The government’s preferred candidate to be the next Charity Commission chair has rejected speculation that the regulator will look to pursue an anti-woke agenda under his leadership.
Martin Thomas was appearing this week before MPs sitting on the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee, who are scrutinising his appointment.
During the committee session Labour MP Clive Efford asked Thomas for his view on comments made earlier this year by then Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, who had suggested he wanted to appoint a chair that would pursue an ‘anti-woke’ agenda.
Dowden, who has since been replaced by Nadine Dorries, also criticised charities that sought to tackle racism and historic links to slavery and were not aligned with their charitable purposes.
The former Culture Secretary's comments have also sparked a legal challenge around public appointments.
But financial services industry veteran Thomas told MPs that ‘woke’ and ‘anti woke’ terms “have no place in a regulatory dialogue or conversation”.
Thomas said that he supported Dowden’s view that charities should “stay aligned with their charitable purposes”.
But he added that the former Culture Secretary’s comment regarding this point of charity regulation was “trite, because of course charities must stay aligned to their purposes”.
Thomas said that “it is indeed the case if any one charity were to do something that would not further its own charitable purposes, then regardless of its motive, whether that is woke or anti woke, then it has stepped out of line.”
He added that “there have not yet been any high-profile cases where a charity was found to have stepped out of line” citing the clearing of the National Trust by the regulator earlier this year, after the charity had looked to address the links some of its properties have with the transatlantic slave trade.
At 10am we're putting questions to Martin Thomas, the Government's preferred candidate to be @ChtyCommission Chair. 📖 about the role of select committees in conducting pre-appointment hearings: https://t.co/gGNUDwiiIJ 📺 live: https://t.co/V5IyjRNaNh pic.twitter.com/EyXLYI7AEm— Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (@CommonsDCMS) December 9, 2021
Criticism of Baroness Stowell
During the session DCMS Committee chair Conservative MP Julian Knight reminded Thomas that the previous Charity Commission chair, former government minister Baroness Stowell, was appointed despite MPs’ objections.
Thomas said he would consider the MPs views if they also rejected him but added that “ I have the professional competence and the personal independence necessary for the role”.
In a scathing criticism of Stowell, Knight told Thomas that “the reason your predecessor didn’t pass muster is because she gave the worst interview I’ve seen in 30 years of professional life, to date you haven’t fallen over the same hurdles”.
Stowell’s tenure was marred by controversy around her criticism of the sector and focus on charities trustworthiness.
Thomas concedes that “while the previous chair’s stance has been criticised…it actually worked” in terms of increasing trust. His told MPs that the Commission recorded increasing levels of public confidence in charities during Stowell’s chairmanship.
However, he added that it is “not for me to judge whether she (Stowell) was a success or not”.