Last week, the then Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, (who has just been replaced) published an op-ed piece in the Sunday Telegraph on the recruitment of a new Chair of the Charity Commission. In it, he criticised the Churchill Fellowship for what he described as “a controversial rebrand which appeared to airbrush Sir Winston Churchill from its public profile” and the Guy’s and St Thomas’s Foundation for moving a statue of Thomas Guy out of the hospital’s main forecourt. He described their actions as “a worrying trend in some charities that appear to have been hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials”. In consequence, he told Telegraph readers, he has “instructed those leading the search to ensure that the new leader of the Commission will restore charities’ focus to their central purpose and empower Trustees to be robust” – all of which is vaguely reminiscent of a former junior Charities Minister who opined that charities should “stick to their knitting”.
But what if, having been empowered “to be robust”, trustees still have qualms about those in their charity’s history who, for example, built their fortunes on the slave trade? What has come to be referred to as “contested heritage” is an immensely difficult issue – particularly, dare one say it, for trustees of religious charities – and tinkering with the powers of trustees might not produce exactly the answer that the Culture Secretary is seeking.
It should not be forgotten that the overriding duty of trustees is to act in the interests of their trust, and a group of trustees might legitimately take the view that doing nothing about a prominent statue of a slave-trader on their property might constitute a serious reputational risk to their charity – and if they did come to that conclusion, they would be obliged as trustees to take action to mitigate that risk.
Dowden’s piece drew a trenchant response on Twitter from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations:
“We want a strong regulator that supports charities, enables them to work effectively and upholds the interests of the public. Like the charities it oversees, the Commission must be above party politics. Its strength is as a neutral arbiter, showing no fear or favour. Charities cannot afford for their regulator to be anything but & the public deserves nothing less. The next @ChtyCommission chair should be a politically independent appointee.
The role of the Commission is to regulate in line with the laws made in Parliament. Within that framework, it is not for the Govt or Commission to tell trustees what is best for their charity or those they serve.”
The NCVO followed this up with a more detailed rebuttal of his arguments here.
All of which, I reckon, is fair comment.