‘Shambles’: MPs attack appointment of Charity Commission chair

A cross-party group of MPs has delivered a scathing attack on a “shambolic” and “appalling” appointments process in which a successful candidate to chair the charities watchdog resigned just days before he was due to take up the job, amid reports about his conduct in a previous role.

In a lengthy hearing on Tuesday morning, the digital, culture, media and sport select committee grilled senior civil servants over the “debacle” in which Martin Thomas was approved as Charity Commission chair by MPs in December, then quit soon afterwards when press reports that he had faced allegations of misconduct surfaced.

MPs said they were incredulous that the appointments system had not picked up an allegation that Thomas had been found to have acted inappropriately while previously the chair of a woman’s charity, despite the charity formally reporting the incident to the regulator.

The committee chair, Julian Knight, compared the failure to successfully appoint a chair of the Charity Commission to delays and rows that have dogged the appointment of a new chair of the media regulator, Ofsted. Both roles have been unfilled for nearly a year.

“By our viewpoint, what we have seen is a complete shambles in terms of appointments that are in the purview of this committee. They are huge appointments to the good of this country and they have been handled in a way that this committee is actually flabbergasted to the degree to which there have been such failings.

“The British civil service used to be called a Rolls-Royce, didn’t it. When politicians were making mistakes the civil servant would pick up the pieces and glide the country through thick and thin. Is it more of a Reliant Robin now, rather than a Rolls-Royce?”

The government is continuing to seek a new head of Ofcom after the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre unexpectedly pulled out of the running in November after concerns were raised about the transparency of the recruitment process. The Ofcom role was advertised last February.

Senior Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport civil servants, who oversaw the Charity Commission appointment, admitted to the committee that as a matter of departmental policy they had not taken up references for Thomas, and nor had they checked Thomas’s track record as chair of 14 charities with the commission.

The committee also tore into the commissioner for public appointments, William Shawcross, after he at first refused to comment to the committee on the Charity Commission chair appointment because he was carrying out an inquiry into it, and then said he “did not think the DCMS was to blame” for the failure to appoint.

John Nicolson MP told a visibly discomforted Shawcross he had effectively told the entire committee his decision before he had even started his inquiry. “Can you imagine the judge in a court saying before the trial begins: ‘Of course the defendant is clearly innocent, but I’m not pre-judging in any way, let’s proceed’?”

Sarah Healey, the permanent secretary at the DCMS, denied the Charity Commission appointments process had been a failure, saying it had been carried out in line with official guidance. She defended not taking references from previous employers and said Thomas himself should have highlighted the incident to his interviewers.

Thomas has said he left the charity in question, Women for Women International, in the summer and was unaware when he subsequently applied for the £62,000 a year Charity Commission role that a formal complaint made against him, relating to comments made on a zoom call, had been upheld by the charity.

Three other formal complaints made against him had not been upheld, including a 2018 incident in which he mistakenly sent a photo of himself in a lingerie store to a female employee instead of the charity chief executive, whom he was trying to warn against taking a donation from the same lingerie store brand.

Healey said ministers had not yet decided whether to re-run the appointments process for the Charity Commission chair post or to appoint from the list of seven candidates previously interviewed for the role and who were assessed as suitable for ministers to choose from.

Knight said: “I’m absolutely astounded that your employer has not spoken to previous employers. You seem to do less checks for a £70bn sector of the UK economy [with] 180,000 charities than, frankly, if you were employing someone to do a paper round.”

Healey said Whitehall departments each had different policies on whether to take up references, which could be a time-consuming process and often did not add much value other than to confirm the dates of a person’s previous employment.


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