Charity Commission chair uses final speech to take further swipe at ‘politicisation’ of charities

Baroness Stowell has used her final speech as chair of the Charity Commission to reiterate her controversial warnings to charities to avoid challenging people’s political opinions.

The former Conservative Party minister sparked outrage among charity leaders last year when she urged charities to “leave party politics” and “culture wars” out of their work.

But in her final speech before her term ends she once again warned charities against becoming involved in political discussions.

Baroness Stowell said that while “charities can challenge things, charities can shake things up, they can even change the world, but they can’t and they shouldn’t go out of their way to divide people”.

She added: “If Charity is to remain at the forefront of our national life it cannot afford to be captured by those who want to advance or defend their own view of the world to the exclusion of all others.

“Charities can adapt to the latest social and cultural trends but there is a real risk of generating unnecessary controversy and division by picking sides in a battle some have no wish to fight.

“Many seek out charities as an antidote to politics and division not as another front on which to wage a war against political enemies, and they have the right to be respected.

“Telling these people that they’ll get a fair hearing if they object to the politicisation of their favourite charities or if they take a different view is not in itself a political act; it is the role of a responsible regulator.

Her latest comments echo a controversial article she wrote for the Mail on Sunday in December 2020.

“For charities to survive and thrive in this environment, particularly after this most difficult of years, it is even more important that they demonstrate sensitivity and respect for everyone,” she said in her article.

Stowell, who was deputy chief of staff to Conservative leader David Cameron and a coalition government minister, has been involved in controversy since her appointment in 2018.

Also last year she was criticised for comments about charity legal action and accused of “launching an attack on lefty lawyers”.

MPs and charity leaders have been critical of her suitability in the role. The DCMS select committee had recommended unanimously against her appointment due to concerns around her experience and political associations.

Her final speech acknowledges concerns raised about her appointment but she says her lack of experience in the charity sector is an asset.

She said: “Some organised voices opposed my appointment because of my lack of experience and understanding when it came to the charity world. But that was a feature not a bug.

“I wasn’t there to plead the case for charities to the public, but to make sure that a broader range of voices from the public were taken seriously by charities, especially the large and more established.”

Stowell’s successor will be appointed in due course.

Charity leaders to react to Stowell’s final speech include outgoing National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) chief executive Karl Wilding.

He described her speech as “interesting and at times challenging”. He also questioned her assertion that “everyone’s” support for charities is essential, when a large proportion of the population are not involved in charity work.

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