7.Baroness Stowell has a long history of public service, having held distinguished positions in Government, the civil service and the BBC. She was Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal between July 2014 and July 2016, and was a Government Minister in the House of Lords between September 2011 and July 2014. Lady Stowell continues to work as a peer but has said she will sit as a crossbencher should she take on the role. She has also served as an independent consultant, and recently became a trustee of two charities. Further biographical information is included in Appendix 3.
8.At the hearing, we asked Baroness Stowell questions about her previous career, including her political background and her suitability for the role. She talked about previous roles she had undertaken within the BBC and in Whitehall.
9.While the Committee valued the opportunity to hear more from Baroness Stowell about her background, we were nevertheless left with fundamental concerns about her suitability for the post. Our first key concern was Baroness Stowell’s lack of experience in either the regulatory or the charity sectors.
10.On the former, Lady Stowell claimed to have “a lot of regulatory experience” from her time at the BBC. However, having assessed the information provided to us about her career (see Appendix 3), we could not identify a single role during her time at the BBC—Head of Corporate Affairs; Head of Communications; Deputy Secretary of the Corporation—that included any significant regulatory work. The internal organisational context of the BBC is not self-evidently relevant to the experience needed to lead a national regulator responsible for the oversight of 168,000 charities and nearly £75 billion of charitable funds.
11.We were forced to conclude that Lady Stowell’s experience in the charity sector is, to put it bluntly, negligible. Her only exposure to the sector comes from her role as trustee, a role which she has held for no more than eight months. Highlighting this stark absence of relevant experience, Andrew Hind, former chief executive of the Charity Commission, told us that “her fit with the published person specification is poor.”
12.We asked Baroness Stowell why she had only got involved in the charity sector in the last nine months. She replied that “once you are a member of Government there are restrictions on what role you can play.” When we contested this she said: “It is, actually, in the Ministerial Code.”
13.We checked the Ministerial Code. It states that there is “normally no objection to a Minister associating him or herself with a charity,” albeit with a number of caveats including that they do not undertake fundraising activity and that they consult the Permanent Secretary.
14.In her evidence to us the candidate accepted that she had “limited experience” in the charity sector. But Lady Stowell made no convincing attempt to offer any replacement for this experience, such as transferable skills from other sectors. She spoke in vague terms about a “plan”, and how she wanted “the charity sector to be out front and centre before the public and private sector showing the way.” However, she consistently failed to articulate what this plan was, how she intended to implement it, or how it related to the wider responsibilities of the Chair of the Charity Commission. She listed the roles she had held at the BBC, in the civil service and in the House of Lords, but did not elaborate on the skills she had gained, or give examples of actions she had taken to achieve proven impact.
15.As we highlighted in our letter of 20 February, according to the Government’s Code on Public Appointments, individuals selected by Ministers for public appointments must possess the “skills, experience and qualities […] to meet the needs of the public body or statutory office in question.” Baroness Stowell has failed to meet the most fundamental of requirements for this role. Baroness Stowell does not have experience in the charity or regulatory sectors, and she failed to provide any convincing explanation to us in its absence of how she met the skills and experience criteria of the Government’s Code on Public Appointments. Baroness Stowell may well turn out to have the necessary skills—she has simply found no way to demonstrate them so far, and failed to convince us that lack of experience was compensated for by clarity of vision and a clear sense of how she was going to transfer the skills and experience she has gained to a novel area of employment. To be a convincing candidate for the role she needs to be able to demonstrate more relevant experience. The Government must explain on what basis and on what evidence it believes Baroness Stowell’s limited to non-existent experience in any comparable role is sufficient to carry out the role of Chair of the Charity Commission., It must also provide evidence that no other appointable candidates could be identified who had greater relevant experience in either the regulatory or charitable sectors.
