A Broken Record

I remain puzzled about which particular gallery the Chair of the Charity Commission is playing to – or what undeclared agenda she has – in her repeated attacks on registered charities.

But maybe there are some clues.  She apparently worked for the Conservative party from 1991 to 2001, tried to become a Tory MP in 2010, was created a Tory life peer in 2011 and led the Tories in the House of Lords prior to her appointment as Chair of the Charity Commission.   I don’t think people with political ambition lose that ambition easily.

During a pre-appointment hearing for the role, Stowell is reported to have conceded she had “limited experience” of the voluntary sector. The Commission’s register of interests lists 3 previous trustee roles for Stowell – one lasting 7 weeks.  Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee said it could not support her appointment because she lacked “any real insight, knowledge or vision” for the job.

Perhaps, after yet another generalised attack on registered charities in a speech on 29th May 2019, Stowell’s “vision” for the job is beginning to emerge.

Her party – irrespective of who will shortly be leading it – has been running down public institutions for the past 10 years (most obviously the NHS – with a current shortage of 40,000 nurses in England alone) because it fundamentally believes that the only public institutions that should exist are those that protect its members’ assets (ie the army and police).  Anything and everything else should be provided by the market to those that can afford it.  The current health secretary’s alleged receipt of funding from an anti-NHS think tank is an example of the “rhetoric/reality gap” between what that party’s leaders may profess and what they actually believe.  I can only assume its political appointees are also part of that agenda.

So, as an appointee of the Conservative government, she appears to be demonstrating her part in that party’s agenda by constantly criticising registered charities with the apparent intention, despite what she may be professing, that her ideological vision of the institution becomes the “trusted” face of charity and everything else is illegitimate and to be distrusted – presumably as a prelude to its being regulated out of existence or, preferably, having to close due to the erosion of public trust that she is fostering.

Her 29th May 2019 speech, and some of her other public statements, contain elements which appear to show a broader, more rounded understanding of the voluntary sector.  But the fact that the main focus of the speech repeats the same message as most of her previous public statements – ie that registered charities cannot really be trusted – would indicate something else.

She repeatedly cites two sources for her “concern” about trust in charities.  The Charity Commission’s own “Trust in Charities” research from 2018 and the report of Civil Society Futures commission chaired by Julia Unwin who was on Stowell’s appointment panel.

Stowell can’t be so naive that she doesn’t realise that, if every speech she gives focuses on her perception of how charities are eroding the public’s trust, then that will be the one message that people will remember.  And the one that will be picked up by the media and therefore be the one that is amplified and conveyed to the public.  “Head of charity regulation says charities can’t be trusted” is effectively the message she is peddling – by accident or design.

In her speech to the Charity Commission’s Annual Public Meeting on 5th March 2019 she said:

“So I hope you’ll see a changed, more purpose-driven Commission in the years ahead.  And I expect charities, as well as the public, to hold us to account in the way we deliver against that purpose.”

I think it’s time our sector’s infrastructure bodies and larger charities take her up on that.  @kristianawrixon of @Acevo ‘s really constructive rebuttal is a good start: https://www.civilsociety.co.uk/voices/kristiana-wrixon-the-regulator-s-comments-on-the-garden-bridge-trust-are-unhelpful.html

But we now need a coordinated plan for dealing with the Chair of the Charity Commission’s broken record.  A plan that includes:

  • An analysis of the basis of her claims and the collation of any evidence to give balance to or contradict her claims;
  • Willingness to rebut and refute publicly without fear;
  • An acknowledgement of what isn’t working well in parts of the charity sector and highlighting what is;
  • Explains the reality of charities (eg overheads);
  • Publicly states what is happening within the sector to improve the performance of charities;
  • Mobilises our sector’s true allies to challenge, refute and rebut individual and repeated attacks on our sector.

Those of us who work and volunteer in charities need to be able to trust and respect our regulator.  We shouldn’t expect it to be our cheerleader but we should feel confident it understands us.  We should expect it to hold us to account but we should also expect it to be aware of how its own actions foster or erode trust.

Trust can be earned or given on account.  After 15 months in the role, perhaps it’s time charities commissioned some research into exactly how much we trust the Chair of the Charity Commission?

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