraser is quick to point out that, for the most part, these powers can be used relatively sparingly. He gestures at the charity bustling around us. “They are not bad actors,” he laughs. Charities will always make mistakes, especially given the administrative challenges in the sector, he says, but adds: “I think you’ve got to be more benign towards that, a bit more lenient, perhaps. You have got to have that sense of balance.” 

This echoes Fraser’s first public comments in his new role. At an event at the beginning of May, he argued that the regulator would draw a clear line between “the intentional wrongdoers, the fraudsters, the extremists, the aggressors and the grossly negligent”, who could expect to face tough action from the commission, and the honest mistakes made by “volunteers trying overall to do good things”.

He adds: “We all know it is vital for charities to be independent, and even more so that the commission has to be seen to be independent, not just of the government but also of the sector. We can’t just cosy-up. We have to be independent from both of those.

“If I was to leave a commission that was seen to be fair, balanced and independent, I feel that would be job done.”

Some charity leaders would suggest that the commission has struggled to achieve this balance in recent years. When Stowell, a Conservative Party peer, was appointed to the role, the Directory of Social Change warned that “the cornerstones of independent charity regulation risk being eroded” by what appeared to be a politically partisan choice.

Stowell’s demand that charities show more “sensitivity and respect” in public discourse, and her ongoing interest in so-called ‘culture war’ issues promoted by the secretary of state, did little to reassure charities that the regulator understood and appreciated their work.

The new chair – who once stood for election to be a Conservative MP but says he is no longer active in the party – is very diplomatic.

“I don’t get a sense of division,” Fraser insists. “I get a feeling that it’s a healthy relationship. I’ve had a very positive reaction from the sector leaders that I’ve talked to, or heard about, or from what people have said. They are often positive about the commission, about the good engagement they’ve had with the commission, about particular staff. So I don’t get a feeling that this is a particularly difficult relationship with them.

“You obviously go through patches as a regulator where you have to challenge [organisations], and that can be uncomfortable for some interests. But you have to do what the law tells you to do.”

On the question of whether he would continue or drop any initiatives from Stowell’s time in charge, it is evident that Fraser has no interest in comparisons with his predecessor.

He says: “I am not here to comment on Tina Stowell’s chairship. She introduced the strategic plan, which was a way of thinking over five years, and I think that was very helpful. I suspect you will be seeing one of those from the organisation under me.”

Pushed again on Stowell’s legacy, he will only add: “I am out to listen, and to talk to, and to be an enthusiast for the sector.”

That role could extend to acting as a kind of ‘honest broker’ between charities and the government, Fraser says later. “It is not strictly part of our statutory purposes,” he smiles, but adds: “We are there to help charities as well.”

He avoids passing commentary on the relations between government and charities, but says: “You do hear publicly politicians and the government complaining it has bad relations with charities, and you hear publicly charities saying they have bad relations with government.

“Now, it is not impossible that the commission could be a trusted intermediary, because hypothetically you could see the thing [from all perspectives]. So in circumstances where that is possible, as part of our purpose, you would obviously want to try to assist a better understanding.

“In my view, politicians put into government are trying to do a good thing in the interests of the country. Charities are plainly trying to do good things. If something has come between that, and the commission could help soften some of that and ameliorate some of that, it would be difficult to turn down.”

Effective, proactive regulation

Whatever plans Fraser has, it will take resources to pursue that work. The commission’s most recent financial settlement with the Treasury was pretty successful – its budget is £29m this year, sharply up from £20m in 2015 – and Fraser seems satisfied the regulator has what it needs.

“I think that, intelligently used, we have sufficient resources to do the job,” he says. “I doubt that many more resources are going to be made available in the next year. So we will do what we can with what we have got, and we can make more use of data and technology to help us, but [the work will rely on] more expertise and judgement.”

Fraser is a real evangelist for the effective collection, analysis and use of data, which he has previously called “the currency of effective, proactive regulation”.

He would not turn down more funding, naturally, but says: “I am confident it is in a pretty good place, the commission, if left to get on and do its job.”

And those increased resources have been visible since Fraser returned to the commission, he says. “When I left [in 2017] we had about 350 employees, something like that. Now we are at about 470 full-time equivalents, up by nearly 50 per cent. The commission has more money – much more money, actually.”

He returns to what are clearly key themes for his new role: the importance of high-quality data and the commission’s responsibility to take tough action against the sector’s wrongdoers. He describes a recent away-day with his leadership team, where he saw some of the commission’s regulatory experts in action.

“I met a whole division that basically hadn’t existed [before], for intelligence and analysis,” he says. “They were brilliant. They were looking at all the patterns and the [red] flags and all that sort of stuff that you have to do as a risk-based regulator.”

He adds: “There was a whole team of 30 of them doing this, and [previously] we didn’t have one, we were just starting it.”

As for the powers commanded by the commission, Fraser proudly runs through the progress the regulator has made during the past decade, from heavy criticism in parliament in 2013 for failing to use its resources effectively
to passing a follow-up “health check” from the National Audit Office in 2017.

He is going to do what he calls “a deep dive of the commission” to meet as many staff as he can and acquaint himself with all its work, but he seems satisfied for now.

“I’m not going to sit here and say I think we need more powers because, at this stage, I haven’t seen the evidence to suggest that we do. But again, this is early days for me.”

In the months ahead, Fraser and his officials will be embarking on “a sequence of visits” to charities all over the country, he says, to get the most detailed possible view of the challenges facing – and the incredible work being undertaken by – the sector.

For now, though, our afternoon at the Rugby Portobello Trust is coming to an end. The charity is impressive: the recording studios downstairs are state of the art and immaculately cared for by the young people who use them; and when Fraser talks with volunteer football coaches about their funding, it is to the background clatter of a dozen toddlers in replica shirts dribbling around a gym.

Fraser listens intently while the trust’s volunteer manager runs through data on how staff and volunteer numbers changed before and after the height of the coronavirus crisis.

It is serious stuff, but Fraser certainly seems to be having fun. So, a few weeks into the top job at the Charity Commission, is he enjoying himself?

“I love it,” he says, smiling broadly across the table. “I love it. I love it. I love it.”

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