Sketch: Commission comes in from the cold

The Charity Commission had clearly prepared for its day in the limelight.

Belying any possible notion that Harmsworth House might really be full of fusty grey-suited civil servants, new chair Geraldine Peacock breezed in wearing a knee length chiffon skirt and high-heeled suede boots. Legal Commissioner David Unwin had even dug out a multi-coloured rainbow tie for the occasion.

The occasion was the commission's first-ever public board meeting, part of an array of reforms that are being introduced in the wake of the Strategy Unit report, designed to introduce "open government" at the watchdog.

But as the 40 or so observers - almost entirely lawyers, accountants and charity consultants rather than your actual members of the public - settled down to see history in the making, there was a sharp reminder that the commission hasn't quite escaped from the iron-clad protocols of the Whitehall machine.

Peacock informed the audience that if anyone needed to respond to a call of nature during the meeting, they would have to be escorted to the toilet by a commission minder. "But we will remain outside the door," she said to audible sighs of relief. The former Guide Dogs' chief executive encouragingly told the spectators as the meeting began: "We'll try and pretend you're not there."

But during the next two and half hours the commissioners, the target of some caustic barbs from MPs in the Charities Bill scrutiny committee, chaired by Alan Milburn, seemed acutely aware of the goldfish bowl they were swimming in.

When director of legal services Kenneth Dibble, who endured a sustained grilling from the Parliamentary Charities Bill scrutiny committee in July, extolled the virtues of new consultation procedures on human-rights guidance, the effusive Peacock chipped in: "You're not the authoritarian bully that Mr Milburn thinks you are, but a man with modernisation on his mind!"

But the meeting was most notable for what remained off the agenda. The board's thoughts on the hastily negotiated "compromise" with the Home Office over the legal status of public benefit tests on private schools, were apparently unfit for public consumption.

Alan Milburn had suggested arms were being twisted behind backs as the Home Office sent the heavies in. To be fair, neither of the legal commissioners was actually wearing a sling.

The tepid atmosphere was only enlivened when the board asked for questions from the floor. John Weth, of the commission's bete noire, the Association for Charities, failed in an attempt to secure an update on the commission's 22-month investigation into the Kingsway International Christian Centre in Hackney. But he was treated to the revelation that while commission investigations can take a short time, they can also take a very long time as well.

Another question about excessive fees earned by private sector receiver-managers was met with the stock response that the fees were modest compared with the assets of the charities concerned. "Does that answer your question?" Dibble asked. "No, but it was what I expected to hear," came the reply.

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