Peter Stanford: Shawcross's ordeal brings back my own memories

When it's good news there are plenty of other candidates wanting to stand at the front, but when there is music to face you're on your own, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Who would want to be chair of the Charity Commission? Well, I'm sure plenty of charity trustees and chairs, especially those with a high profile elsewhere in their professional lives, have been tempted to consider it, if only in their quieter moments. Some have even thrown their hats into the ring in the past.

Not perhaps the "careerists" that Gina Miller, the founder of Miller Philanthropy, lambasted recently, but the men and women who look on and wonder quite how hard it could be to do a better job than the current regime at the commission and simultaneously benefit from the elevated platform and surefire bet of a gong. As with everything else in this life, however, it cuts both ways.

It is hard to see the roasting that was faced by the recently installed chair, William Shawcross, during his appearance before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, as anything other than a personal humiliation. Head in hands, he looked a bit like one of those rogue traders finally being brought to book for casually taking extraordinary risks in the City. Which, of course, is grossly unfair. The errors had all been made long before he was appointed as chair of the commission. And yet he found himself under an unforgiving spotlight, carrying the can.

It's one of the drawbacks of being the chair of any voluntary organisation. When it's good news - such as photo opportunities with a new celebrity backer, receiving a large cheque or cutting the ribbon on a smart new building - there are always plenty of other candidates wanting to stand at the front: the chief executive, the head of fundraising or the project manager. But when there is music to face, suddenly you're out there on your own.

And it can be very lonely. My own experience was mild compared with the scene that has just played out in Westminster. The charity I chaired had given a grant to an applicant so that they could buy a new wheelchair. We had raised the money from a national company that was keen on publicity. So we arranged plenty of it, until the real story came to light about how the chap in question sustained the injury that left him in a wheelchair: an unedifying tale, involving him exploiting someone younger.

Not that it meant he had any less right to a decent wheelchair - but if we'd done our homework, if we'd followed our own procedures to the letter and spotted the red warning signs flashing, we would never have agreed to the coverage in the local press. And I would have been saved a small nightmare.

The donor was furious, as were the victim's family. Someone had to face the music and suddenly there I was, making lots of apologies. Any attempt to make excuses was half-hearted, knowing they were just that, and I was left with lot of egg on my face.

On the positive side, what it did mean was that the same mistake was never made again. To follow the logic, in Shawcross's case that will mean following up on the allegation, made by Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, that there are 50 other charities that have been set up to take advantage of charitable tax reliefs. That, though, is for tomorrow. Right now there is a cloud of guilt by association hanging over all of us involved in charity governance.

After all our talk about how rigorous we have become in our oversight, how professional, how scrupulous and how worthy we are of the trust placed in us by the public, suddenly in that House of Commons committee room the whole governance tier of our sector was made to look pretty amateurish and, frankly, hopefully naive.

The commission hadn't even noticed that the Cup Trust had one - just one - trustee, a corporate on the British Virgin Islands, which would have made most people wonder if the whole thing was a tax dodge.

In terms of public perception, this has brought us right back to being 1950s do-gooders - well-intentioned, but out of our depth when the big boy accountants want to run rings round us to make a quick buck. The lonely ordeal of Mr Shawcross - a very good writer, incidentally, who must have been wishing he'd stuck to the day job - will stay in many memories for a long time to come. At least he can be sure no one has their eye on his job for the time being.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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