The Charity Commission is independent – but how can we make certain it is perceived to be?

Over the years the Charity Commission has been subject to criticisms that it allows itself to be used as a political football by the government of the day and is drawn into political agendas. Critics claim this is not appropriate for the regulator of a sector which by law must not be party political.

Part of the problem stems from the Charity Commission’s status as a non-ministerial department. Its legal structure has been found wanting with regard to both its independence from the executive and its accountability to parliament.

Charity Commission independence

Most criticism is directed at whoever is the chair at the time, a ministerial appointee. During her tenure, the previous chair Dame Suzi Leather was accused of politicking when the Commission challenged the charitable status of private schools. More recently the current chair Mr Shawcross has been accused of steering the Commission towards a clampdown on charity campaigning. At the time of Mr Shawcross’ appointment in 2012, opposition members of the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) raised concerns about his support for the Conservative Party and voted against his appointment

The question of whether any of these criticisms of politicisation are fair or well-founded is not the point. In the case of the Charity Commission the issue is that the organisation must be manifestly independent, and seen to be acting free from improper interference by any government. Any accusation of bias can be damaging even if it has no merit.

Appointment of chairs

It is with these concerns in mind that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) announced last autumn its plan to look at the legal status and governance of the Charity Commission.

The result is the NCVO Discussion Paper that sets out the advantages and disadvantages of alternative types of public bodies. Although the model used for bodies set up by, and reporting directly to, parliament has a number of characteristics that would work well for the Commission, NCVO’s view is that considerable organisational change would not be justifiable. NCVO has focused its attention on the appointment of the chair of the Commission, and on how the process can be changed to address the issue of the perception of independence.

After an overview of how specific appointment processes have been successful for senior posts in bodies such as the National Audit Office (NAO), the Electoral Commission and the Office for Budget Responsibility, NCVO’s paper concludes significant improvements can be made by giving a greater role to parliament, so that the role of chair of the Charity Commission is further removed from executive control.

Options for discussion

NCVO has suggested a number of options such as:

  • giving formal control of the chair’s appointment to the House of Commons, with confirmation from the relevant House of Commons committee, PASC. This is similar to the process followed for appointing the Comptroller & Auditor General of the NAO
  • widening the membership of the parliamentary committee responsible for the pre-appointment hearing to include representatives from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, with a crossbencher as chair. This would reduce the risk of party politics coming into play
  • giving parliament an effective power of veto at the pre-appointment hearing
  • making the term of the chair non-renewable
  • reappointing chairs only after a parliamentary hearing similar to the pre-appointment hearing
  • applying a condition of a unanimous vote for appointments.

Constructive conversation

All options are up for discussion. NCVO would welcome people’s thoughts. Please feel free to comment. The aim is to initiate a constructive conversation about what might improve the Commission so it no longer spends already limited resources on fire fighting on political fronts, steers straight and narrow on its strategy, and is not distracted by different political agendas.

 

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Elizabeth Chamberlain Elizabeth is head of policy and public services at NCVO. She has been part of the policy team since 2008, as the expert on charity law and regulation. Her policy interests also include charity campaigning, the sector’s independence, transparency, and accountability.

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