The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has launched a review of the Charity Commission’s governance arrangements, saying it wants to ensure the regulator "can never again be accused of political bias in its work".
In a blog post published today on the umbrella body’s website, Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, says that although the Charities Act 2006 "did much to improve charity law", it also "created some new problems" with the changes it made to the governance of the commission.
The NCVO has therefore opened a review of the commission’s governance structure, board appointments process and relationship with government, and the respective remits of its board and its executive. It will also make comparisons with other regulators, Etherington says.
The review will be overseen by Etherington and a small advisory panel, and is due to be concluded by next summer. A spokesman for the NCVO said the panel’s composition could not yet be confirmed.
Etherington says in his blog: "Our aim is to find ways to make sure the regulator can put questions about its political neutrality to rest for good. We want to ensure that the commission can never again be accused of political bias in its work."
The 2006 act led to the replacement of a small number of lawyers and civil servants acting as commissioners with a more diverse board. Etherington writes: "Subsequent boards, and particularly chairs, have been subject to the accusation that as appointees of the government of the day they are in some way politically biased. One does not have to accept that these accusations have any merit in order to see that they can be damaging."
Etherington says perceptions of the commission are particularly vital given the new powers that would be handed to the commission by the Protection of Charities Bill. He says that the governance review should go hand-in-hand with discussion about the commission’s financing. The NCVO is due to host a round table with the commission next month on the question of whether the commission could charge charities some kind of fines, fees or levies.
Etherington says he is keen to point out that the review is not a criticism of the commission board and staff, whom he says are working hard.
The NCVO will be in touch with its members shortly on how to give evidence. Evidence from non-members would also be welcome, a spokesman for the organisation said.
Separately, Etherington says in the blog that after next year's general election the NCVO will commence a review of "the broader environment for campaigning", including the consequences of the lobbying act and the regulation of campaigning.
A spokeswoman for the commission said: "We are aware of the NCVO review of the commission’s governance and will await further details, but ultimately the commission’s governance framework is set out in the Charities Act and by the Cabinet Office."