'Serious concerns' with regulator

Sir Stuart Etherington
Sir Stuart Etherington

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has expressed concerns about the political independence of the Charity Commission board and board members' intervention in operational matters.

In a letter to Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, Etherington called for the appointments process for commission board members to be overhauled to ensure its independence and neutrality.

He said questions about the appropriateness of the regulator's governance arrangements "and the appointment of certain individuals have caused serious concerns within the sector... reigniting a debate that has frequently surfaced over the years and that now must be addressed as a matter of urgency".

This comes after commission board member Gwythian Prins faced accusations that he broke Cabinet Office impartiality rules in an anti-EU essay he wrote for the campaign group Historians for Britain (see story below).

Etherington's letter said the NCVO broadly welcomed the extended powers recently granted to the commission, but warned the regulator must be fit for purpose. "In particular, its governance arrangements must reflect its role as the regulator of a sector that is by law required to be non-party political, and its quasi-judicial powers," it said. "We therefore continue to have serious concerns about the intervention of the Charity Commission board members in operational matters and its independence from party politics."

MPs expressed concern before his appointment about whether William Shawcross, the commission's chair, could be considered politically impartial. Shawcross, a journalist and author, wrote an article in 2010 urging people to vote Conservative. His predecessor, Dame Suzi Leather, appointed under the Labour government, faced regular criticism from some right-wing politicians and newspapers after she did not relinquish her membership of the Labour Party.

Etherington's letter said the willingness of some commission board members to express "forceful opinions on the work of the executive" was shown by the judicial review of the regulator's actions in the case of the advocacy group Cage.

A paper produced by the NCVO last year said the government should consider giving control of the appointment of the chair of the commission to parliament.

Andrew O'Brien, head of policy and engagement at the Charity Finance Group, said it was time to discuss the regulator's governance.

A spokesman for the Charity Commission said: "The matters raised in the letter are for the minister to consider."

A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office said it had received the letter and would respond in due course.

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