Peter Stanford: Two trusteeships are surely enough

There's no need for anyone to have a portfolio of trusteeships, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

There are times when our best intentions work out without a glitch, but others when they prove unexpectedly challenging. I've always believed that those who put their views into the public domain have an obligation in return to lay themselves open to scrutiny. So when books of mine were published, I was happy to for my home address to be advertised.

It all worked fairly well until I produced a biography of the devil – or, more properly, of the idea that there was a devil. Yes, you spotted the danger before I did. Someone who took a more literal (and approving) view of Satan than me turned up on my doorstep. Even if I learned a lesson that day about the limits to openness, the general principle still holds. So I am delighted the government has decided – in the wake of the so-called Trojan Horse scandal about the infiltration of the governing bodies of Birmingham schools by hardline Muslims – to set up a national register for school governors.

There are many parallels between being a school governor and being a charity trustee. And – to its credit – the Charity Commission has long insisted that the details of all trustees are in the public domain. The nation's estimated 350,000 school governors, on the other hand, have been able to hide their lights under a bushel, despite overseeing on behalf of the wider community the spending of £46bn of taxpayers' money. The only real question is why on earth this reform didn't happen earlier. Transparency is essential when you are scrutinising public money.

But another aspect of the planned reform caught my eye. It is proposed that individuals will be restricted to sitting on a maximum of two school governing boards. I wonder, is this not something we might look at in the third sector? I have sat on boards with people who have entire portfolios of trustee positions. True, it shows admirable commitment to the causes involved and a certain public-spiritedness. They can often share examples of good practice or flag up potential obstacles on the basis of what they've heard on other boards.

But there's another side. The potential for a conflict of interest is present – or, more mundanely, a lack of focus, a muddling of details or insufficient time. I'm not suggesting infiltration, as in Birmingham, but there can sometimes be just a hint of empire-building about such multiple post-holders. One I met recently even seemed to lump his charity commitments together with his lucrative non-executive posts.

In that spirit of learning from each other, perhaps the sensible restraint that is now to be placed on school governors – no more than two at a time – should also apply to charity trustees. It might in the short term create gaps on boards, but to good purpose because thereafter it would encourage that broader range among trustees that the commission habitually urges.

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

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