Some of you sharper eyed readers (clue – that’s all of you) will remember I wrote about the background to the incoming Charity Commission chair, Baroness Tina Stowell a couple of weeks ago.
Shortly after that article, it was revealed that the Government had rejected a candidate with a very strong background in the Charity Sector and no political affiliations. Former Charity Commission CEO Andrew Hind wrote this on Civil Society:
So, given what we already know about former charities minister Rob Wilson being lined up for the job, there have been two attempts by the Government to instal political appointees to lead the Charity Regulator, while one strong apolitical candidate has been rejected.
Preferred candidate Baroness Stowell was interviewed by the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee yesterday. If you want to, you can watch it here . I have watched it – and I would advise you not to. It’s a painful affair. You would imagine that the former leader of the House of Lords would be a good performer. Either she was having a very bad day, or she was totally unprepared for the interview, or knew nothing about the subject, or quite possibly all three.
Baroness Stowell came across as someone who knew very little, or perhaps just nothing at all, about the sector. Her answers were evasive in the extreme and she repeated herself with many hesitations. When the transcript is published it is likely to be pretty short, once all the “errs” “ahs” and “you knows” are removed.
But there were some useful nuggets to be gleaned from the dross. Stowell confirmed that Lord Ashcroft had asked her to join the board of Crimestoppers and his company Impellam. When questioned about a possible conflict of interest by Rebecca Pow, she claimed that being on the board of a company that makes its profits from charging the public sector exorbitantly for temporary staff, would somehow give her insights into the Charity Sector, because she was very interested in the relationship between people and jobs.” Having offered to resign from her very brief charity trustee-ships and to resign (again) from the Tory party, she refused to accept she might need to leave this presumably well remunerated role with her friend Lord Ashcroft.
The Select Committee questioned her closely on her total lack of experience in the sector, her political affiliations and the impression, at the very least, that she was a political appointee. They noted her voting record, which had included support for the Charity Gagging law. But she refused to accept that the gagging law had had any effect on charity work. This is despite all the evidence that it has had and continues to have a significant effect.
At one point the Baroness claimed that she had had no contact with ministers during the application process – and indeed in any normal job application, informal discussions with the people ultimately deciding whether you get the job or not, are very much frowned upon. This is especially true of such a sensitive appointment.
Near the end of the interview however, she admitted that she had had an informal conversation with the Secretary of State at DCMS at the time, Karen Bradley. Stowell explained that she had been having an informal conversation with Bradley “about something else” when she casually asked what was happening with the Charity Commission chair appointment and Bradley said the decision had not been made. Stowell refused to divulge what the something else was. To say this undermines Stowell’s suggestion that she was a “political outsider” would be the understatement of the year.
The Select Committee agreed unanimously that they would write to the new CMS Secretary of State Matt Hancock recommending he rejected Baroness Stowell for the job. The letter is uncompromising and damning in its criticism of the process that led to Baroness Stowell appearing before them. The Secretary of State may well choose to ignore the Committee’s view (and there are already reports that he plans to do just that), but the reality is that the damage has already been done. Who in the Charity Sector is now going to support this appointment.
One other thing that Stowell mentioned was also enlightening. As well as her trustee role with Ashcroft’s Crimestoppers charity and his outsourcing business Impellam, Stowell took on a trustee role with a small charity called the Transformation Trust, as I mentioned in my previous post. The Committee asked how this had come about. Stowell explained that she had been approached about it by a mutual friend of hers and the Trust’s chief exec Amy Leonard. By strange coincidence, Amy Leonard was press officer for the New Schools Network charity, which promotes that most political of educational initiatives, the Free Schools project. Leonard had also worked for the Compass Education Trust – a free schools academy set up by Peter Wilkinson, the man who vowed to break the RMT during the Southern Rail crisis. While the Transformation Trust may be doing good work, delivering public benefit, its political links raise further questions for Stowell to answer, should she be given the job.
UPDATE: Secretary of State at CMS Matt Hancock has given Baroness Stowell his full backing this morning.