A committee of MPs has voiced strong opposition to the Government’s proposed candidate for chair of the Charity Commission, in a move that will come as a blow to Matt Hancock, the Culture Secretary.
Last month Mr Hancock nominated Baroness Stowell, a Tory peer, to lead the Commission, which regulates the work of UK charities.
However, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has now raised concerns about Baroness Stowell’s suitability for the role and said it “cannot support” her appointment.
The committee said the former Leader of the House of Lords, who was previously the BBC’s Head of Corporate Affairs, had failed to demonstrate the skills and experience needed for the role.
Baroness Stowell has “negligible experience” of working with charities and had proved “unable to demonstrate any real insight, knowledge or vision” for the sector, the cross-party group of MPs warned.
In response, Mr Hancock dismissed the concerns and said he would push ahead with the appointment.
It is highly unusual for a parliamentary select committee to voice objections to a government appointment, and this is the first time the current DCMS Committee has raised objections to a proposed appointee.
Between 2007 and 2017 there were 96 pre-appointment hearings carried out by select committees. On only five occasions were objections raised to the proposed appointment. Three of these resulted in the person being appointed nonetheless.
In a letter to Mr Hancock, the chair of the DCMS Committee, Conservative MP Damian Collins, said MPs had worries about Baroness Stowell’s experience and neutrality, as well as her performance when questioned by the committee during a pre-appointment hearing.
Mr Collins said: “The Committee held a pre-appointment hearing with the Government’s preferred candidate for the Chair of the Charity Commission, Baroness Stowell, this morning. I am sorry to report that we cannot support the Government’s nomination.
“This is the first time that this Committee has not supported the Government’s candidate, and it is not a decision that we have taken lightly. The Committee was unanimous in its view that, for four reasons, Baroness Stowell should not be appointed.”
He said the four reasons were Baroness Stowell’s lack of experience, doubts about her neutrality, her performance during questioning by the committee, and concerns about the process by which she was appointed.
The committee chair asked Mr Hancock to explain why the Tory peer had been chosen ahead of two other candidates that the Government had deemed suitable for the role, and for the names of those candidates to be given to the committee.
In a damning assessment, Mr Collins said Baroness Stowell had “negligible charity sector experience… and a complete lack of experience of working for a regulatory body”.
She was “unable to demonstrate to the Committee any real insight, knowledge or vision for the charities sector”, he added.
Mr Collins said Baroness Stowell’s previous role as a Tory minister was also a “source of concern” and raised doubts about her suitability for a role that is supposed to be strictly politically neutral. She has promised to resign the Tory whip if her appointment is confirmed.
Criticising the process that led to the appointment, which he claimed “lacked transparency and has been protracted”, Mr Collins said his committee was concerned that candidates for public roles “continue to be drawn from a narrow group of establishment figures”.
“Baroness Stowell claimed to be a ‘veteran outsider’ and yet she has been Leader of the House of Lords, Head of Corporate Affairs at the BBC, and Deputy Chief of Staff to the Leader of the Conservative Party,” he said. “This does not strike us as the CV of an ‘outsider’.”
Mr Collins also criticised the peer’s performance during questioning by his committee, saying she was “unable to withstand scrutiny” and had given answers that were “often lacking in detail or relevance”.
Despite the warnings, Mr Hancock insisted Baroness Stowell had his “full backing”.
He said: “I’m sure Tina Stowell will be a brilliant chair of the Charity Commission. This is a crucial time for the Commission and the sector. She was appointed after a fair, open and transparent competition. She was not only the best candidate for the job, but is the right candidate and has my full backing.
“Tina has been absolutely clear about her impartiality in this role. I know that she will work tirelessly to protect and promote the great work that charities do and ensure they uphold the highest standards of integrity.”
Baroness Stowell is due to take over from the outgoing chair, William Shawcross, later this month,
Her appointment comes at a key time for the Charity Commission in the wake of revelations of abuse within the aid sector.
The Commission has launched a statutory inquiry into Oxfam after it emerged that some of the charity’s employees sexually exploited women in Haiti in the aftermath of the country’s 2011 earthquake.
It is also organising a sector-wide summit on safeguarding in an attempt to ensure systems are in place to prevent further abuse taking place.