Peter Stanford: Trustees should set higher standards than ministers

Trustees should not shrink from asking whether they are the problem rather than the solution, says our columnist

Our politicians have become increasingly adept of late at avoiding taking any blame when things go wrong. Ministers, for example, have become ever more reluctant to resign from office, even when they are shown to have presided over spectacular failure or cock-up.

In the good old days of Anthony Eden and Alec Douglas-Home, the man on watch (and they were always men) would fall on his sword at the first sign of trouble.

Now departmental heads insist that catastrophes are nothing to do with them and soldier on, usually until the next reshuffle, when they finally limp into the sunset.

Worse still is a line they have been using more often of late when confronted with incontrovertible evidence of their own incompetence, or that of their senior officials: "Yes, I know I made a mess of it, but that's why I'm the best person to stay on and sort it out."

It's hard to think of a minister who, unless actually caught with his or her trousers down on live television, has resigned promptly and willingly.

In fact, the only one I can think of is that nice Estelle Morris, who simply said she had come to the conclusion that she wasn't up to the job of being education secretary.

In our own sector, the pressure group In Trust for Scotland is keen that the current chair of the National Trust Scotland, lawyer Shonaig Macpherson, should resign at once over the furore that is rocking the organisation after 65 jobs were cut to balance the budget.

Macpherson has already announced that she is standing down in 12 months, but that is not fast enough for In Trust for Scotland, an organisation made up of disaffected NTS members. It wants her head now, along with a fresh round of elections to the trustee board.

Higher standards for chairs and trustees of charities than for government ministers? I'll sign up for that. But perhaps a better question would be this: should chairs and trustees be subject, when things go pear-shaped, to the same knee-jerk cries of 'resign!' as ministers?

I'm not familiar with the ins and outs of NTS affairs - although the very fact that this has become such a big news story in recent weeks should give the board food for thought about its future. When their tenure is being discussed, rather than the cause they seek to promote, something is clearly amiss. No one is ever more important than the cause, my first charity mentor wisely told me once.

She also later accused me of being "worse than Tony Blair" - referring to what she saw, during a trustee board meltdown, as my tendency to lie. At least that is what I think she meant, although by that stage she had stopped speaking to me, so it was impossible to be certain.

I know what it's like to be at the centre of a charity witch-hunt and to feel harshly and unfairly judged, so my instinctive sympathy goes out to Macpherson.

When you volunteer to give up your time to sit as a trustee, you shouldn't expect any thank-yous - but neither do you expect to be hung out to dry.

I'm reluctant to encourage this sport of taking pot shots at trustees whenever things aren't going too well at charities.

Yes, we shoulder obligations to promote good governance, and yes, these must include a willingness always to ask if we are the problem, not the solution; but the first thing to do in the face of any setback should be to arrange a calm and fair examination of the causes.

The danger is that we leave ourselves off the list of suspects - that is, act like the current crop of government ministers. We need to set our sights a bit higher than that.

  • Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, chairman of Aspire and director of the Longford Trust
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