It seems hard to consider medium term planning at a national level when there is still no clarity on the Brexit arrangements, even though Article 50 is due to be enacted in the next 6 weeks and with the constant change emanating from the Whitehouse as Donald Trump and his team try to understand the world into which they have been elected. However life must go on. Over the next year there will be significant changes at the Charity Commission and they come at a time when the public confidence in charities are at an all time low ebb. It is vital for all charities that the Conservative Government show that they can get things right in an area where their judgement has been overwhelmingly flawed over the last seven years. In the Summer Paula Sussex steps down as CEO of the Commission and recruitment for her post is already underway. In January 2018 the tenure of the Commission Chairman will end after 6 years and we will finally see the back of William Shawcross. His predecessor Suzi Leather was judged by some to be too close to Labour and Shawcross has been intimately close to the current Tory Party. It is time for an appointment whose politics are not aligned to any one party. However that is not the only issue, I have written regularly about how out of touch Shawcross has been to the sector he is supposed to regulate and help lead. His decisions and many of his comments have done a great deal of damage to the way in which the sector is viewed by the public and the media. Whilst the process for appointing his successor is not yet underway, it would be good for the Government to reflect on comments from the Chairman of another national organisation. Greg Clarke who is Chairman of the Football Association recently stated:
“Our governance needs changing. We do need to be more diverse, more open about decision-making and we do need to better represent those playing the game.”
It would have been wonderful if William Shawcross had come close to these words or at least the meaning behind them during his time in office, however he has taken the very opposite approach in his selection of board members and many of his decisions. His appointments have almost exclusively been of people whose knowledge and experience of the world of charities is as comprehensive of my knowledge and experience of the world of football. They have nearly all been white and mostly male, mostly from the South of England and many have been from the same political or social tribe as Shawcross himself. One of the few exceptions to all of these biases was sadly not invited to extend her first term on the board and left last Summer. Claire Dove is a significant player in the voluntary and charitable sector, as a Black woman from Liverpool she was one of the few board members who had the credentials to represent the sector from the inside.
Along with the replacement of Paula Sussex and in time of William Shawcross, there are other changes taking place in this very small but significant and potentially influential group. As this article explains, Academic Gwythian Prins stepped down from the board with immediate effect a few weeks ago. Soon after his appointment in 2013 he was interviewed and he suggested that the public expected that charities should “stick to their knitting” and stay out of politics. There is nothing wrong with his sentiment although many including myself would argue that dealing with poverty, homelessness, sexual exploitation etc are all matters which are deeply political. However to suggest that charities are in their role to knit is the line that should have led to Mr Prins from stepping down or at least apologising to a great extent. However rather than that, his comments were picked up by a Government Minister, Brooks Newmark and reiterated leading to Newmark being criticised for the use of such a phrase. Mr Prins also courted controversy when he wrote an article arguing for Brexit and he is an adviser to an agency which promotes climate change denial. It appears he believes in telling charities to do as he says, not as he does.
Another departure in the next few months is that of Orlando Fraser, a Barrister who is due to leave the role in December. Whilst there are no obvious controversial aspects of his life, he is hardly the Lawyer on the Clapham Omnibus, being the son of Lady Antonia Fraser and married to a Great Grandaughter of Winston Churchill. Despite this Orlando is actually one of the board members who does have some experience of the charitable sector.
The idea that the Charity Commission is a department of the Government has been enhanced over the last few years, in part by the inclusion of the Charity Commission website within the Government website pages. However currently Shawcross is arguing for it to be part funded by charities. Whatever the outcome of those proposals, the reality is that the Government must take seriously the breadth of the charity sector when appointing both its CEO, its new Chairman and potentially at least two Board members.