Charity leaders launch scathing attack on Charity Commission chair

Charity sector leaders have launched a stinging attack on Charity Commission chair Baroness Stowell as she prepares to leave the role.

Stowell is not standing for a second term in the role and it is understood that recruitment for her successor will begin shortly.

In a letter sent by ten charity sector leaders to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, they urged MPs to prioritise “transparency, accountability and political neutrality” when assessing her successor.

Those signing the letter are:

• Vicky Browning, chief executive, ACEVO
• Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive, Directory for Social Change
• Caron Bradshaw, chief executive, Charity Finance Group
• Rita Chadha, chief executive, Small Charities Coalition
• Kathy Evans, chief executive, Children England
• Jane Ide, chief executive, NAVCA
• Carol Mack, chief executive, ACF
• Robin Osterley, chief executive, Charity Retail Association
• Matt Plen, chief executive, Masorti Judaism
• Sue Tibballs, chief executive, Sheila McKechnie Foundation

Their letter details a raft of concerns about Stowell’s appointment in 2018 and performance in the role.

“In recent years many people volunteering and working in the charity sector have voiced concerns about comments made by Baroness Stowell that the Charity Commission should not just consider whether a charity is meeting its legal requirements, but also whether it is ‘meeting public expectation’,” states the letter.

“This is a significant shift from the function of the regulator as defined by Parliament.”

Stowell garnered further criticism recently after being accused of launching an “attack on lefty lawyers” during a Charity Law Association Annual Conference.

The charity leaders' letter also notes that the DCMS select committee had recommended unanimously against Stowell’s appointment “due to serious concerns about her experience and political associations”.

Their letter reminds MPs that the committee regarded Stowell’s experience in the sector as “to put it bluntly, negligible”. MPs had also raised concerns about Stowell’s independence.

She served in the coalition government as a junior minister after entering the House of Lords in January 2011. She had previously been a civil servant and served as deputy chief of staff to Conservative Party leader David Cameron, between 1998 and 2001.

The letter says that charity leaders “were disappointed that the then Secretary of State did not heed the legitimate concerns of the committee and proceeded with the appointment of Baroness Stowell without sufficiently addressing the points raised”.

They add: “It is of vital importance that the non-executive of the Charity Commission understands the charity sector and the diversity of organisations within it.

“The chair of the regulator should demonstrate expert knowledge of the sector and of regulation and should carry this work out with independence from party politics.

“Fair, rigorous and transparent regulation builds trust in the sector and enables charities to have greater impact.”

An awareness of the increased pressures charities face due to the Covid-19 pandemic should also be taken into account when Stowell’s successor is appointed, state the charity leaders.

“Whoever takes over as chair of the Charity Commission will be responsible for regulating a sector which delivers services that, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, are never more needed,” adds their letter.

“This recruitment process is an opportunity to reset the relationship between charities and the non-executive of the Charity Commission, and to end 14 years of criticism about party political appointments.”

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