16.Lady Stowell’s vagueness regarding the relevance and applicability of her experience was representative of a general tendency in the hearing to answer our questions imprecise claims and a failure to make persuasive connections between her skills and experience and her plans for tackling the challenges she would face at the Charity Commission. Cabinet Office Guidance on Pre-Appointment Scrutiny stipulates that “The candidate will need to be able to withstand parliamentary and public scrutiny should they take up post and the Committee may wish to test this.”
17.We asked fair questions that gave the candidate the opportunity to demonstrate the relevance and applicability of her knowledge, skills and experience. For example, several Members made proactive efforts to tease out relevant examples of her interest in, and vision for, the sector, and were disappointed to receive answers that were often lacking in detail or relevance. Our judgment is that Baroness Stowell did not demonstrate evidence of meeting the Government’s own criterion of being able to withstand public and parliamentary scrutiny. We cannot approve this appointment without being persuaded that Baroness Stowell can provide clear, relevant examples of evidence against the criteria in the job specification. The Secretary of State should consult the assessment panel once again and provide evidence to assure us that Baroness Stowell was the strongest candidate against all the required criteria, in particular her ability to withstand fierce public scrutiny.
18.The job specification includes among its criteria: “personal integrity and resilience, demonstrable independence and other attitudes consistent with the expectations of senior public office in a high-profile role.”
19.In testing against this criterion, it is self-evident that our concern originates from Baroness Stowell’s career in high-ranking Government office. Lady Stowell was a longstanding Government Minister less than two years ago. A political career should not be and is not in itself a bar to appointments which require the holders to divest themselves of any partiality or favouritism, but clearly this is an area in which public perception is likely to be sceptical of claims to impartiality, and the candidate must have the ability to dispel that perception quickly and completely. One of the roles of the Charity Commission as a regulator is to determine whether a charity has breached the law on political purpose. The Commission’s MP Factsheet states:
Charities are free to participate in public debates and to use their voice to try to influence decisions which will support the work of the charity. However, there are particular legal requirements about political activity by charities.
Charity law defines political activity as any activity that aims to promote or oppose a change in the law or Government policy. Charities can undertake political activity in support of their charitable aims, but it’s not acceptable for a charity to pursue its aims solely through political activities. This is because charities can never have a political purpose – so an organisation which exists purely to campaign for a change in the law is not a charity. Whether or not charities choose to undertake political activity, they must never support or oppose a particular political party or endorse a particular political candidate.
20.As ACEVO reminded us, concerns about political affiliation have been raised by the voluntary sector in respect of the last three appointments of Chairs of the Charity Commission.
21.When we asked Baroness Stowell about how she would demonstrate her political impartiality (in the light of her ministerial and party political career), although she indicated her intention to resign the Conservative whip in the House of Lords, she otherwise failed to provide a convincing response. Lady Stowell cited her decade in the civil service but we found her answer incoherent and unpersuasive, an impression which was not helped by her description of “working for John Major”. She then sought to use the example of being the Leader of the House of Lords as proof of independence—of being “a broker, if you like, between the House back into Government and vice versa […] [having] the confidence of all sides of the House […] [so] they have to believe that you are independent in the way in which you represent their interests.” While we have the greatest respect for the culture of the House of Lords, we found the use of a role in which the key outcome required is the delivery of the Government’s legislative programme to be an odd choice to fall back on.
22.During the evidence session, Baroness Stowell also revealed that she had not simply stumbled into a political role: in 2010 she had sought nomination as a Conservative party candidate at the general election. This was the first time this information had been supplied to the Committee.
23.Baroness Stowell’s answer about in relation to her role as trustee at Crimestoppers also concerned us. She told us: “That appointment came to be made because I do know Michael Ashcroft and he is the Chair and founder of Crimestoppers, as you know. Lord Ashcroft was aware that, because I was no longer in the Government, I had more time on my hands than I had had previously”. In response we asked whether it was an advertised post with a recruitment process, and she said “No”.
