In September, shortly before he was replaced by Nadine Dorries, former Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden published an op ed on the recruitment of the new Chair of the Charity Commission, setting out his priorities for the successful candidate.
The piece referred to ‘a worrying trend in some charities that appear to have been hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials’, citing examples such as Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation, which removed a statue of Thomas Guy from its courtyard due to links to slave trade. The former Culture Secretary’s view is that charities undertaking such projects are being distracted from their ‘core missions’, stating that they are ‘hunting for divisions in a way that serves neither their benefactors nor the country’.
The piece set out that, as such, the recruitment of the new Charity Commission Chair would be an opportunity to address these issues, as Oliver Dowden sees them, stating ‘I have instructed those leading the search to ensure that the new leader of the Commission will restore charities’ focus to their central purpose’.
This has led to criticism from the charity sector on a number of fronts, the first being that the piece implies that charities should not undertake campaigning on any controversial or divisive subjects that may distract from their core ‘missions’. However, recently the Commission has opened compliance cases into the National Trust, Barnado’s and the Runnymede Trust following complaints that they undertook work outside their purposes when exploring links with slavery or commenting on racial inequality. Each time the Commission has closed the case with no regulatory action, reflecting the position in charity law that charities are allowed to campaign in support of their charitable purposes, even if they are taking a controversial position.
There are also concerns in the charity sector that the instructions issued by Oliver Dowden in relation to the recruitment will undermine the independence of the Charity Commission. It is of course worth noting that the Charities Act 2011 contains an express provision that the Charity Commission should not be “subject to the direction or control of any minister of the crown or of another government department”. The Good Law Project, a not-for-profit group, has written to the current Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries asking her to pause the process as a result, to ensure it is made on ‘proper criteria’.
The appointment process is overseen by the Office for the Commissioner for Public Appointments and is, we understand, ongoing.