Stephen Cook: How can the Charity Commission be insulated from politics?

It's a question that's closely related to possible post-election changes to the rules on charity campaigning, writes Third Sector's editor

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

In spite of the uncertainties about the government that will emerge from next week’s general election, it’s overwhelmingly likely that it will be led by either David Cameron or Ed Miliband. That means it will in the main pursue Conservative or Labour policies, although these might be modified to some extent to accommodate other parties that might, under a variety of possible arrangements, agree to help them command a majority in parliament. So what does this portend for charities and the voluntary sector?

Social investment and better public sector contracting arrangements for the sector would be pursued by both Conservative and Labour-led governments, and both would of course speak fulsomely of the role of the sector in creating stronger communities, much as they would of motherhood and apple pie. There would of course be differences in detail, intensity and the level of resources involved, but not in principle.

In the economic sphere, the key concern for many parts of the sector after 7 May will be the knock-on effects of inevitable, continuing cuts to local government, welfare and criminal justice budgets. These will prolong and possibly intensify the already familiar syndrome of increasing demand on the social welfare part of the sector while reducing its resources. These effects seem likely to be strongest under an administration led by the Conservatives, with their aim of eradicating the deficit sooner than the other main parties.

But the regulation of the sector is also likely to be affected significantly by the outcome of the election. A Conservative-controlled administration would confirm and strengthen the hand of the current regime at the Charity Commission, headed by the recently reappointed chair, William Shawcross. A Labour-controlled administration would probably be a constraint on him and his board, mainly because he is seen by many in the political opposition, for a variety of reasons, as a Conservative favourite – much as his predecessor, Dame Suzi Leather, was seen by many on the right as a creature of Labour. A Labour minister would be less likely than a Conservative one to see eye to eye with Shawcross and the uncomfortable relationship between the former charities minister Nick Hurd and Leather between 2010 and the end of her term in 2012 would be replicated in reverse.

The difference between the two possible administrations would be seen most clearly in the question of campaigning by charities and the possible revision of the commission’s guidance on that subject. The commission has committed itself to reviewing its casework from the election period, along with the impact of the lobbying act, and has said the review "may or may not recommend changes to the guidance". It’s an open secret that some elements at the commission, not to mention various Conservative backbenchers from the last parliament, would like to see the guidance tightened, and that is clearly more likely to actually happen under a Conservative than under a Labour-led administration. The review that led to the current formulation of CC9 – which is more relaxed than its previous version – was, after all, set in motion when Ed Miliband was charities minister. The future of the lobbying act is likely to be settled by similiar dynamics.

The fact that the debate is nowadays conducted by many in the sector in terms such as this brings into focus this week’s discussion paper from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations about the independence of the commission. The paper starts from the position that the structure of the commission since the Charities Act 2006 has meant that "boards, and especially chairs, have been subject to the accusation that as appointees of the government of the day they are not sufficiently accountable and are at serious risk of being perceived to be politically biased". Put less delicately, this means that that commission has become something of a political football. Why else, for example, would the current Conservative-led government have reappointed Shawcross for three more years in January this year when his current term doesn’t expire until October?

The NCVO paper explores, but sets on one side for now, the fundamental question of the structure of the commission as a non-ministerial government department, with its lack of proper clarity about ministerial accountability and the relative remits of board and executive. But it does put up some pertinent proposals for insulating the commission from politics and safeguarding its real and perceived independence. The key element in many of these proposals is a greater involvement of parliament in the appointment (and, significantly in the light of recent events, the reappointment) of the chair.

An attractive combination from among the NCVO's suggestions might be a requirement that the Public Administration Select Committee would have to approve unanimously the minister’s proposal for appointment of the chair, and that the term of office would be non-renewable five years. If these provisions had been in place from the inception of the 2006 act, the sector could have been spared most of the political accusations and suspicions that have dogged the commission in recent years.

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