24.As the umbrella organisation for voluntary organisations, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, NCVO, told us in written evidence, “perceived independence—being seen to be independent—is just as important as actual independence. Charities cannot afford for their regulator to be anything other than beyond all suspicion.” ACEVO, the other major charities umbrella, told us: “We are not suggesting that people with political backgrounds can never hold office, but emphasising that the political neutrality of this particular role is critical to the credibility and independence of the Charity Commission.”
25.Andrew Hind, former CEO of the Charity Commission, told us:
The need for the charity regulator to be independent from both Government and party politics is surely self-evident. Its judgement and quasi-judicial decisions must be perceived to be unbiased by people of all parties and none […] This is a public appointment which should be conducted in compliance with the Cabinet Office’s Governance Code on Public Appointments and under the principles of merit, fairness and openness. Why then is the Government’s preferred candidate to be the next Chair of the Charity Commission a former Conservative Leader of the House of Lords [with little direct experience of either charities or regulation?]
26.Andrew Purkis, an expert on the charity sector, wrote the following about Baroness Stowell’s candidacy in a blog:
We are now asked to welcome someone with a far more conspicuous and unambiguous party political background than any other Charity Commission Chair in history. Each time Baroness Stowell sits down as Chair of Charity Commission, a very large elephant will sit down beside her.
27.The job specification for this role stipulates “demonstrable independence.” Baroness Stowell was unable to give us concrete examples of where she has demonstrated independence or neutrality. Her prominent political career is a source of concern for key voices within the charity sector. The Government must think again about whether Baroness Stowell has met the criterion of ‘demonstrable independence’ within the job specification for this role. The choice of someone who has only recently left high political office makes this concern acute and critical. It inevitably presents such a person with an enormous challenge to demonstrate their impartiality. That makes the choice of Baroness Stowell for this role all the more curious: she must have been far in front of any other candidate who did not carry this particular risk. The Government should disclose to us (in confidence if that is necessary) whether any of the other appointable candidates had been publicly affiliated with any particular political party.
28.We had concerns about the relevance of Baroness Stowell’s previous employment experience to the regulatory role of the Charity Commission. She failed in the answers she gave to persuade us that her previous experience was relevant to the role for which she has been put forward, or that she had the capacity to bring that experience to bear on an unfamiliar role effectively.
29.We attempted to establish evidence of Baroness Stowell’s commitment to the charity sector. She failed in the answers she gave us to provide any.
30.We sought to elicit Baroness Stowell’s vision for the future direction of the Charity Commission, what her early priorities would be and how she would make things happen. She failed in the answers that she gave to persuade us that she had any vision, or any action plan.
31.We sought to explore with Baroness Stowell how she would set about dispelling the obvious suspicion of partiality arising from her distinguished party-political career. She failed in the answers she gave us to do this.
32.On the basis of the evidence that we have, we cannot endorse Baroness Stowell’s proposed appointment as Chair of the Charity Commission.
5 Baroness Stowell became trustee of Crimestoppers in July 2017, and of the Transformation Trust in January 2018.
6 Letter from Damian Collins MP to Rt Hon Matt Hancock, 20 February 2018
8 Charity Commission, Annual Report 2016-17, p.2
13 Section 7.13 of the Ministerial Code states: “Ministers should not therefore normally accept invitations to act as patrons of, or otherwise offer support to, pressure groups, or organisations dependent in whole or in part on Government funding. There is normally less objection to a Minister associating him or herself with a charity, subject to the points above, but Ministers should take care to ensure that in participating in any fund-raising activity, they do not place, or appear to place, themselves under an obligation as Ministers to those to whom appeals are directed and for this reason they should not approach individuals or companies personally for this purpose. In all such cases, the Minister should consult their Permanent Secretary and where appropriate the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests.”
16 For example, Q19
17 Cabinet Office, (December 2016), Section 2.1
18 Cabinet Office, (November 2013), point 12
19 Letter from Damian Collins MP to Rt Hon Matt Hancock, 20 February 2018
20 See Appendix 2.
21 Charity Commission,
28 Letter from NCVO published on the Committee’s website.
27 February 2018