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Charity Commission’s next Chair – is the appointment process fit for purpose?

Author: Kristina Kopic, Head of Charity and Voluntary Sector, ICAEW

Published: 21 Mar 2022

Following the 2021 recruitment round, which saw Martin Thomas appointed as Charity Commission Chair in December only to resign days later, the charity sector is concerned about the political independence of the new preferred candidate.

Nadine Dorries, Culture Secretary, announced barrister Orlando Fraser, as preferred candidate for the Chair role at the charity regulator’s board. Fraser was on the Commission’s board between 2013 and 2017 as one of two legal members. At the time, he also chaired the committees responsible for governance, remuneration, policy and guidance. At the time of writing this article, Fraser’s application is still subject to pre-appointment scrutiny from the DCMS select committee, and interim Charity Commission Chair Ian Karet is currently leading the regulator’s board.

Charity umbrella organisations NCVO and ACEVO have released a joint statement following the announcement of the preferred candidate to lead the Charity Commission Board. Their statement expresses concerns about Fraser’s previous party-political links as both organisations have emphasized the importance of full political independence of the candidate. In 2005, Fraser unsuccessfully stood for the Conservative Party, but he has not declared any party-political activity in recent years.

The charity umbrella organisations also expressed disappointment over the recruitment process not starting afresh after the initial appointment of Martin Thomas failed last December. Sector groups had called for the appointment process to be re-run in light of the due diligence failures exposed in the recruitment of Thomas.

In December 2021, the sector initially welcomed the appointment of Martin Thomas to the post – he had no political interests to declare and had experience of chairing charity boards of different sizes and cause areas. However, when media reports published allegations of inappropriate behaviour in a prior board role, Martin withdrew from his appointment at the Charity Commission days before his appointment was due to commence. It later emerged that a serious incident report had been filed with the Charity Commission concerning his conduct on the board of charity Women for Women. No further action was taken, because Thomas had decided to voluntarily leave the charity’s board at the time, but he failed to declare these events during his application process for the Charity Commission post.

ACEVO CEO Vicky Browning said in her recent statement: “We are disappointed that the appointment process was not rerun in full before Mr Fraser was announced as preferred candidate. Transparent and robust recruitment is vital in ensuring trust in the regulator. Given the challenges of the previous recruitment process, this approach would have allowed the new chair a fresh start, and an opportunity to rebuild a strong relationship with the sector as well as address issues around the diversity of the shortlist and new due diligence commitments.” 

In October 2021, ACEVO and NCVO outlined the attributes that the sector would like to see in the next Charity Commission chair and encouraged the DCMS Select Committee to use these attributes when framing the interview of the preferred candidate in the pre-appointment scrutiny hearing. These attributes include personal independence, party-political independence, a clear vision and commitment to the importance of civil society and public trust, and a commitment to the independence of the charity sector and its regulator.

The Chair post is for a three-year term and was advertised as a part time role (0.5 FTE), attracting a salary of £62,500 per annum. The appointment is made in accordance with the Cabinet Office Code of Governance for Public Appointment. The regulation of public appointments against the requirements of this code is carried out by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. In accordance with the code, there is a requirement for appointees’ political activity (if any declared) to be made public.