Baroness Stowell – what happens next and do pre-appointment hearings matter?

For those who haven’t been following the comings and goings at the Charity Commission, we now know that Baroness Stowell is the government’s preferred candidate to be the new chair, taking over from William Shawcross. We’ve welcomed the announcement, and look forward to working with Baroness Stowell. But for those of you who are interested in the process questions we thought we should take a look at what happens next, whether pre-appointment scrutiny makes a difference, and where we think the process for appointing the chair of the Charity Commission could be improved.

What happens next?

Now that the government has put forward a candidate, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee will hold a pre-appointment hearing. The committee will then produce a positive or negative report on the candidate, though they have no power to veto a candidate who they do not think should be appointed. They can also set out if they have any reservations about an appointment.

The relevant minister will then choose whether or not to go ahead with the appointment, in this case Matt Hancock.

Rubber stamp or red light?

Many have wondered whether pre-appointment hearings are a useful tool, given the lack of a veto, and so far there are only five occasions on which a negative report has been issued, though one consequence of the lack of government majorities on select committees could potentially be further rejections.

Three appointments have been made by ministers despite negative reports by the committee – the Children’s Commissioner whose independence was questioned in 2009, the Director of the Office for Fair Access whose strategy failed to convince MPs in 2012, and the Chief Inspector of Ofsted who lacked ‘passion’ in 2016.

In one case, the appointment did not go ahead, and on another occasion the preferred candidate withdrew. So on an admittedly small sample size, 40% of those receiving a negative report have not gone on to get the job. And further candidates have withdrawn before the committee could issue a report.

The Constitution Unit at UCL has also highlighted how the process has an indirect influence. The government is less likely to put forward candidates who would struggle under this enhanced scrutiny. Indeed UCL argue that one weakness of the process is that committee chairs don’t understand how much influence they actually wield.

What will the DCMS committee be asking?

There are plenty of questions that the new chair will need to get to grips with, most obviously the expected consultation on whether large charities should be charged for regulation. It’s also worth looking at what the DCMS committee asked outgoing chair William Shawcross at the end of last year, a session which focused largely on funding.

It’s fair to say that William Shawcross’s pre-appointment hearing was dominated by concerns about his political neutrality. Baroness Stowell has said that if appointed she will resign the Conservative whip and her party membership to demonstrate independence, but it’s likely that this will still be a line of questioning followed by the DCMS committee. It’s worth remembering that the vote on William Shawcross went along party lines, and if members of the committee voted along the same lines today, the committee (now with an opposition majority) it would have meant a negative report would have been issued.

Improving the appointment process

The Chair of the Charity Commission is a crucial role and previous appointees under both parties have been accused of being insufficiently independent from the government of the day.

We’ve argued in favour of a stronger appointment procedure, including enhanced parliamentary scrutiny, would make it easier to ensure that chairs will have the right skills, and independence, needed to ensure the Charity Commission operates as effectively as possible.

In any case, the existing ability of the committee to deter the government from making an appointment is probably largely theoretical on this occasion. We think Baroness Stowell is a strong candidate, she is likely to be approved by the committee, and we look forward to working closely with her.

 

UPDATE 22 February 2018: As you may have seen this process was more difficult than we had initially anticipated. After Tuesday’s pre-appointment hearing, the digital, culture, media and sport committee declined to support Baroness Stowell’s appointment as Chair, and as in some of the cases highlighted above, the government chose to go ahead with the appointment despite the concerns of the committee.

NCVO has welcomed Baroness Stowell to the role. The events of this week have again highlighted some of the flaws of the existing process, which we have reiterated needs to change.

(For those who are interested, the numbers on this are now slightly out of date as there have been a few more hearings as well as this one. The most recent data is published by the Liaison Committee.)

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Chris Walker Chris is a Senior External Relations Officer at NCVO, focusing on parliamentary work. He started his career working for several MPs in Parliament, and has also worked in public affairs and policy roles for the Federation of Small Businesses.

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